by Mike Lawson
Dry fly anglers have names like Sterling and Stanforth. Streamer fishermen have names like Earl and Bubba. Studies indicate that streamer fishermen have bowling scores which average at least 23 points above those of dry fly fishermen.
If I can catch trout on dry flies, I will try dries until I fail. My second choice is to sight fish with nymphs. If that also fails, my next choice is a streamer. I would rather fish a streamer, however, than blind fish a weighted nymph. I would just as soon watch snow melt as blind fish a weighted nymph. It isn't that I don't like to fish streamers. I have fished streamers and wet flies most of my life. I fished streamers long before I ever tried to fish a dry fly and I know and understand how effective streamer fishing can be. Streamers saved many days for me when I worked as a guide with inexperienced anglers in the Railroad Ranch section of the Henry's Fork. They couldn't keep the dry fly from dragging. When I realized their chances were limited with dry flies, I had them fish with a streamer.
Streamers are flies which represent minnows, bait fish, leeches, crayfish and other food forms. Flies which imitate these swimming aquatic critters can be presented using similar techniques. All of these creatures have the ability to swim through the water and are preyed upon by trout.
There are times when a streamer will take trout when nothing else will work. I have traveled long for my fishing, only to find the stream I had intended to fish out of sorts for dry fly fishing. Weather can change dramatically and its impact on a trout stream can limit your options.
I have not had as much success with streamers on bright sunny days. Early morning and late evening, when the sun is off the water, are better because trout don't like to move from their resting positions as much when the sun is high. Many of the animals they prey on are more active at night. I have had some of my best fishing with streamers during dark, cool, windy weather.
Some anglers don't like to fish streamers because they think it is too easy. It’s too much like lure fishing - just slinging your fly out and dragging it back, hoping a fish is dumb enough to grab it. If the truth is known, anglers with this attitude probably don't fish streamers because they can't catch anything with them. There is much more to streamer fishing than casting and retrieving.
There are two basic types of streamer patterns - imitators and attractors. Imitators represent a specific type of food which is preyed upon by the trout. Fishing imitator patterns requires a knowledge of each food form and how it behaves. Attractors don't represent anything in particular, but are designed to excite a trout into striking. Attractors are usually brightly colored and may contain mylar or other highly reflective materials.
There are several types of baitfish common to most trout streams. These can be separated into free swimming and bottom dwelling types. The free swimmers include juvenile trout, whitefish, suckers, chubs and dace. Sculpins make up the majority of bottom dwelling forage fish in spring creeks, limestone streams and tailwaters.
Free swimming fish hold, swimming against the current like larger trout, and feed on small aquatic and terrestrial insects. They are very mobile and are very difficult for trout to catch if they are healthy. They rarely venture far from shelter and quickly dart for cover at high speed when pursued by the trout. They can co-exist, swimming among their larger cousins, who appear to be completely nonchalant until one of the smaller fish makes an erratic move. It is amazing how quickly a small fish is pounced upon by a large trout as soon as it starts to act differently than the others.
I have heard tales of anglers hooking a small fish and, while playing it, had it attacked by a monster trout. It happened to me one day while I was fishing with my brother, Rick. We were fishing Warm River, a beautiful crystal clear spring creek that has a good population of small trout. Warm River is a special place for us. We have fished it since we were boys and family tradition brings us back several times each summer. We had many memorable days fishing there with our dad. It was also a favorite of our grandfather.
We hiked down the steep canyon from the old railroad track bed to a long, wide pool. We fished Warm River as we always have, wading in jeans and sneakers. We both immediately started catching pan sized trout, hooting with each hook up.
