October 12, 2021
This article was originally titled “Streamer Checklist” in the Oct-Nov-Dec 2017 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine.
There are times when you can’t do anything wrong with streamers. These are the halcyon days when the retrieve, fly color, and water depth appear to have no impact on success. Whatever you do, it seems the fish jump all over it. These moments are often the subjects of our favorite fish stories, but unfortunately, they are few and far between. The rest of the time, the fish themselves can be stubborn, and the fishing conditions can offer myriad challenges. Sudden rain events can turn the water muddy. A low-pressure system or a sudden drop in water temperature can give the fish a case of lockjaw. Low water and bright sun can make them spooky.
When the fishing isn’t easy, I use what I call my streamer checklist to make sure that I’m covering all the bases. It’s surprising how often changing one thing can suddenly flick a switch and produce the biggest trout of the day.
What I enjoy about fly fishing is there are no absolute wrongs or rights. Everyone has their own opinions and in many ways, they all work. And it’s important that everyone develops their own checklist. It’s all part of the fun. My streamer checklist often looks like the following: 1) change the depth, 2) change the retrieve speed, 3) change the casting angle, and 4) change the fly color. While the order is not set in stone, I believe it’s important to have some system in place to check off potential solutions.
Change the Fly’s Depth
I’m always amazed to see streamer anglers wade or float a long river without ever changing the fly type, leader length, or the sink rate of the fly line. Fly fishers rarely fish identical water types through the entire day. Rivers are dynamic and change in depth and velocity from pocketwater, riffles, runs, and pools, to strong tailouts.
Think about fly fishers nymphing a dynamic river system without ever adjusting their nymph rigs. It’s relatively unproductive. The same is true with working streamers. Successful streamer anglers adjust their rig before entering a different water type. Otherwise they would be exemplifying the definition of insanity fishing—using the same streamer rig all day and expected the same results in different water types.
The first item on my checklist is always adjusting the retrieve depth. Trout sometimes move great distances to chase a streamer, but just as many days they won’t, and you need to work deeper in the water column. You can change your depth many ways, but one of my methods came from watching live minnow anglers. Several years ago I was fishing during a cold snap on Arkansas’s White River. Periods of heavy water generation were also in play, and while heavy dam generation often creates ideal streamer conditions, the wind chill and near-zero air temperature slowed our catch rate to a sudden halt.
Despite using sinking lines and weighted streamers, after two slow days we believed our streamers were still not getting into the strike zone. The strong current, along with the lethargic nature of the trout, was too much for our traditional streamer approach. We had to find ways to work our streamers deeper and slower. On the third day we watched some guys fishing live minnows. They drifted over the exact edge we had just been through, and caught and released several quality trout.
I know what you’re thinking: “They were fishing live minnows!” However, I firmly believe it was the speed and depth they were fishing their minnows, not the bait itself, that made most of the difference. These expert anglers held their small-diameter monofilament line off the water, while we had anywhere from 30 to 50 feet of fat fly line lying on the water, resulting in excessive drag. That drag likely kept our weighted streamers off the bottom.
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The live bait anglers used a snap swivel 20″ up the leader from the minnow, and a sliding bell sinker above the swivel. The heavy bell sinker slid along stream bottom while the minnow, attached to a snap swivel, drifted slowly along the bottom. They used a slow retrieve with a constant jigging action, which was created by smoothly lifting the rod tip up and down. While it’s difficult for fly fishers to compete with the look, movement, and smell of a live minnow, on the drive home we brainstormed on how to modify our approach to achieve similar results.
I began to experiment with a system Joe Humphreys shared with me years ago. Back in the 1990s he worked with the Cortland Line Company to develop a skinny level fly line to mimic monofilament. Today we have similar small-diameter lines, commonly labeled as Euro nymph lines. These lines are easy to lift and keep line off the water due to the small diameter. Although they were originally designed for nymphing, I believe they make ideal tools to simulate the live minnow tactics I saw on the White River.
I began experimenting by using a RIO Euro Nymph line combined with a long leader, bell sinker, snap swivel, and streamer. Sometimes streamer fishing is not about finding the most aggressive fish in the river, sometimes it’s about presenting an offer right at their level so they can’t refuse it.
My first issue with this modified approach was that many of the traditional streamers I tried didn’t have the movement for bottom drifting with the bell sinker and snap swivel. A live minnow swims during the slow retrieve, but many patterns lacked that lively movement without an active retrieve. Eventually, I found confidence in Blane Chocklett’s Game Changer minnow. The fly is the closest thing I’ve seen to an actual minnow, and it moves constantly even if you’re not retrieving it.
