I had a rare day to myself this past summer where I was able to take a whole day and just go fish. No clients, no dad duty, no honey-do list. Just me and the fish. I grabbed a box of nymphs, emerges and dries with a few streamers on my vest. Not every day is as productive as this day was, but catching a dozen brook trout in the 14-17" range on mostly dry flies is a solid day on the water. I'm never disappointed with a day like that, but I always leave wondering about the fish I lost that day and if that elusive 20 something inch brookie was one of them. As I left the river, I ran into a guy who said he had been fishing for 9 hours straight with few breaks. He was landing a beautiful, 20 inch brook trout as I showed up and I took a picture for him. In 9 hours, this was only the second fish he landed, which isn't very good, but I was still jealous. Would you rather catch a dozen solid fish or the one big fish you're always after? Neither day is bad in my mind, but it got me thinking about streamers.
When bugs are on the water or emerging through the surface, it's very difficult to put away the dry flies or emergers. Watching a trout or salmon take a dry fly is just about the coolest thing you can see while fly fishing. Why fish any other patterns? I thought about spending a whole day just chucking streamers, no matter what was hatching. I tried it for about an hour with one fish to the net and couldn't resist changing over when I saw fish exploding on caddis all over the water. I know a few guys who pretty much just throw streamers and seem to know something that I don't know about it. I attribute this to my lack of discipline to keep fishing these patterns, even during great bug hatches. So, in other words, I do NOT consider myself an experienced streamer fly fisherman. I will tell you some of what I do know about fishing streamers from my observations over the past 12 years.
When to fish streamers
I find that streamer fishing for trout is best from ice out to Memorial Day and then again in September through November. It has a lot to smelt in the spring and ravenous/territorial eating habits in the fall. The smelt spawn in rivers across the state as they work themselves out of the lakes after the ice goes out. On one river that we fish, the smelt run can be downright epic (if you hit it right) in the month of May. Fish a black ghost pattern, keep it pretty active and you'll find fisher. On another river, the smelt get chopped up in the dam turbines and float down the river either on top or near the top of the water. Dead drift a white streamer pattern in fishy looking spots and be ready to set the hook.
I've fished streamers from June through August, but often with more limited success than the month of May. As the water heats up, using a sink tip line to get these patterns lower in the water column during the day can be effective, but I still find this slow. My favorite time to throw streamers in late spring/summer is first thing in the morning for the first hour or so after first light or right before it gets dark at night (if you can stand the mosquitoes). Stripping a big, black striper fly two inches under the surface at dusk can entice a big fish. I don't know what they think it is, but this can be very exciting. At other times, it just doesn't work.
In the fall, streamer patterns are great up against the banks as fish move there to fatten up a little for the winter. These shallow spots often warm up quickest and baitfish like the warmer temps, so the fish will follow. Usually by fall, I'll have several spots where I (or clients) have missed or caught some big fish throughout the year. I love to revisit these places in the fall for one last knock on the door to see if anybody is home!
Streamer Fishing Techniques
If I'm in a river that doesn't get very deep, a 9 foot 6 weight rod with floating line and a 9 foot tapered leader is usually my weapon of choice. If the river holds some deeper spots, I like a 9 foot 6 or 7 weight with sink tip line and a 4 foot 12lb mono leader. No need for a long leader as the sink tip gets the fly down there.
If I'm dead drifting streamer patterns and giving them no motion, I like to cast upstream and high stick them to the end of the run. I don't usually fish them back to me, as I'm trying to imitate a dead bait fish.
If I'm actively fishing streamer patterns I'll practice several different techniques:
- The first thing I'll do is cast it straight out about 25-30 feet, throw a good mend in the line and let it swing across the current. At the end of the swing, I'll try various strip retrieves to bring it back in.
- The next technique I'll try is similar to the first, but this time I strip it across with a strip-strip motion instead of the swing. Therefore, this gives a more active look, which sometimes excites the right fish.
- My next presentation is called bumping. I'll cast out in front of me again, but this time as it "swings" I'll pull the fly line in about 4 inches and then it slide through my hand to go back out. I'll do this three or four times as I retrieve it. The change of direction can excite fish.
- One of my favorite presentations is casting upstream if I'm standing on the bank and instead of letting it dead drift, I actively strip it back downstream using several different types of retrieves. This has been a surprisingly success presentation recently. I do find that stripping it back in upstream, even in slack water, is pretty unproductive for streamers. I don't catch many that way.
From the drift boat, I look for structure and patiently let it sink for 5 seconds, then begin the retrieve. When working from the boat, you have to take advantage of every cast because you often can't cast to the same place more than once (which can be a great thing!)
Favorite Streamer Patterns
I like to fish this in the spring when smelt are running. Dead drift can be great to show a dead or stunned smelt. This is effective on rivers with turbines that chop up the smelt. What an easy meal for trout or salmon.
My favorite colors are black and brown with coneheads. I fish these a number of ways: dead drift, active retrieve, under an indicator. These work great on all different bodies of water.
Brook trout love them on the retrieve. This is usually the favorite streamer that I throw on, especially on a sunny day. One of my fall favorites for sure.
Not just for stripers and smallmouth. Trout love them too.
These are something I've been fishing more of lately. If you're looking for big fish, especially early in the morning or late in the evening, these can be your ticket.
I'd be lying if I said streamer fishing is my favorite. Because it's not. I love to dry fly fish and nymph, but if I'm looking for the biggest fish then a streamer is almost always the best option. My best advice is that if you're fishing a spot where you suspect a big trout, put a streamer on for the first few casts. It's a great searching pattern, but it will sometimes land you a big fish. So, be ready!
Aaron Broaddus is a passionate fly fisherman and a Maine guide.