As I played a ten inch rainbow a long, dark shape sprinted from a submerged log and attacked the hapless fish. It was a huge brown. At first I didn’t realize what was happening. When I realized Jaws was intent on making a meal of my fish I tried to skip the fish in. The water exploded and I felt a surge as the big brown grabbed the rainbow and headed for the submerged log. I increased the pressure and the rainbow pulled free of the big brown’s grasp. I stripped it in as the brown turned and went after it again. This time I pulled it free of the water and landed it. It had some nasty teeth marks on its side but other than that, it didn’t look bad considering the ordeal it had just been through. I released it at the tail of the pool where it could go downstream, out of the danger zone.
Back in the pool the big brown was still cruising, hunting for the terrorized rainbow. I cut back the leader and groped through my streamer box until I found a size 4 Silver Zonker. It looked pretty small compared to the ten inch rainbow but it was the biggest streamer I had. I tied it to the fat tippet and launched it into the pool. I held my breath as the brown turned and charged, turning away when he neared the fly. I tried several more casts and got a couple of follows but it was apparent the small streamer wasn’t enough to hold the big trout’s interest. Soon he was camped back under the log.
Rick, who had been watching the entire fiasco, tried a couple of shots with a larger streamer. He couldn’t bring the fish out again. We fished the pool with streamers several more times that summer to no avail but we never saw the big brown again.
Large trout quickly make a meal of any forage fish which is crippled or injured. Tailwater streams immediately below dams are prime holding areas for monster trout . Large numbers of small fish are flushed into the turbines and tailraces of dams. Many of these fish are injured, stunned or killed when they are flushed into the river below. Many are disoriented and swim aimlessly until they acquire their bearings. Fishing a streamer with an erratic retrieve to represent a crippled minnow or fishing it dead drift through a deep run is a deadly technique to hook a lunker trout.
Free swimming imitations should be tied in the color and shape of the forage fish common to the stream. Most of these fish are silvery and patterns should include a little flash. Sparse patterns usually out perform heavily dressed streamers on flat water. The Zonker, which was originated by Dan Byford, is my favorite pattern to imitate free swimming bait fish. I have also had some great days fishing feathered streamers tied matuka style. When I need to get the fly deep, a Clouser Minnow is my choice.
There are situations where you can visibly see trout rushing after bait fish. This is a common occurrence on the Henry’s Fork in September when schools of juvenile whitefish and trout venture into mid stream to feed on the blanket mayfly hatches. Giant trout will rush through the school, smashing into the small fish, trying to disable them. They usually make several passes, returning to pick off the cripples which survived the initial attack.
If you see trout chasing minnows, get after them as quickly as possible. The big fish will usually stay in the area, hunting for injured minnows. Cast the fly in the direction of the disturbance and make an erratic retrieve. One way to do that is to move the rod tip from right to left which will make the fly swim in a zigzagging motion. Rob Van Kirk caught the largest rainbow I have ever seen from the Harriman Ranch - a hulking male that weighed well over ten pounds - using this technique.
There are times when a bright attractor streamer will out perform an exact imitation. All trout are territorial and will defend their territory when it is invaded by an intruder. This territory might be an undercut bank where a large brown trout is hiding, or it could be a feeding zone which a big fish has staked out to feed at his leisure. A bright, flashy streamer can excite a trout into striking when it appears to threaten his territory.
Trout also strike out of simple curiosity. It has always been amazing to me why they would race out and smack a flashy lure with whirling blades which doesn't look like anything they normally eat. I think, as fly fishers, we get so tuned into having an answer for everything, that we can't comprehend a trout doing anything without reason. Sometimes bright, flashy things drive them crazy. I've seen a trout take several swipes at a bright streamer before he finally hit it. Sometimes I believe they are attracted to a bright, flashy streamer for no other reason than simple curiosity. If it looks like it could be food, why not grab it and confirm the choice by feeling and tasting it?
