When you talk about streamer fishing, you need to start with professional bass fishing. In professional bass fishing, there are normally two types of bass fisherman. There are power fishermen and finesse fishermen. Kevin VanDam is one of the most famous bass fisherman of all time, and he’s a power fisherman. He beat everybody else by covering many times the water and finding more active fish. This is the key with streamer fishing; you’re trying to find the most receptive and active fish. We all want huge amounts of feeding fish, but a large concentration of fish that are fishable and feeding is found in a small percentage of your water. If you fish a location where the fish aren’t super aggressive and not heavily feeding, covering more water with streamers can allow you to locate the few fish that are active. Streamer fishing not only allows you to cover water and locate active fish but will also increase the average trout size. Streamer fishing is a unique tool just like dry fly fishing and nymph fishing, and if you understand the underlying concepts and basics of streamer fishing, you’ll be amazed how often you can use this tool as a regular part of your arsenal.
BASIC APPROACH TO STREAMER FISHING
Modern streamer fishing stems from guys crankbait fishing for big trout. Guys up in Michigan were watching crankbait fisherman pull 25-inch brown trout out of log jams with big Rapalas and understood that they needed to imitate crankbaits like the Rapala. So, they took a sinking line and something with a big bushy head on it and a thin body and stripped as fast as they could. It was erratic, and they started catching fish. So in this light, streamer fishing at its most basic is slapping a fly on the bank and ripping it back as fast as you can, using speed as a trigger. This still works, but streamer fishing has come a long way.
Streamer flies have gotten bigger and bigger and more articulated, and I still fish big flies, but on a basic level, I don’t enjoy throwing giant flies (over six inches) or basically flies that are heavy to cast. Anymore, I usually stick to streamers in the three to five inch range and light to cast, as long as you can get the fly to move in an erratic fashion. When you are covering ground and trying to find active fish, it’s a lot easier to take a lighter fly that moves well and that I can manipulate to begin with. You can, then, throw this fly into a lot of different places and get reactions from fish in order to understand what the fish want. Then if the fish tell me they might want a bigger fly through their reactions to the fly and their body language, I can upsize my fly. As far as going small (below 2.5 inches), I don’t like to throw small flies. You begin to lose how much erratic action you can get out of the fly, except for the movement of up and down. Remember, you need a fly that has the ability to move erratically, but you can only get most flies to move side to side about as much as the fly is long. Also, don’t forget that fish are machines. They are fuel-in-fuel-out. They will use a high amount of calories to chase a large prey item if the prey item is worth the fuel calories to chase. So, when you fish small flies, you don’t often get as many fish to chase, and this reaction is a huge part of every aspect of streamer fishing—getting fish to chase and react to triggers just like they did and do with crankbaits.
IDEAL AND NOT-SO-IDEAL TIMES FOR STREAMER FISHING
Streamer fishing is more about conditions and matching your presentation to the conditions than anything else. The ideal situation for streamer fishing is water that has low visibility: water that’s broken, water that’s slightly stained, low-pressure with cloudy days, and rainy days where the fish do not have the bright sun but may have a little rain to give them protection so that they feel like they can move out from their common resting locations. There are really only two times a year (or when these conditions are present) when I don’t like to streamer fish. The first is when the water is very low, usually in the late summer in the Midwest, but this can be different for much of the West. Low water causes a few difficulties. 1) Your approach has to be so much stealthier in low water that you can’t cover enough ground to find enough active fish to chase, and 2) your presentations in low, clear water have to be very precise. Not only do you have to be accurate with your cast, but you have to get the fly with the maximum amount of movement in a smaller strike zone because fish in low water general don’t want to move as much. This is because if they move very far out of their habitat, they’re moving into areas that are too dangerous because the water is too open or shallow. Also, you are trying to get them to react to a fly, but the fly is more difficult to manipulate in a way that will elicit a reaction. You have to move the fly properly in a smaller strike zone. This is why it is very difficult to get fish to consistently react to streamers in low water.
To add to this, it is really hard to move fast enough to cover all of the ground you need to because in low water, you always have a limit as to how fast you can fish. The faster you streamer fish, especially when you’re wading but really in any condition, the more noise you will make. The more noise you make, the farther away from you your presentation has to be in order to not spook fish. If you’re going very slowly, you can get within ten feet from the fish. If you’re going very quickly sometimes you’re spooking fish at 40 or 50 feet or even farther. You need to find that balance to where you can move at a reasonable speed but still make an effective presentation, given the size of the water. So in low, clear water in a small stream, you can’t present a streamer effectively because you spook the fish. When you move with any speed, you will spook the fish forty feet away from you, but you can only make a 35 foot presentation. In high water on the other hand, in a place like the upper Pere Marquette or the upper Mad River, even though the river might only be 35 feet wide, you can still make 15 foot presentations at fish in this high water because they’re comfortable and you can wade more aggressively. They don’t feel the need to have to hide like they do in low water. Also, in those low clear conditions, during the day, you might not move a single fish with a streamer, but at night if you go swing a large leech or a mouse in those same locations where you saw fish during the day, you’ll catch half the big fish in that location because they’re all feeding and feel more comfortable.
