Fly Fishing With Streamers on the Muskegon River

by Jeffrey Bacon

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The term "streamer" means different things to different people in the world of fly fishing. For some, it's a "classic" pattern such as a Mickey Finn or Grey Ghost, but to others it can be an entirely different beast with no limits put on its creator. With today's varied and fascinating fly tying materials, the imagination is the only boundary and many have pushed that envelope farther than their predecessors ever thought possible. Any who have an absolute passion about fishing big streamers for big fish and tie their own flies, will most certainly be a candidate for this category of fly fisher.

With so many cold water rivers in the Midwest for the fly fisher to choose as their hunting grounds, it's also true that different techniques will be used accordingly. Smaller streams will require different techniques and often downsized fly patterns, compared to those used on larger rivers. Fishing still water - lakes - can require a completely different approach due to the lack of flowing water and the forage base of your quarry.

Equipment

Your choice of rod, line, leader and fly can and do change with different streams, rivers and lakes. The kind and size of fish you're after plays a role as well. For streamer fishing the Muskegon river, I like using 2 different weight rods and lines, for different times of the year and related water flows. During our typical high water spring on the Muskegon river, I prefer a 7 or 8 weight rod, 9 or 10 feet in length, matched with a 250-300 grain sink tip line . My leader will about 3 1/2-4 feet in length, tapered from 25#, down to a 10-15 # test tip, depending on water clarity. Under these conditions, we're after large trout.......by large, I mean trout that EAT trout or other sizeable fish. Since the flies being casted can range from 3-6" or more in length, it's necessary to have a heavier weight rod to cast both line and large flies, especially if you choose to cast a tandem rig.

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Once water flows return to more normal levels, trout too will return to more traditional lies than they would during high water, which is usually mid summer and beyond. Under these conditions, I drop down to a 5 weight rod and match it with 130-200 grain line and a leader of around 4', tapered down to 6 # test or so.

Techniques

On a larger river such as Michigan's Muskegon river, we're constantly working with different currents and seams, which play a big role in how our offering looks in the water. Therefore it's critical to be proactive when streamer fishing such a river due to the current differences and how they play a role in putting our fly in front of fish. By "proactive", I mean determine where you want to present your NEXT cast, either at the very end of your retrieve or during false casts. It's not necessarily a different "technique", but rather fishing smarter, not harder and not feeling like you have to always be beating the banks with your flies. Picking and choosing the right spots to focus your efforts will yield greater results than simply casting feverishly over and over again.

With such a large river system as the Muskegon, half of the battle is picking and choosing the MOST likely spots to cast, for the kind of fish you're pursuing AND the time of year. Rainbow trout will like faster water, browns prefer low light and live in dungeon like holes, troughs and log jams, steelhead prefer different "lies" for the time of the year that they're in a river such as the Muskegon.

Here is how I would approach each species of fish, during hypothetical conditions such as late in the month of May, moderate/average water flows, partly cloudy skies and water temperatures around the 50 degree mark.

Rainbows will still be hovering in the areas of high oxygen, such as riffle water and I would cast my offering directly towards the bank and strip back to center river in short, erratic strips of 4-6" at a time. This will allow the fly to jump and jerk through the various seams that are a given in this type of water. Don't give up on your retrieve when fishing in water like this, or most any time streamer fishing for that matter, as it's often the last strip of two when a trout will appear from nowhere to dash at your fly.

Brown trout are known for their nocturnal behavior, preferring to come out in search of food in low light conditions or when dark, at night time. This doesn't mean that it's not possible to tangle with quality brown trout during the day. When heavy rains pass and add some color to the river, that's your best time to entice a big brown. Knowing that they prefer dark, deep, log jam filled holes and runs, I focus most of my time and effort NEAR such habitat. Consider not only casting to such areas of heavy cover, but also the opposite site of the river, often an inside bend. The retrieve should mimic the action of wounded prey, regardless of whether it's a big leach, baitfish or crayfish. Cast towards your target area, allow the line to sink to the appropriate depth and strip back in VERY erratic lengths and motion. This can be a 6" strip or a 2' strip, both followed by a pause and then strip again.

Strategy

Streamer fishing is often a matter of forethought, timing and casting location. Forethought being the weather forecast. Timing is the BEST time of year for tangling with a trophy Muskegon trout and location is where you place your cast, given the water and weather conditions.

Look ahead and try to plan your fishing day when the weather pro's are projecting at LEAST some cloud cover. If it's a blue bird day, consider nymphing or dry fly fishing. Timing for the streamer fly fisher is most associated with time of the year. Ultimately, we'd like to get our streamers in front of fish before they've had a chance to gorge themselves on the nymphs and dry flies of prime hatch time - around early June on the Muskegon river and in the Midwest. Additionally, if it's at all possible to plan a streamer trip shortly after some fairly heavy rain showers, that too can be an ally if the river levels come up a "bit" and the water gets some color to it. Best time is the first day or two after the river has reached its highest flows and is beginning to drop towards normal conditions. A key here is, try fishing inside bends that are ACROSS from deep, dark, wood filled bends of a river. Both Brown trout and Rainbow trout will abandon their preferred lies in favor of softer currents that aren't chock full of twigs, leaves, branches and other debris that's the result of heavy rain showers.

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Casting location goes hand in hand with the post rain shower scenario perfectly, but also applies to normal condition streamer fishing on the Muskegon river. Obviously, if a deep, dark stretch of a river that would typically be home to nice brown trout has all kinds of "junk" flowing directly into that deep, dark run, they will take up short term residence elsewhere, but not too far from what they call home. Think of it this way; if it's close enough to be a few tail kicks away from their home turf, in soft enough water to NOT be in the travel path of all that junk, near food that may also be living on such an inside bend AND have just enough depth to provide perceived cover, you have your high water, brown trout lie. During normal conditions, I like to work the front and back ends of the big log jams and the front and back ends of longer stretches where river bottom contour changes quickly on the Muskegon river. The cast itself can be changed up a bit as far as which direction you send your offering, but keep it perpendicular to the bank for the most part. The worst scenario on a big river like the Muskegon would be when your cast goes too far downstream and a majority of your stripping is bringing the streamer UPSTREAM and often at a rate much faster than it should be. Smaller baitfish can only swim so fast due to size and strength, keep this in mind when trying to mimic a natural food source.

These are just a handful of thoughts, ideas and technique preferences that I employ myself and when guiding during streamer trips on various rivers in west Michigan. They can certainly be expanded on to better suit your own fishing conditions and situation.


Jeffrey Bacon is a West Michigan, Orvis Endorsed Fly Fishing Guide and author. Jeff lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan with his wife Mary and 2 boys, Carter and Jack.

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