If you’re using more traditional fly lines and streamer tackle, try shoving the rod tip deep into the water to get your fly deeper. Although this approach works with any line type, it’s best with sinking lines. Stick the rod tip deep in the water and wait for slack to accumulate in the line, allowing the fly to sink deeper. Once you’re at the depth you want, make several long pulls to bring the line to the level of the sunken rod tip.
To get deeper you can also change the weight, profile, and density of your streamer. While I prefer the action of articulated patterns, there are times I sacrifice fly action for better depth and penetration. When floating Class IV rapids on the Middle Fork of the American River, California, I realized my articulated flies weren’t getting deep enough due to their bulk. They were heavy flies, but not dense, and there’s a huge difference. Even with a fast-sinking line, my bulky articulated patterns were swimming too high in the water column. I attempted longer countdowns, shoving the rod tip in the water, but the bulky flies didn’t descend quickly. I changed to a smaller, compact tungsten conehead Sparkle Minnow, and immediately began moving fish. Bulk versus density is always an issue when streamer fishing heavy water, and larger flies often aren’t the best for getting deeper.
While I always experiment with new streamer patterns, I have a half dozen streamers that are my “go to” patterns, and they present an array of length, weight, diameter, and density to achieve a specific depth or elicit a reaction. They are Coffey’s Sparkle Minnow, GD Scalp Snack, Strolis’s Headbanger Sculpin, Lynch’s Drunk & Disorderly (or other wedge head type pattern) with and without dumbbell eyes, and Ford’s Laser Pup.
When you change your fly while streamer fishing you’re doing more than just switching to a different imitation, you’re changing the depth, the action, and much more. For example, tungsten weighs twice as much as brass, and that small weight difference in conehead streamers alone may result in a few additional trout in certain circumstances. As long as you’re thinking about changing the weight and profile or your streamer, you’re in the game.
Change Your Fly’s Retrieve Speed
I’ve learned much of what I know about streamer fishing by watching live minnow anglers. After years of watching my father-in-law use live minnows, I believe the biggest difference between us is the speed of the bait, and I too often retrieve my streamer patterns too fast. Large trout are predators programmed to pick off the weak or dying, and a streamer moving too high or fast in the water is less likely to seduce a trout.
The next time you watch a school of baitfish, pay attention and you’ll likely see these forage fish casually move about without quick or sudden movements. Trout hunt and chase down food in some instances, but often they hold in ambush positions and allow unsuspecting prey to basically swim right to them. Large trout get large by consuming more calories than they use, and large trout ambush at short distances because they are more efficient feeders. That’s how they get large. Moving your fly slower and closer to the fish most of the time will elicit more predatory strikes and produce larger fish.
Many of the limestone streams I fish at home in Pennsylvania are comprised of mostly shallow water, and full-sinking or sinking-tip lines are not ideal, as they force you to strip faster to avoid snagging the bottom. I use floating lines and neutrally buoyant streamers to achieve a slower retrieval rate. This combination allows me to fish a streamer as slow or as fast as I need, since I don’t have to worry about the line or fly sinking too fast. With this rig I can stop stripping and pause for several seconds without fear of my streamer plummeting to stream bottom.
In shallow water I use sculpins with a rounded head instead of popular wedge-head patterns like the Drunk & Disorderly because I don’t want the streamer to dive. This diving action in a small limestone stream is more likely to grab the stream bottom than a trout. A rounded deer-hair head like Galloup’s Zoo Cougar stays in the same horizontal plane when using short strips, which means the pattern remains in position above potential snags.
My catch rate increased the moment I switched from fishing tungsten weighted streamers to neutrally buoyant streamers, especially in dirty and/or cold water when presenting slower is often the best approach. You can achieve similar results by pinching a heavy split-shot on the leader immediately above an unweighted Zoo Cougar.
If you’re observant, you’ll also recognize times when a faster retrieve is a better choice. Once while floating Michigan’s Au Sable River with Josh Greenberg (owner of Gates Au Sable Lodge) we spotted nervous water created by large brown trout chasing baitfish in slack water about 100 yards downstream of our drift boat.
Previously in the day, I worked my streamers slowly with excellent results. However, this time Josh told me to put the fly upstream of the nervous water and strip as fast as I could. I was hesitant at first, as my slower retrieve had been working all day, but this was an unusual situation.