When and Where and How
Whether you are fishing a spring creek or the salt water flats, there are some basic principles which should be considered when fishing a streamer. Predatory fish are accustomed to smaller fish fleeing away from them. They are not accustomed to being attacked by a four inch fish! A common mistake is to cast the fly and retrieve it so it appears to swim directly toward the fish it is supposed to be fleeing from. Nothing seems to spook a large fish more than a tiny fish charging it. I've seen six foot tarpon terrorized on the clear salt water flats from retrieving a fly straight towards them. A charging bait fish just doesn't compute into the simple brain of a fish. If I were a four inch minnow but had enough intelligence to think about my dilemma, I would swim directly at a giant fish if I knew I couldn't get away from him.
The best streamer fishermen I know have learned to think like fish. They understand how a bait fish behaves and how a predatory fish reacts. Jack Dennis is one of the finest streamer fishermen I know. He believes the most important aspect of fishing a streamer correctly is to think like a small fish which is trying to escape.
It is very important to keep the fly at the same level as the fish and make it behave like it is under attack and trying to escape. Small fish instinctively know that they can't swim upstream, against the current and escape from a charging predator. They usually race for the nearest cover. When caught in the open, they often flee with reckless abandonment, even to the point of hurling themselves out of the water.
It is important to try to give a trout a broadside look at the streamer. What good does it do to tie a streamer which has the general shape and coloration of a real forage fish if the only view a trout ever gets of it is from straight behind? All streamers look almost exactly alike if you view them from directly behind. It is common practice to cast a streamer across and down and then strip it back with a boring retrieve. This causes the fly to behave exactly opposite from a natural bait fish by swimming directly against the current.
Use both the rod hand and the line hand to tease the streamer. Keeping the fly moving in a steady motion is better than a series of fast bursts and pauses. Many anglers try to put too much action on the fly. It doesn't take much movement with the rod hand or the line hand to move the fly a great distance. Make a cast into clear water and watch how the fly moves as you vary the retrieve. Slow strips with a slight flick of the rod tip will impart enough action to the fly. (A flick is less movement than a flip or a twitch.) I can't overemphasize the importance of a broad side drift. Try to make the streamer look like the natural it is designed to imitate. If it is a minnow, make it swim like it is slightly injured. It should swim with short bursts and and pauses if it is a crayfish. Try to make a leech swim with a slow, undulating, steady motion.
Sensitivity is also extremely important. "Learning to feel what the fish is doing through the line and the rod, using both hands together," is Jack Dennis’ secret. Jack knows whether the trout is hitting at the streamer, trying to disable it or whether it is taking the fly in its mouth. He believes most trout first hit a small fish to disable it and then come back for the kill. They like to disable their prey so they can take it head first. Most inexperienced anglers end up with "short strikes" because the try to set the hook the first time they feel anything. I've watched Jack tease a big trout, waiting to strike until the proper moment for a sure hook up.
Fishing streamers across current is one of the most versatile methods to take trout. The typical approach is to cast the fly across and slightly downstream, and strip the fly as the current pulls it across and downstream, eventually coming to stop directly below the angler. While this method will take an occasional fish, it doesn’t give the trout, which are facing directly into the current, a good broadside look at the fly. Casting across and down with a straight line cast immediately starts the streamer facing upstream, into the current.
You can keep the fly swimming broadside, across the current, through the entire drift by casting slack line and mending until the fly completes its swing. It is possible to cast quartering upstream with an upstream reach cast and keep the fly drifting broadside by mending upstream until the fly starts to pass downstream of your position. Start mending line downstream when the fly passes below. Keep mending line away from the fly until it comes to rest directly below. Let it hang in the current for a few moments before picking it up as trout will sometimes follow the streamer though the drift and hit after it stops. Make sure to keep enough belly in the line to keep the fly swimming. Mend enough to keep the line tight, but not slack. You can control the speed of the fly by the amount of mend you put in the line. Flick the tip of the rod through the drift to tease the fly. Vary the action according to the type of fly you are using.
Fishing a streamer along an undercut bank or other structure can be deadly. The trick is to get the fly to swim along the bank instead casting directly across and retrieving the streamer away from the bank. Make the cast directly across but use a wide reach cast, mending as much line as possible in the air before the line hits the water. This will put the line at a right angle downstream from the fly. Tease the fly as it swims downstream along the bank, keeping tension as the current pulls against the belly of the line.
