Fly fishing streamers can be one of the most fun and effective ways to catch big fish. Whether your targeting Trout, Bass, Catfish, or anything in-between; the right cast mixed with the right streamer can yield mind-boggling results.
In this article, we’re going to lay out everything you need to know about fly fishing with streamers from what they are, to which ones to use and when. Whether you’re a seasoned vet, or a day 1 angler, streamer fishing can be intimidating, but with the right know-how, you’ll be slamming those record-breaking monsters you thought only existed in fish tales.
What is Streamer Fishing?
Becoming the fish…
Streamer fishing is a method of fly fishing using a submerged fly called a streamer. A streamer is built to imitate a “bait-fish”, or a smaller fish that larger fish generally like to feed on, such as sculpin and minnows. Streamer flies can also take the likes of leeches, crayfish, and other underwater morcels larger fish like to dine on. Sizes of the fly can vary greatly between small and simple wooly buggers, all the way to complexed articulated flies that stretch the size of your hand.
Streamers are usually fished more attentively than the traditional dry-fly or nymph rig, as they are fished with an active retrieve. This means that their movement is mostly caused by the angler stripping in line in order to draw the fly back for another cast.
Why use a streamer?
There’s always a bigger fish
When it comes to answering why to use a streamer as opposed to a different fly setup, the main reason is simple: big fish need lots of protein to survive, and in turn, will attack big flies when given the chance. Aggressive fish will often attack meaty snacks for a plethora of reasons such as hunger, territorialism, or just plain instinct.
Streamers are also a great way to cover a large amount of water in a smaller time frame. By using certain cast and retrieve methods listed here, an angler can cover entire pools in an efficient, and often successful manner.
Streamer fishing can be one of the most exciting methods of fly fishing as it is very involved and usually produces violent strikes when a fish decides to take the fly. Every angler can remember their first time feeling or seeing a determined fish attack their streamer.
It’s not just about hungry fish! One of the most advantageous aspects of fishing streamers vs. drifting nymphs and tossing dries, is that it’s a great way to hook fish that aren’t actively feeding. Streamer fishing oftentimes triggers reactionary strikes in predatory fish such as trout, bass, and other large underwater game. A reactionary strike is when your fly glides passed a hunkered down fish, and that fish swipes at it, not out of a desire to eat it, but out of pure primal instinct. These fish got this big for a reason, and that’s because they don’t take anyone’s sh*t.
When and Where to use a Streamer…
Think Dirty, Think Deep
Has there been a recent rainstorm? Are there no noticeable insects around? Is the water murky and deep? These are all factors to consider when determining whether or not to throw on a streamer.
If you’re having trouble matching the hatch, or even identifying any insects around, a streamer may be a viable alternative to topwater or nymphs. Often times, this may be due to temperature factors. Trout especially are at full energy at around 55-60 degrees F, and may not be rising if the water is too cold, or too hot. It’s not a guarantee, but by getting a large meal right in front of their faces, they will most likely be much more inclined to take it.
Often times, when the water is murky or deep (usually after a rainstorm) streamers can be a great way to increase your fly’s visibility and ability to sink. In clear daylight and clear water, fish will be less inclined to swipe at large streamers as thicker tippet may be more detectable, and there are most likely lots of insects to feed off of. If deciding to fish clear water with a streamer, smaller and more subtle ones will perform better.
The best places to target streamers are protected places such as under banks, behind large rocks, and around submerged logs or trees; as well as in the seams of the currents, and in deep pockets of water.
Look for cover: All fish, no matter the size, have predators. Whether it’s birds, humans, or even bigger water-dwelling creatures, fish are naturally drawn to cover and protection. Places like submerged debris (i.e. trees) act as a great hiding spot, not only for fish to hide from predators, but to wait and lurk for prey to swim by (in this case, that’ll be your fly).
Fish the seam: Checking the seam is crucial to any angler’s knowledge of the water. The seam is the invisible line of the water where two speeds of the current meet, thus creating a small pocket where fish can hang out and conserve energy. They also act as underwater drive-through lanes where fish can sit in the slow moving water and wait for meals such as insects or wondering minnows to be washed down right into their mouths.
Fish deep: This is the golden rule of fishing Streamers; they do the best when fished in deep water. If your fishing a pocket of water where you can’t see the bottom, two things are likely: 1. visibility is low, and if the fish can’t see your fly they can’t eat it, and 2, there are big hungry fish down there.
