Understanding Streamer Flies and Trout
For the last several years streamer fishing has been going through a huge popularity boom. You don’t have to look further than all the hash tags on social media to realize just how deep the streamer fly has embedded itself into our newest generation of fly anglers.
The current fervor is easy to understand. Streamers always catch big trout. Tying streamers flies is also one of the areas where anglers can express themselves at the tying vise. The last few years have spawned thousands of new patterns and with new innovative materials hitting the market each year the trend is sure to continue.
With the sheer number of patterns sold commercially it is overwhelming when an angler stands in front of a well-stocked streamer display in a fly shop or when browsing the web. Many times, anglers stock their box based on what catches their eye or because of a catchy name. Testimonials from professionals and locally hot patterns also land a lot of streamers into your fly box. The real-world issue however with flies is that they don’t come with directions. Wouldn’t it be nice is the fly designers told you the when, why and how to fish their creations? This is an issue that most of the fishing tackle word has figured out. You can’t buy a crank bait without the packaging telling you exactly what the lure does.
In the remainder of this article I will let you in on the types of streamers I use, their construction, the illusion they create and when and why to fish them.
For the last 25 years I have been a full-time fly-fishing guide. Although I guide in both fresh and saltwater and chase many species, most of my time has been guiding on the waters of the Upper Delaware River System specifically for trout. There is never a time when I don’t have a streamer rod rigged on my boat and it is rare day when I don’t have my clients throw streamer flies.
While guiding my clients I never take my eyes off the water. I watch how people strip flies, how patterns behave, where trout appear from, how they chase, eat or refuse. At this time, I am confident that I can get a bend in my clients rods most days and in about every river and weather condition.
How it started
For me streamer fishing has always been an obsession. It started in the mid 70’s out of necessity. As a young angler fooling the Upper Delaware Trout on the dry fly was an infrequent happening. Streamers on the other hand offered results at a far higher rate and thus prompted my never-ending desire to tinker with and design baitfish patterns.
The initial patterns that came off my vise were always big. Most of my early flies were inspired by Atlantic Salmon flies and these were the hooks I used. These big flies always got attention. Chases, slashes and blow ups were common, I also took some impressive fish. Overall however the catching was inconsistent and that was at a time when the Upper “D” received almost no pressure at all. It took a lot of years to figure out why my patterns killed at times but repelled fish at others.
These days I am certain that there are 2 situations that exist in the world of mature trout and understanding them is the key to solving the question of whether to feed them or challenge them.
Most of the time that anglers spend on the water will fall into the category of trying to feed them. This is the easiest condition to recognize but it has the most variables to figure out regarding fly pattern and presentation. When trying to feed trout, flies that are 5” or less will seal the deal most often.
The other situation is when the trout become displaced from their normal lies by rising water and must relocate their base of operation. The trout’s number one priority during high turbid water is protection from flow. For as long at the water remains high, their new location is key to their survival. For this reason, they become aggressive. They will defend the new lie for as long as they need it. This is the time to fish 5” to 10” baitfish imitations and challenge them for their temporary home.
This situation needs little explanation as far as the strategy and fly choice. Go big and clunky. These flies need to sink fast and push water.
As for tackle here's my method. Choose a seven or eight weight rod. You need a rod that can throw weight and not wear your arms out. I use floating lines in super high water simply because mending is the key to dropping vertically into the trout’s hiding spot. This is very difficult with sinking and sink tip lines which will swing the fly out of the target zone quickly. Identify the dead spots in the river. Fish the banks, coves, eddies, sweeper logs and boulders. If you have correctly identified the conditions the displaced trout will find your fly quickly and often.
This is the problem that you will be looking to solve most of the time you are on the water. You can successfully feed the streamer to trout in conditions that range from low clear water right up through the stages of rising water and turbidity until it reaches the point that forces them to move.
Finding daily success is an ever-changing process of matching your flies to the water conditions and pairing the fly with a retrieve that seals the deal.
Finding the Fish
I always start my day with a double rig. I don't fluctuate much on the rigging. I build a leader about the length of the rod. I normally use straight fluorocarbon for the entire leader, 25 or 20 pound test. I tie in a dropper about 18" from the end.
My normal searching rig consists of a 5" articulated streamer or string fly on the end of the leader. I normally fish a 3" fly as the teaser. This is my normal set up, but the leader is the only constant in my strategy for finding fish.
The flies are the deal sealer, and this is where the tinkering comes in. My flies are tools and they are used in very specific ways. It is important to have big and small streamers. I have streamers from 1" to 10" in my box for trout. Having single hook, articulated and string flies is a must.
Having flies tied with different materials is a must. Soft materials undulate and breathe in the water. Stiff materials cause flies to dart, keel, and tumble. Some of the newer synthetic materials fall somewhere in between the two.
