I’ve mentioned this before, but I grew up in a family that believed only in dry fly fishing. If you didn’t catch a trout on a dry fly (from moving water, too – lakes didn’t count) then why did you bother going fishing in the first place?
Thankfully, I’ve since expanded my horizons, and while my dad and grandfather both still use only dries, I show up with boxes full of streamers and nymphs.
Streamers are, without question, my second-favorite way to catch fish. Dries will always be number one, but streamers are a very close second. The thrill of watching fish fly out of cover to absolutely wreck a streamer is hard to beat. Often, we associate violent takes with more exotic species – like dorado, or tarpon – but an 18-inch trout that wants a streamer can pack a surprisingly fun punch.
If you’ve never fished streamers before, though, getting started feels like learning to fly fish all over again. The rules we’ve learned of drag-free drifts and subtle presentations go out the window.
In reality, streamer fishing isn’t that difficult. It’s easier than dry fly fishing, because you don’t have to worry about punching a dime-sized fly into a quarter-sized pocket of water.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at what you need to know to get started fishing streamers.
Depth is Key
I spend a lot of time fishing the Green River below Flaming Gorge, in Utah. It’s a wonderful fishery, and it’s where I learned how to fish streamers. I remember one day, years ago, when my buddy Ryan Kelly and I were fishing. He’d caught four or five fish in a row, and I hadn’t even moved a fish.
We were using the same fly, casting to the same type of water, in a stretch of river that houses 12,000 fish per mile.
The difference? Ryan had a sink-tip fly line, and I didn’t.
Unless you’re fishing very shallow water, it’s a good rule of thumb to get your streamers down deep. You don’t necessarily want them snagging grass and rocks on every cast, but you do want them closer to the structure along the river bottom where trout are most likely to hold. The Scientific Anglers Sonar Titan Sink Tip line is a good example of the kinds of line I use for streamer fishing.
If you tie your own flies, you can help your cause by using tungsten beads and plenty of lead around the shank of the hook. If not, make sure you’re buying streamers that are plenty heavy. Bugs with lots of marabou, rabbit, or other types of fur sink very well. Flies made from spun hair don’t tend to sink as well without extra weight.
Learn the Retrieve
One of the first things I learned from my buddy Ryan was the proper speed for a retrieve. Before this, I was always throwing casts and pulling line in as quickly as possible. My streamers flew through the water, likely scaring more fish than piquing their interest.
Ryan’s retrieves are slow, methodical, and varied. Because we usually fish from a drift boat, he taught me to use the speed of the current to my advantage by casting parallel with the boat. Then, as the current carried us down, it would pull the line along at the boat’s speed, and I could slowly jerk and bounce my streamer along with us.
It felt counter-intuitive to slow my retrieve down so much, but once I did, I started catching fish. And if you think about it, slowing down makes sense. You have to give trout the opportunity to see, stalk, and eat your streamer.
When wading and fishing streamers, I like to cast upstream at about a 45-degree angle, let the line belly a bit below me, then start stripping in at just slightly slower than the speed of the current. I’ll finish the cast out by letting my fly swing on the line that bellied at the beginning of the cast. On an average river here in the Rockies, it takes about 15-20 seconds to really fish a streamer well through any given run.
Patterns Don’t Really Matter
I’ve caught fish on the most ridiculous of streamers, including a triple-jointed, 6-inch monstrosity I came up with during a bout of insomnia. Which streamer you use doesn’t really matter, so long as you present it well.
What I’ve found does matter, though, is color. The old adage of fishing bright flies on bright days, and dull flies on dull days, doesn’t always hold up. But on some rivers, my trusty brown and black leech patterns just plain don’t work as well as olive or purple.
This is something you’ll have to learn on your own as you throw streamers in your local rivers. Take note not of the pattern you were using, but the pattern’s colors. Then, you can conceivably throw any pattern with those colors and catch fish. This tactic has proven very successful for me up to this point.
Streamers are one of the most enjoyable ways to catch fish. I love that they work anywhere, at anytime, for a variety of species. If you’ve never fished streamers before, this spring is a great time to give it a try.
Words by Spencer Durrant
Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer, outdoors columnist, and novelist from Utah. He’s the News Editor for MidCurrent, and a regular contributor to Hatch Magazine. Connect with him on Twitter/Instagram, @Spencer_Durrant.