One of the best ways to take trout from a deep pool is to cast upstream and retrieve the fly back down. The fly must swim slightly faster than the current with flicks and strips. With each flick the fly darts ahead and starts to dive toward the bottom when it pauses. Sulking trout will whirl and charge downstream to attack the streamer when fished in this way. The downstream retrieve is a very effective method for sculpin or crayfish imitations, which which need to fished near the bottom to be effective. Both critters try to take the path of least resistance when threatened, which is downstream.
Trout become more territorial when spawning time approaches. Their spawning instincts start to rule their behavior. They feel the urge to defend their territory from any and all comers. They are most threatened by other fish of their own species. Once on the spawning redds, small males will attempt to rush in to fertilize the eggs if given the chance. Gary LaFontaine likes to match the streamer with the dominant coloration of the trout he is fishing for. A yellow streamer works best for browns and cutthroats while silver is best for rainbows. A streamer with a dash of red is best for brook trout.
I do not recommend or support fishing for spawning trout on their spawning grounds. I believe the spawning areas should be closed to fishing while the fish are actively spawning. The trout become aggressive weeks before spawning, however. Trout move into some streams where they would not normally be at other times of the year in preparation for spawning. An example is the Madison River above Hebgen Lake in Yellowstone National Park. Most of this section of the Madison is characterized as a large spring creek. Large rainbows and browns start to move into the Madison from Hebgen Lake in early September in preparation for spawning. They don't actually start to spawn until late October or November, after the fishing season has closed. Streamers are one of the most effective methods to take these trout.
Gary LaFontaine, Jack Dennis and I were invited to Connetquot State Park on Long Island, New York, to conduct one of our Traveling Fly Fishermen fly fishing seminars. Dale Smith helped us with the arrangements and told me to make sure to bring my fishing rod. The program was in March and he said there should be some large sea run fish moving into the Connetquot River. I had never thought of Long Island as a major trout fishing destination but I followed his advice and packed my fishing gear.
On the second day of the program, Dale, his wife Christine and Gill Bergen, the park manager, took me on a tour of the Connetquot River. I was impressed. It wasn't a river but a magnificent limestone stream with clear pools and lots of rising fish. Most of them were stocked from a hatchery at the park but they took on the characteristics of wild trout after only a few weeks in the stream. Anglers must reserve a section of the river in advance to fish for half the day. The fee was minimal considering the Connetquot is a first rate spring creek only a half hour from Manhattan. Gill had set aside a section of the stream for me to fish.
When we arrived at the pool I gasped with surprise. There were three big trout finning in the fast current. Dale explained they were sea run browns which had just moved up from the ocean. My fingers trembled as I tied on a black and yellow wooly bugger. I fired the cast across the swift current and mended the line upstream to keep the fly drifting broadside. The lead fish moved over and smacked the fly. She crashed down the pool and tried to dig under some overhanging brush. It was hard to control the big fish within the confines of the small stream. She finally surrendered and I eased her into a quiet backwater. Dale and Christine grinned as I lifted her from the water. I beamed as I slipped her back into the Connetquot. I couldn't believe her size and beauty. She easily weighed seven pounds.
Later that I night I called my wife in Idaho and she asked how I liked New York.
"Great,” I said. “Today I caught a seven pound brown!"
Mike Lawson is a staff writer for Southeast Idaho Hunting and Fishing Magazine. He co-authored a book entitled Fly Fishing the Henry's Fork with his close friend, Gary LaFontaine and is currently writing his second book entitled Spring Creeks. He has also contributed to several books on fly tying, fly fishing, wild turkey hunting and upland bird hunting. He has written articles on fly fishing for several magazines including Fly Fisherman, Fly Fishing for Trout, The Fly Fisher, Trout Magazine and The American Angler
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