Most streamers are made with flashy elements to act as attractors to the fish. When they’re flashing through the murky water, they’re more likely to be seen than microscopic nymphs. Not to mention, the fish that are lurking at the bottoms of those big pools aren’t fingerlings. No, they’re big old bully fish who are waiting for a REAL meal to come their way…and your big fat streamer will probably look pretty delectable.
How to cast and fish a streamer
Send it far and make it dance
How to cast a streamer
Anglers spend their lifetime trying to perfect a cast of grace and precision. Ideally, we envision tightly kept loops flying through the air landing the fly perfectly on the water in an elegant and gentle nature. However, with streamer fishing, your casting will have to adapt to accommodate the weight of the fly.
When casting a streamer, stand right upstream of the hole, or current, you are trying to fish. Depending on the weight of your fly, your casting method will vary. For instance, when using a smaller (size 16-10), the typical overhead, double haul cast will suffice, but when using a larger, heavier fly (usually with the addition of extra weights such as split shot), finding the right cast calls for some creativity.
With traditional casting, the weight of the line is the force driving the fly to the water. Now that the fly is much much heavier than the line, the angler must accommodate to the change of force distribution. Things to remember when casting heavy streamers are…
- Pick your Target. Before you make any sort of a cast, pick a spot where your fly is going to land. Slightly upstream is always your best bet as it will give your fly maximum time in the water as well as time to sink.
- Load up. It doesn’t even need to be a back cast. As long as there is tension on the fly before the drive, there will be enough force to send the streamer flying.
- It only takes a swing or two. No matter how far your target is, with enough line free, the weight of the fly will sail through the air with ease riding the inertia of the load up.
- Finish with the rod tip High. At the end of the cast, make sure to finish with your rod tip in the air (aprox 120 degrees). This allows the fly to go further, and also lets it land gentler in the water, as a means to not spooking fish.
Most importantly, no matter the fly, make sure to hit within 4-5 inches of the far bank. This will assure you cover all the water that you’re fishing, as well as attracts the attention of big fish lurking under overhanging ledges.
How to fish a streamer
Fishing streamers is a method where anglers can really get creative with how they chose to fish. Here, we will go over the rudimentary rules to follow once your fly is in the water, but remember, there’s always room to add your own touch.
- Get down: As we said before, if there is one golden rule of fishing streamers, it’s that bottom is key. Under turbulent flow, deeper down there will always be calmer water…this is where the big fish will be hanging out. By lurking in the deep, they can conserve energy, as well as prosper from the oxygen-rich cold water. By getting your fly down to their level, you make them do less work to find your fly, and in return, they’ll be more likely to strike at it. So, once your fly is in the water, let it sit for just a few seconds.
- Mend it: Once the fly has been in the water for about 2-3 seconds, throw a downstream mend on it. This will allow the current to pull the fly down the side of the opposite bank in an organic fashion. This should draw out any fish that were lurking under banks, or checking out the side walls for incoming meals.
- Rod tip Down: As soon as the fly begins its way downstream, tilt your rod tip down to as low as it can get (even placing an inch or two in the water is suggested). The closer the tip is to the water, the more natural the fly will look while you’re stripping in line. This will also allow the streamer to stay deeper during its retrieve.
- little strips: Once the fly is well sunk, and is approaching the top of the pool you are targeting, begin stripping in line. Depending on the circumstances of the water. Small 4-6″ strips will usually get the job done. Here, most anglers also like to add a little wiggle to the rod to create sporadic movement that drives fish nuts. Continue stripping in line until the fly is about to approach the end of its drift.
- Let is Swing: At the end of the drift, the fly will begin to swing across the pool back to your shore. This moment is the moment where most strikes will probably occur. As you keep tension on the line, continue performing small, but rapid, strips in and watch the line straighten out through the pool. What the fish is seeing during this period is their target beginning to speed up/ flee. This is the now or never moment for fish… and they almost always pick now. Continue to shake the line sporadically as well as keep tension, if the fish hits, you don’t wanna miss it.
- Begin to jig: Once the fly has finished its swing, many anglers will make the mistake of bringing it in right away for the next cast. This is removing your streamer halfway through the game. Once you’re about parallel with your shoreline, begin larger strips and “jig” the fly. This can be done by giving gentle tugs on the rod to insinuate a lurching baitfish/ leach. Continue this with intermittent stops to present the fly like an injured animal (this technique can really be added to any part of the streamer fishing process) until your fly has made its way up the bank and back to you.
- Modify Cast: Now, repeat all the process’ above with slight moderation. Switch up micro factors like where you initially place your fly, how long it dead drifts, and how fast your retrieve is.
