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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.

Feeding Them

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.