From the fishing perspective the flies that dart, keel and tumble are more effective at signaling vulnerability and triggering the predator to prey response from the trout. Streamer flies that are constructed with the softer materials that undulate and breathe in the water require a higher level of skill and line control to sell the illusion of vulnerability.
The last factor to consider in fly choice is how water and light affects them. All flies will fall into 3 categories, solid, opaque and transparent. Each has its time and place. In my box I have Single hook, string and articulated style streamers tied with soft and stiff materials, and with examples of each in solid, opaque and translucent looks. When laid out in the above manner you can see that there is a pretty big range of fly types / tools to choose from.
Every day when I start my clients fishing, I start whittling down the number of fly type options until I dial in on what the fish are seeing in the prevailing conditions. Once dialed in on the correct fly type and presentation you can expect to see regular takes throughout the day.
Here are some tips for dialing in quickly
Match the water clarity. Solid colors are for heavily turbid waters. Transparent flies are for crystal clear water and bright sun. Opaque are for the in- between conditions.
Match size to the water levels. Low water = small flies, High water = larger flies but do not exceed 5” unless you know that fish have been displaced from their normal lies.
Below are some of my flies and the characteristics of their style and materials.
The darting, keeling, tumblers - These are the best choice for fast water and situations where the fish may only get a brief opportunity to take your fly.
Darting, Keeling / Solid Color- Flies in this category should be used when the water conditions are off color and the weather is overcast and or rainy. Darkness is also the time for solid colors.
When wet these flies do not allow light to pass through their bodies.
Darting, Keeling / Opaque – Flies in this category are for the varying shades of turbidity but when the sun is out. These flies may also have a place on very bright nights in clear water.
When wet these flies will allow some light to pass through their bodies.
Darting, Keeling / Translucent - Flies in this category are for when the water is clear, and the sun is out.
When wet these flies have totally transparent bodies.
The Undulators – These flies are best for slower pools and situations where the trout will have time to look the fly over. These also allow the angler a wide range of options for imparting motion through line control. These are best used in slower pools, eddies and for creeping along the bottom.
Undulating / Solid Color- Flies in this category should be used when the water conditions are off color and the weather is overcast and or rainy. Darkness is also the time for solid colors. When wet these flies do not allow light to pass through their bodies.
Undulating / Opaque- Flies in this category are for the varying shades of turbidity but when the sun is out. These flies may also have a place on very bright nights in clear water. When wet these flies will allow some light to pass through their bodies.
Undulating / Translucent- Flies in this category are for when the water is clear, and the sun is out. When wet these flies have totally transparent bodies.
There are almost as many different choices for how to present the fly.
For early season and high water, the following has proven to be most effective for me over 45 years of chasing trout with the fly rod.
Extremely sharp strips followed by long pauses. The strips vary from 4" to 5" to several feet in a single strip. Your stripping should never have a steady rhythm, they should be random and unpredictable. An example would be (strip- strip-pause, strip- pause- strip, etc.) Pauses should be varied and never of the same duration. In early season the pause is what normally seals the deal.
As the season progresses so will the method for how the trout want you to feed them. The key to feeding them regularly normally lies somewhere in the stripping combinations listed above. There are however times where normal methods get you no attention. The summer days with low, clear water will always be your most challenging conditions to connect. On these days there are 3 more stripping techniques that I teach my clients. One of these usually provokes the result we are looking for.
The first is to fish hyper fast. As soon as the fly lands strip like crazy and don’t stop until you are almost to the rod. You will know quickly if this is what they want.
The second is the complete opposite. Long casts followed by sharp strips that are only a couple of inches long. These should be paused just long enough for the fly to tumble and drop a bit. The pause should not be long enough to allow the fly line to tighten and enter a steady swing. (You want to maintain control not the current).
The last requires the most finesse but it is a deadly method when trout are laid up and not quite interested in eating. I use this in the long deep pools and eddies. It starts with an across stream cast followed by several sharp erratic strips. At that time, I feed out twice as much line as stripped in and repeat. I will only retrieve the fly for another cast after the fly has traveled the entire length of the pool or covered the sweet spot that where I expect the trout to hold. This method often works when nothing else will. I believe that this method works simply because the fly stays in the water and in the fish’s sight. When they realize that it’s not leaving, they move over slowly for the eat. I also use this method regularly in the saltwater for fishing deep cuts and inlets.
Examples of success with these techniques play out every year with my clients. We take plenty of fish every month of the season and from every water condition. Last season one of the best streamer fish taken on my boat was this 25" Delaware River Brown that ate a totally translucent, single hook, keeling style fly at mid-day in full sun.
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