Hunting The Hunter

I firmly believe that there is no single “right way” to fly fish.  I’ll happily crawl through a thicket of Russian Olives to position myself for a shot at sight-fishing a large trout.  I’ll joyfully cycle through dozens of dry flies on a technical river in an attempt fool a couple of rising fish.  Hell, even the dopamine rush I get from a “bobber down” during a fast day of nymphing can be almost as enjoyable as anything.  But for me, nothing equates to the feeling of streamer fishing: an activity when I get to hunt the hunter.

Fishing a streamer, particularly from a drift boat or raft, is truly a form of art.  The river is the canvas, and the angler gets to paint the stream as desired with the way the rod is wielded.  In a boat, the angler often enjoys only one or two chances to get it right as the boat speeds by likely spots.  Fishing a streamer well is truly a cerebral activity, as innumerable snap-decisions identify casting locations and form retrieval techniques.  Nothing puts me in to a “flow state” like a good day of steamer fishing, as I can focus entirely on painting the river canvas to my specifications.

The most successful streamer techniques will obviously vary from stream to stream and species to species.  However, I think some principles overlap significantly between different scenarios.  Below, I’ll share some of the knowledge I’ve acquired during years of fishing streamers for trout in my home waters of Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming.

What equipment do I need?

Streamer fishing involves more casting than any other type of fly fishing, so gear selections should be made with that fact in mind.  Anything that can reduce the amount of effort required to cast all day long should be at the forefront of the angler’s considerations.  A fast action rod is imperative to shoulder the heavy lines and flies through long days of casting.  When choosing the caliber of rod for the day, I often think of the biggest fish I could feasibly catch… and lets be honest, streamer junkies aren’t looking for a 12 incher.  Therefore, I do most of my streamer fishing with my Scott Sector 7-weight, or even my Scott Meridian 8-weight.  Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight, folks.

The second most important piece of gear for streamer fishing is the fly line.  Three characteristics will help the angler reach the denizens of darkest, deepest corners of the rivers.  A heavy sink tip is essential, as it allows access to all depths of the water column.  I look for a line with a weight-forward design, which allows me to effortlessly toss fairly long casts all day long.  Finally, the line needs to be low-stretch, so a good strip set can bury the hook deep in to the corner of the fish’s mouth, as all the kinetic energy is transferred directly to the fly.

For the last few years, I have been fishing the Airflo Streamer Max fly line in either the “Long” or “Short” version, as it ticks all three of those boxes.  Additionally, the running line on the Streamer Max is floating line, which makes the line easier to fish if I’m walking and wading.  Airflo is currently being purchased by a new parent company, and it seems these lines are somewhat difficult to find right now.  Hopefully the supply chain is reconstituted soon, but don’t hesitate to call the guys at Fishwest if a Streamer Max in the right size proves to be elusive.  They are streamer junkies like me, and they will have multiple similar options available.

I tie a perfection loop at the end of the Streamer Max, and a foot or less of 25 lb fluorocarbon to form a butt section.  To this, I tie a stout tippet ring and then a few feet of the 15-20 lb fluorocarbon, which then attaches directly to the fly.  This is a set-up that will break off very few trout, no matter how hard they pull.  Therefore, I think the reel is the least important piece of equipment for streamer fishing (at least for trout).  When I catch a fish on this set-up, I don’t often put the fish on the reel, which subsequently serves simply as a line holder.  It would take a fairly extraordinary salmonid to break off this set-up, and I do my best to make the fight short and brutal.  Having caught trout, char, and salmon beyond 15 pounds with this set-up and technique, I can recall very few instances where I was broken off.  I like to use the Ross Animas reel, or a reel from the Lamson Lightspeed series.  These are relatively inexpensive, durable reels, that can hold their own with the rare fish that makes it to my reel.  They have low start-up inertia, which in my opinion is the most important part of a good reel.

What fly should I use?

The simple answer is, “whatever looks like the common prey in the body of water being fished.”  Patterns that mimic crayfish, minnows, sculpins, and leeches will all produce.  That said, some patterns just work better than others.  After years of fishing all sorts of different streamers in my neck of the woods, I now use two simple patterns about 75% of the time.

The first pattern is the Rusty Trombone.  Once you’re done laughing about the name, start taking this little articulated streamer seriously.  Essentially tied with olive marabou, olive polar chenille, and a bronze or gold cone head, this streamer gets the job done.  Whether it’s imitating a crayfish, a baby brown trout, or a sculpin, the trout of the Intermountain West simply love this pattern.  However, fish from Alaska, New Zealand, Iceland, and all the way to Patagonia have proven to me that this pattern simply works just about everywhere.

The other pattern is the Goldie.  This fly is essentially the same pattern as the Rusty Trombone but tied with white and gold colors instead.  I do best with this pattern in the spring and fall, particularly during stable weather patterns when the skies are bright and sunny.