The only other time that I don’t like to fish streamers is around the spawn, specifically when the fish are actually spawning. Postspawn on the other hand is generally very effective for streamer fishing, and you have hungry fish coming off the beds. As long as they’ve had enough time to recover and you’re not yanking them right from behind a red, I have no problem with it. It’s not necessarily an ethical thing. When I streamer fish, I want to watch a fish react to prey and chase it down. I don’t want to watch some beat-up fish on the back of its nest, slowly turning its head and slipping three feet to mouth my streamer coming near its nest. Streamer fishing is popular around the spawn because people can see large fish in shallow areas. However, I don’t find it all that common when the fish are actively spawning for them to really chase across a riffle and eat. Prespawn can also be unbelievably good if flows are high. To be clear, streamer fishing can be good during the spawn but not where the fish are actively spawning. Other than these two general situations, you can have success with streamers on most days. Here are the most important retrieves you need.
THE THREE BASIC RETRIEVES OF STREAMER FISHING
There are plenty of streamer retrieves, but these are the three most common that I use for streamer fishing. The first retrieve that everybody should know is Kelly Galloup’s Jerk Strip. This is a high-speed, erratic retrieve. It’s a jerk with the rod and a strip with the line hand and then a jerk with the rod. What that does in a rapid succession is jerk, strip, jerk, strip, jerk strip. The fly darts forward and then has a moment of slack pause and then darts forward again. This gives the fly an erratic action and a lot of speed. Speed can be a very good trigger. You run away from a dog, and it’s preprogrammed to chase anything running away from it. Trout are just predators. They’ll react the same way as will most other species of fish. However, trout normally don’t react to Mach 5 retrieves, which are the double handed retrieves for striper and other saltwater fish species.
We normally fish this with “swimming flies”. Examples would be Schmidt’s Double Deceiver, Schmidt’s Red Rocket, Galloup’s Zoo Cougar (not articulated), Galloup’s Heifer Groomer/Articulated Fathead, and Lynch’s Drunk and Disorderly, which can also be fished more erratically. You’re looking for patterns that more or less swim side-to-side. That’s what you really want out of the Jerk Strip. It is almost a side-to-side wiggle as you move the fly along. For the rig, I almost always fish the Jerk Strip with 30 to 50 foot-headed integrated sink tip. It can also be a full sinking line. I match the grain weight of the line to a combination of the fly and depth I’m fishing. With a single Zoo Cougar, I will use a 200 gr. line and normally a 6 wt. because it’s a smaller pattern. This is a really good setup for learning the Jerk Strip and catching a lot of fish. With a really big Drunk and Disorderly, I will fish a 350 grain in certain instances and will at times even fish a 9 wt. (in extreme conditions). With all of the presentations here and below, I normally use some sort of sink tip fly line and strong tippet material.
The Jigging Retrieve is the second retrieve, and these retrieves are straight out of Galloup’s Modern Streamers for Trophy Trout. The Jigging Retrieve is a lift drop retrieve. The technique is a little harder to master, but you can catch both numbers and big fish on it. The Jigging Retrieve is one of my go-to retrieves in some specific situations. It’s great in cold water, in really high flows, and in really low flows. In all of those scenarios, the flows have the fish isolated in areas near the bank or where the fish aren’t likely to chase half way across the river. This can be because it’s too cold, too fast, or too shallow for them to do that. The Jigging Retrieve is a perfect way to pick apart isolated pockets of good habitat. The Jigging Retrieve is a much slower retrieve in terms of the fly traveling back to you when compared to the Jerk Strip. You need the fly to make the maximum amount of motion in the smallest amount of area, and I use the rod tip quite a bit. The issue with this is that you have to navigate current and all the other obstacles, jigging your fly around trees or in a small area, so I often break some of my own rules and get my rod tip fairly high and out in front of me. The rod tip is often so high that it looks like high stick nymphing. To do the movement, you snap the rod up and lower the fly, and often times, I will retrieve very little. I let the current sweep my fly along an undercut, and I simply jig the fly up and down over and over to elicit that strike. I actually do best when the fly is up in the mid-depths and not directly on the bottom. The hookset is a bit tricky, since your rod is already in the air. Set the hook in the opposite direction from which the fish ate the fly, or in other words, opposite of the fish’s mouth. When in doubt, sweep the rod low and downstream. If at all possible, your flies should have fine diameter hooks, since I know that I can’t get the hookset power out of the retrieve based off of my rod position.