Fishing streamers on still water: The above has been catered to those fishing rivers, however, the same rules apply to fishing still water such as lakes. When fishing still water, just remember to cast out as far as you can and let the fly sink as deep as it can go. On the retrieve, then work the streamer back in intermittent strips. So, for every 6 strips, give a 3-second break in-between to add some life to the fly. Don’t stop working the fly until it’s practically at your feet, because you never know when a fish will finally decide to strike!
How to chose which streamer to use
The wetter the better
For those just getting into fly fishing, streamers can be a saving grace. While dry fly fishing and nymphing rely heavily on identifying specific insect patterns and hatches, streamer fishing allows the angler to focus more on how they’re fishing the fly as opposed to what fly their fishing.
When it comes to selecting the right fly, it’s best to come prepared with lots of options. From trout streamers to bass… here’s the streamer fly patterns to look for:
- Wooly buggers: When you think streamers, you’re probably thinking wooly buggers. These little suckers can come in many shapes and sizes, but usually, stay true to the traditional marabou tail and chenille body. These flies can imitate anything from a leach to a minnow and tend to be incredibly successful amongst all anglers.
- Minnows and Sculpin: More often than not, Wooly Buggers can be worked like these fish. Often times tied with more complexed patterns, minnows and sculpin are smaller baitfish that provide a consistent food source for larger fish. Specific patterns to look out for would be that of the Muddler minnow, the conehead bunny muddler, and the S3 sculpin. These are a perfect streamer for trout or other larger river-dwelling fish.
- Articulated Streamers: If you’re looking to get serious with your streamers, and have a bit of change to spend, pick up some of these bad boys. Articulated streamers come in two, sometimes even 3 parts, and are tied together with some heavy line and sometimes a bead. The design of these streamers allows them to bounce and wiggle in order to more accurately imitate a real fish. Oftentimes, when targeting monster fish, these heavy streamers will be your best bet for success.
Picking a color: The only thing to be meticulous about when picking streamers is the color. Depending on the color of the water, and the amount of sun you’re seeing, the color of the fly will have a great influence as to whether or not a fish can see it.
By general rule of thumb, on darker days where there is more cloud coverage, use a black or purple streamer. The dark background will outline the silhouette of the streamer. Furthermore, a purple streamer will appear with black shine. On sunnier days, lighter streamers (preferably white) will reflect the sun’s rays, thus allowing the fly to stand out under water.
Which equipment to use with streamers?
Prepare for the best…
So you have your streamers…that’s a good start. As for the rest of your gear, the general idea is to always prepare for the best. Unlike fishing drys or nymphs, heavy rods and lines will only really help you to be ready for when that PR fish hits.
Rod: Depending on the size of the fly, anything from a 5 weight up should do. If your planning on tossing some really large flies, as well as added weight, try to move up to a 7-9 weight rod, as it will make casting much easier. All too often have rods snapped in a cast because they couldn’t handle the load.
Reel: Accompanying the weight of your rod is a priority. It’s usually suggested to look for a large arbor to account for the fight big fish like to give. When the line is whizzing out and you’re down to your backing, you’ll be thankful to have the extra strength.
Leader: A crucial element to consider when streamer fishing for trout or other large fish is your leader. The suggested leader size usually ranges about 6-9 feet of 3 or 4x, but on large streamers, even going to 1-2x isn’t overkill. A sinking leader can also be an extremely useful tool for getting your streamer deep in a short amount of time. Click here for some of the best line on the market right now.
Split shot: For when you dont have any sinking leader, there’s the bane of the fly fishing community; split shot. Split shot is a less sexy, but can be very effective additive that will allow you to get your fly deep, FAST. By adding one or two size 7 split shot to your line, you’ll be drastically increasing the time your fly spends in its target area. Just attach the shot about 3-5 inches above the fly and let her rip.
Indicator: Fishing a streamer with an indicator is a newer technique that strikes some as unorthodox. However, in still water and slow-moving water, it can be extremely effective. This works well for smaller flies, usually leach patterns, and can be fished with relative ease. By working your streamer in with slow, intermittent strips, you can simulate an injured leach or baitfish. We usually recommend a cork or plastic indicator for this.
That’s just about all you need to know to start fishing streamers and catching the fish of your dreams. Just remember, like all things in fly fishing, these rules are subject to experiment, and in the end, use the techniques that best cater to YOUR style.
This article was written by Flylords team member Wills Donaldson