I use a variety of other streamers from time to time.  If I’m looking for some extra depth, I’ll use a heavy pattern such as a Sculpzilla, a Sex Dungeon, or a Peanut Envy.  Locations with small baitfish frequently fish well with a Baby Fat Minnow, Lil’ Kim, or Platte River Spider.  Every once in a while, I tie on big pattern like a Drunk & Disorderly or a Gamechanger, but honestly, in my area these don’t seem quite as effective as a medium-sized streamers such as the Rusty Trombone or Goldie.  I have all colors of streamers in my boxes, but olive, white, and black color schemes seem to be the most effective.  Occasionally, I favor patterns with ginger/brown or purple motifs.

What water should I fish?

The answer to this question varies from month to month, and sometimes even day to day.  There are no reliable rules, and during many days I’ll start off fishing all types of water until I figure out where the streamer-eaters are holding.  Some days, streamer-eating fish are caught from only certain types of water, while fish eating nymphs or dries will be spread out elsewhere.

Springtime is perhaps my favorite time of year to fish streamers. In my area, the large brown trout are still in their pugnacious post-spawn phase, and the water is warming slightly, making them a bit more active.  I find fish mostly in water that is walking-speed or slower during this time of year.  Look in front of and behind boulders, where cushions of water can hold resting fish that are still slightly lethargic from the winter’s cold.

Summer is perhaps the most underrated time to tie on a streamer.  Some of the best streamer fishing I’ve experienced occurred just before, during, or after a summertime hatch.  Many fish will eat streamers in the same water where they’ll be found during the hatch: well-oxygenated riffles.  When a good hatch has the fish on the chew, a well-presented streamer may be the best way to catch the bigger trout.  This proved true while I was fishing the Henry’s Fork one evening last June.  After tiring of catching 14” rainbows that were sipping PMD spinners, I tied on a Rusty Trombone.  Several casts later, I was bringing a 20” brown to hand.  Summer is also the time of year when I do best pulling fish from undercut or rocky banks, and from shoreline structure like root balls and strainers.  Trout in rivers with salmonflies and grey drakes will be waiting for these insects to crawl out of the river at the bank.  Additionally, more fish will be waiting for hoppers, cicadas, and caddis to fall off shoreline foliage in to the margins of the rivers.  The flows are generally high early in summer, making the flooded habitat against the bank an optimal place for a predator to stalk its prey.  Often, the best way to catch these shoreline summertime fish is with a well-presented streamer.  I call streamer fishing this time of year “bank robbin’” and it’s one of my favorite things to do!

Generally, fall is known as the best time for streamers in my area, and for good reason.  Big brown trout become ornery during their pre-spawn phase, and trout of all varieties are looking to pack on some calories to prepare for the impending winter.  In my experience, trout will generally move from their summertime lairs to slower holding water when average water temperatures reach about 50-53 degrees Fahrenheit.  Look for large pools, soft inside edges, and back eddies.  Brown trout will often stage in deep runs and pools adjacent to the gravel where they will spawn several weeks later.  If you’re familiar with places that hold brown trout redds, fish the nearby deep pools before spawning commences.  This is a much better option for targeting these fish opposed to the redd raping/stomping that sadly commences soon thereafter.

I find that fish will eat streamers all winter long.  I’ve experienced great streamer fishing at air temperatures as low as -10 degrees Fahrenheit.  During the coldest temperatures, the fish are understandably sluggish, but they still need to eat!  A very slow strip, or even dead drifting a streamer will often produce the best results under these conditions.

Miscellaneous thoughts about streamer fishing

  • Learn the Non-Slip Loop Knot (also known as the Kreh Loop). This knot is stronger than the regular Clinch Knot, and the loop component provides a little extra action to the streamer.
  • Unlike nymphing, don’t make the same cast repeatedly. Cover lots of water!  Usually, a streamer-eating fish will let their attentions be known during the first cast or two in a given location.
  • Vary the retrieve if a certain method of stripping proves ineffective. Retrieve fast, slow, erratically, consistently, with a pop of the rod, swinging, etc.  The best streamer fishermen are always experimenting with their retrieve.
  • Under most circumstances, make sure the streamer is visible before making the next cast. When I forget to do this, I often rip the streamer from the grasp of a fish just as it decides to eat.  Nothing is more frustrating than feeling the bump of a pursuing fish as I yank the streamer from the water to make the next cast.
  • The importance of the strip set cannot be over-emphasized. I often strip set multiple times until a stalemate with the fish is reached before gently raising the rod tip.  The natural desire to “trout set” runs strong in most of us freshwater fishermen, but it’s important to consider that we really can’t overdo it with the strip set.
  • Finally, every once in a while it seems the fish lack the appetite and energy for chasing streamers. In that case, tie on a bobber and some nymphs!  It is better to feel a bend in the rod than to beat your head against a brick wall.  Remember, there is no wrong way to fly fish (unless the way is stomping around spawning brown trout redds)!