Big fish eat little fish. That’s why we fish streamers – flies designed specifically to imitate baitfish.
The “fly” in fly-fishing is aquatic insects, and that’s what most flies are designed to resemble, especially trout flies. There’s a good reason for that: underwater bugs make up a large part of the average trout’s diet.
But it’s widely agreed that once trout achieve “lunker” status, they don’t bother eating bugs most of the time. There simply aren’t enough calories in mayflies or caddis flies to make it worth the trouble to seek them out.
So big trout look for bigger things to eat. This can include crayfish, mice and, most of all, other fish (including trout).
Freshwater bass will also eat insects, but they’re opportunistic feeders too and will go for a bigger meal when it’s available. Big predators like northern pike are almost always fished for with streamers. In saltwater fishing, while flies that imitate shrimp, crabs and even marine worms are important, streamers are the most commonly used category of fly.
Streamer Fishing Comes of Age
Throughout the 20th century, most fly-fishing involved casting relatively small flies to trout, hoping the trout would mistake the artificial fly for the natural insects they were feeding on. Fishing with a streamer was Plan B, something to try if the insect flies weren’t working.
But in recent years, fishing for trout with streamers has surged in popularity. The 2004 book “Modern Streamers for Trophy Trout” by Kelly Galloup and Bob Linsenman launched a whole new school of streamer fly design and inspired many anglers to make streamers Plan A in their quest to catch bigger-than-average trout.
Another reason that streamer fishing is growing in popularity is that more fly-fishers are interested in species beyond trout, such as bass, northern pike, musky and carp. Saltwater fishing, meanwhile, is going strong on the east, west and Gulf coasts. Streamers are important in all these fisheries.
Down Deep for Big Fish
Insect-style dry flies and nymphs are designed to drift naturally in the current. Streamers, on the other hand, are meant to swim through the water.
Streamers are generally used in deeper water. Some are tied with additional weight, like a metal bead, cone or “dumbbell” eyes, to help them sink down deep where the big fish prowl. But you can also get streamers deep by using a sinking or sink-tip line and a short leader.
(Why a short leader? If the fly is buoyant, a long leader would allow it to drift several feet above the streambed, even though the sinking line itself is down close to the bottom. A four-foot leader is long enough for streamer fishing.)
Even lightly weighted or unweighted streamers can be fished low in the water column by casting well upstream of the water you want to fish, so the fly has time to sink as it drifts downstream to the target water.
A good strategy is to start fishing at the head of a pool, where faster water begins to slow and deepen. Cast into the faster water upstream of the pool and let the current wash it down into the deeper water, then begin your retrieve. Work your way down the pool, paying special attention to any seams between currents and slow water – these are places fish typically hold.
Fish the pools thoroughly, but don’t ignore “pocket water” sections of streams, where rocks and boulders obstruct the flow and create lots of small currents and eddies – they have lots of places for big trout to lurk while waiting for vulnerable prey.
Sometimes trout are excited by streamers that dart and swim quickly through the water, like panicked baitfish fleeing predators. Other times, especially in cold water, a slow retrieve works better. The only way to know is to try both and see which works better. A varied, erratic retrieve is often the best approach.
Patterns and Tackle
Streamers tend to be large flies, and casting them is easier with bigger rods. A 6-weight or even a 7-weight is not too big for trout fishing with a heavy streamer. The 5-weight rod so commonly used in trout fishing will get the job done, but casting heavy or bulky streamer flies with anything smaller is difficult.
And remember, streamer flies often catch the biggest trout, so it makes sense to use them with a rod that has plenty of backbone.
Which streamers to try? Dozens, if not hundreds, of new patterns have been introduced by professionals and amateurs alike in recent years. But a few favorites, some modern, some classic, will form a basic assortment.
One thing to remember: steamer fishing – and especially streamer fishing for big trout – requires patience and persistence. With insect flies, it’s possible to catch quite a few fish in a short time. With streamers, you’ll make a lot of casts and go for long periods of time without a bite. But when a big trout does grab your fly, you’ll be glad you waited.