The school of baitfish was running like hell to escape death, and my retrieve needed to imitate that same panicked movement. As soon as my fly hit the water, Josh kept yelling, “Strip faster.” My streamer was two inches below the surface due to the quick retrieve, but the two-foot brown locked onto my streamer, chased it 20 feet, and created a bulge in the water as it inhaled the escaping prey.
In hindsight, I don’t know if I would have caught that fish if it wasn’t for Josh yelling at me to “strip faster!” Don’t get locked into retrieving your streamers at the same tempo. Each situation demands special consideration.
Change the Angle of your Fly Retrieval
Another important change-up can be the angle of retrieval. The two most important related questions are: Am I targeting a specific area or am I covering a large area of water?
If I’m searching relatively featureless water and want my streamer to cover a wide arc, I cast across or down and across toward the opposite bank and swing the pattern. In small rivers and streams, this approach swims my fly off the bank, into the edges, and eventually into the deeper water. This approach is most useful when the trout are evenly distributed and not showing predictive holding lies. If the resident trout begin showing specific feeding positions, then you should begin targeting those specific water types.
When I start targeting specific spots, the angle of my retrieve is normally much more narrow. For example, I may want to keep my fly tight to an undercut bank through the entire presentation. Undercut banks are ambush hot spots, and fishing success increases the longer I can keep my streamer swimming nearby.
Casting or mending the line parallel to your target allows you to keep the fly in the likely ambush spots. For example, I can make a downstream cast parallel to a fallen log and retrieve back upstream. This allows me to cover the entire length of log with a single presentation.
One advantage to the parallel downstream cast (while wading) is that the water tension on the line allows you to stall or hold a pattern in one spot, but still keep it swimming. If you know where a trout is sitting, you can swing the fly in directly in front of the fish, make several strips to pull the fly away, then pause to let the fly drift back toward the fish. This is like playing cat and mouse—you’re teasing a fish into taking the fly, even if the fish isn’t hungry. There is no better example of this cat-and-mouse technique than Jako Lucas’s short film “The Big Eat” at vimeo.com/226040003. If you want the fly to swim parallel to the same log but ride deeper, you can do the exact opposite and cast upstream and parallel to the log. Less tension on the line helps the streamer stay deeper.
The shape and position of the line on the water is a good indicator as to where the fly is going to swim during the retrieve. It’s easy to see this happen with floating lines, but most sinking lines are dark and you lose sight of them. This is why I use sinking lines with homemade markers (brightly colored thread wraps coated with a UV resin) or manufactured sinking lines that are dyed so I can see what the sinking section is doing, and keep my fly closer to definitive hot spots.
Change the Color of your Fly
I choose a reasonable streamer color right from the start, so changing the color as I move down my checklist is often my last line of defense. By “reasonable,” I mean I have already accounted for variables such as turbidity, available light, and the color schemes of common baitfish. Most of my strategy after that should be thinking about varying presentation methods rather than thinking that fly color will make the difference, but conditions can and do change over the course of the day, so changing the fly color can turn things around.
I use black or very dark flies during periods of low light, such as dawn, dusk, the middle of the night, or that dark period just before a storm. Black presents a stronger visual silhouette from the fish’s perspective.
For dirty water, I prefer chartreuse or bright yellow. It’s theorized that trout see these colors better through suspended particles, but one thing I know for sure: I see the pattern better, which helps keep me focused. As Murphy’s Law suggests, strikes often occur when you aren’t ready. When I have a constant visual on the fly, it keeps me focused and ready for the strike.
Switching to white flies is a good idea when fall foliage appears. While I’ve had success with the colors yellow and orange at other times of the year, these flies get “lost” when brightly colored leaves are falling to the water. White shows more contrast, and imitates the white, silvery undersides of most baitfish.
Familiarity with the local baitfish can also suggest what color of fly to use. Sculpins are like little aquatic chameleons, and their color often matches on stream bottom. You don’t need to carry 50 Shades of Sculpin in your box, but let the stream bottom guide you. Many of my local limestone streams have dark bottoms, so many of the sculpins take on a dark olive or black-and-olive color scheme. Matching the local forage is a good choice especially in clear water, when trout can better inspect your streamer.
The checklist has only four major items, and they are only a few of the countless others that could make it onto your streamer checklist, and you might also prioritize them in a different order. You may find that fly color is more important than casting angles on your home waters, and that is the whole purpose of this article—to help find what works for you. We cannot control the feeding behavior of the fish, but we are able to control the methods we employ, and thinking through these problems is the greatest joy of fly fishing. A tough day on the water is still satisfying if you know that you’ve exhausted all options, because you leave nothing on the water.