How to Catch Trout on Flies, Part 3: Streamers

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Fly fishing a stream

The dictionary defines a streamer as a long narrow flag or pennant. Streamer flies also tend to be relatively long and narrow and unlike hard metal conventional fishing lures they are made of mobile materials like bucktail, marabou, rabbit strips, and feathers that undulate in the water much like a flag flies in the wind.

This movement allows fly fishers to imitate food sources that swim like minnows, sculpins, leeches, damselflies, and immature gamefish.

Possibly the most popular streamer of all time is the Woolly Bugger, developed by Russell Blessing on Pennsylvania’s Manada Creek, and now used on streams around the world. The Woolly Bugger has thousands of variations like the Bow River Bugger, the Sculpinator, Krystal Bugger, Rubber Bugger, Beadhead Woolly Bugger, and the list goes on. The common denominator is the marabou tail and hackled chenille body.

Other important and useful streamers include Bob Clouser’s Deep Minnow, the Zonker, and the many variations of the Muddler Minnow.

In small to medium rivers, fish your favorite streamer with a floating line and a 9-foot, stout tapered leader ending in 2X to 3X tippet. To dead-drift a nymph you cast mostly upstream, allowing the current to create slack as the fly drifts toward you. You have the opposite intentions with a streamer, so a frequent strategy is to cast directly across-stream or down-and-across and allow the current to pull the slack out of the system and draw the fly across the river, broadside to the trout that are facing directly into the current.

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Trout fishing with streamers
Cast your streamer across or down-and-across and allow the current to draw the line across the river. Add extra action by stripping line to make the streamer move in short, jerky spurts. Step downstream after each cast to fish new water.

The current working against the fly makes it move and undulate, but most anglers add extra action by stripping in line as the fly moves across the current. You can make short, fast jerky pulls to twitch the fly erratically like a sculpin; slow pulsing strips to swim the fly like a leech; or long, steady pulls to move the fly like a baitfish.

Your fly will quarter across-stream and end up hanging in the current directly below you. Sometimes fish follow the fly, so let the fly pause and then give it a few extra twitches before you lift it from the water for your next cast.

Streamer fishing is a great way to move quickly through large expanses of water looking for the most aggressive fish. Take a step downstream after each cast so your fly tracks through unfished water on each cast.

Streamers represent large potential food items, so trout often move a long way to chase and attack the fly. When the water is clear and shallow, your streamer doesn’t need to be deep to attract aggressive fish. Pinch a large split-shot or two to the tippet knot above the fly and you’ll get a dramatic up-and-down jigging motion that trout find irresistible. When you pull the line, the fly swims upward, when you pause, the fly falls, inviting an attack. The more weight you have on a streamer, the more pronounced this jigging action becomes—part of the reason the dumbbell-eyed Clouser Minnow is so effective on so many species and on so many waters.

When a fish strikes, you will feel sudden tension or a strong tug on the line. Often the trout hooks itself, but just to make sure, continue stripping the fly toward you until you drive the hook firmly into its jaw. Then quickly allow the line to slide through your fingers as the fish takes line or else a big trout may break the line on its sudden first surge.

Streamers are tied on large, dangerous hooks. Be sure to crimp down the barbs on your streamers—not just to facilitate the safe release of the fish but also to make it easy on yourself should you accidentally hook yourself or a fishing companion.

If the water is deep, especially fast, or turbid, you may need to use a sinking-tip fly line to get the streamer down to where the fish are. This is also true if the water is cold, and the fish are unwilling to move far. With a sinking-tip line you fish a streamer the same way cast across-stream and allow the fly to swim quartering across-stream below you.

With a floating line, you use a relatively long monofilament leader to reduce the influence of the floating line and allow the fly to sink. When streamer fishing with a sinking-tip line, you want to increase the influence the fly line has on the fly, so use a short leader. In many cases, 2 to 3 feet of monofilament leader is all you need from the end of a sinking-tip line. This helps your fly sink. Don’t worry, the trout are rarely put off by the dull gray fly line, especially in deep or off-color water.

Because they are large flies and sometimes require sinking-tip lines, you usually need a heavier rod to properly fish streamers on big rivers. A 5-weight is a great all-around trout rod, but if you want one rod especially suited for just streamer fishing, try a 6- or 7-weight rod with the backbone to cast large flies into a headwind, and lift a sinking-tip line from the water effectively.

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