Hands down my favorite fly for the Jigging Retrieve is the Bottoms Up, but I love the Meal Ticket and will use a Circus Peanut and sometimes even a Clouser. The rig is pretty straightforward. On rare occasion I will use a floating line, but in most cases, I use a ten foot sink-tip. RIO streamer tip type 6, Orvis streamer tip, and even a 5 foot tip are all great lines. You need a floating line behind the sink tip in order to do the Jigging Retrieve right. What this allows us to do is keep the floating portion up in the air and mend the back of the line out of the current. You can manipulate our line without moving the fly if necessary. You can also get the fly down very quickly if near the bank and can throw a short leader (30”-40”), which is more accurate. I like a strong, small-diameter tippet like RIO Fluoroflex Saltwater. A diameter of .013 tippet is my starting point for streamers, but it will depend on the size of the fly. A 6 to 7 wt. rod is usually perfect for the Jigging Retrieve.
SNAP AND PAUSE
The Snap and Pause is the third retrieve. It’s sort of a combination of the Jerk Strip and the Jigging Retrieve. I’ve found the Snap and Pause retrieve to be incredibly effective for pressured fish, lazy/well-fed fish such as the fish in shad tailwaters, early spring where baitfish get a little stunned, pocket water, undercut banks, and around boulders and obstacles in the river. To do the Snap and Pause, get the fly down a little bit, but not too much, and a key to the Snap and Pause is higher water velocity. The fly needs to be up over the fish’s head, and fish will come out of deep water for this retrieve. I’ve had fish come out of 10 to 12 feet of water to eat the fly with this retrieve though I normally target water much shallower. Cast out with the rod tip almost in the water and give the fly a big three to four foot hard snap by pulling the rod tip up. Then, bring your rod tip down, so that you have slack. That allows your fly to jolt forward two to four feet very quickly and erratically. Then, drift the fly at least a foot. With this and other retrieves, I will often fish the jerk strip back, since the fish will at times react to that. You can pick specific parts of the river to fish the Snap such as a boulder, and you can fish it around the boulder and then let it drift and then easily pick it up because the fly is unweighted. Keep in mind that this retrieve is typically most effective when targeting specific areas of structure, as opposed to covering ground.
On flies for this retrieve, I use flies that are almost exclusively single hooked patterns. The flies that I use are bucktails, Hollow Flies, Stacked Blondes, Zonkers, and Deceivers, basically unweighted flies that move well. For the rig, I use leaders around four feet tops. I usually start with .013 diameter tippet (as long as it is a strong material), as with all of my streamer fishing, and go up from there. With all of these presentations, if I am fishing flies over six inches with big fish, I will move to obscenely large tippet in a heartbeat (30 lb.). You can largely overcome this diameter with a loop knot, and you always want to use the heaviest diameter of tippet that will allow you to get the fly to behave how you want it. For fly lines, I do the Snap and Pause almost exclusively with a line similar to the Jigging Retrieve. An ideal rod would be a seven weight with a fairly fast tip in order to get that nice snap. These retrieves are a great start, and if you master these, you should catch plenty of fish.
STREAMER FISHING AND THE BASIC TRIGGER
Remember that with streamer fishing you’re trying to elicit a predatory response out of a fish. The fish is simply a predator. It’s not a brown trout, rainbow trout, or a bass. It’s a predator. It’s no different from a cat, dog, or a bird in this respect. They’re all predators and all react to prey acting erratically. If you ever watch a big cat on TV chasing a gazelle, they always seem to wait to charge until the prey twitches. You have to have some trigger to get the predator to react to the prey in streamer fishing. There are times when trout are just feeding, but most of the time they spend resting. You’re trying to biohack a trout and force it to react to its prey even though it’s not feeding. In order to elicit the predatory response, you use the right erratic retrieve, in the right place, and during the right conditions. If a baitfish is dying, it will often spurt forward erratically, roll, lay on its side, slowly sink and twitch, slowly swim forward, dart out in another direction, then slowly swim down to the bottom. If a baitfish gets swept out in the current three or four feet, it will regain control and then dart back into its safety water. Each one of those erratic moments gives the predator an opportunity to overtake that fish with the least amount of effort. These prey fish can normally not outswim a big predator trout, but they can outmaneuver it at times. So, right after that snap on the pause is the easiest time for that trout to take that fish. That predatory response is what you are playing with when you fish streamers. In the end, you may never have a weigh-in like Kevin VanDam, but if you learn to approach streamer fishing like he approaches bass fishing, you’re going to have as much confidence in streamers as you do in dries and nymphs.