When I first started fly fishing, streamer fishing was always mentioned to me in a slightly negative tone.
Something that was done when the water was high and shitty and there was nothing else to do, so you brought out the 7wt, the sink tip, and started chucking hoping that something would tug back. To a degree this is the idea but the skill and thrill of the process was often lost in the description I was given. Another big misconception is that streamer fishing replaces dry fly fishing. It doesn’t. It replaces nymph fishing. Rising fish are rising fish, and when you see them you usually get happy about it and try to catch a few. But when the fish aren’t rising the method, over time, becomes the streamer, because you don’t care about hooking 10, you care about getting one fish that you wont forget. That becomes the obsession. And even if you don’t get one, it sure as hell was fun making the perfect cast to that log as you drifted by, and for a second, you thought that your fly was right in front of a monster brown’s face.
When it comes to the life cycle of the streamer focused angler, most have experienced a similar progression. Give or take that is: the Mickey finn to the always classic woolly bugger – to the unique but entirely the same conehead woolly – to the zonker – to the big size 2 zonker – to the tandem big size 2 zonkers – to the sex dungeon – to the tandem god knows what size double sex dungeon rig on 20lb Maxima. Many can admit however that this progression was not always purely motivated by success, and that with the recent surge in popularity in streamer fishing, came a culture of big flies and the peer pressure to use them if you were a serious streamer fisherman. To offer a different perspective, here are some things you may want to consider as trout season nears and spring runoff presents the first legitimate streamer opportunities of the year.
It’s no secret that cold water temps make trout inactive and you need to bump them on the nose to draw a strike. Every river is different in terms of that magic temp that gets the fish “chasing”, and that’s up to the angler to know, but there is always a period where the fish are sluggish early spring. During these times I urge you to try a floating line, and a longer leader. This enables you to work the fly as necessary to draw strikes and to let it sit in the zone with only minor twitches if need be. This is not as easily done with a sinking line. In using a longer leader, you can still get the fly “down in the zone”, and using a straight piece of 10-15lb mono will allow you to have a thin diameter on your tippet to slice through the current with your leader. Heavy current = tie on a heavier fly. This really helps in getting the fly to the fish and enticing them to take, rather than stripping fairly quickly with a sink tip line fearing you will get caught up if you let it sit for too long. Switch to the sink tip once your river hits that magic temp and the fish will come for the fly. Then you want a line that will get the fly in the fish’s zone quickly, and to start moving it quickly to get the fish on the move after it without too much time to inspect.
My first instinct is always to go with the big stuff but over time I’ve become better at recognizing when it’s not the time for the flies that don’t produce results. Changing often is a good thing. Put the big flies out there in your key colors and go through the 3-4 fly rotation in 30 minutes to an hour. If you aren’t moving fish it’s fair to say it’s not the color and it may be the size. Never write off the smaller classics. A woolly bugger or a small zonker, or whatever niche pattern u have in a size 4-10 will work well in cold water. A slow strip with these patterns down deep is an easy meal for the fish and they don’t have to COMMITT so strongly. With a big fly that fish has to really want it and in cold temps a fish doesn’t really want anything. In my experience, the concept that a big fish needs to really want a fly to be enticed out just doesn’t apply in cold water. A small, weighted streamer gets in the zone quickly and the fish will snatch it when it’s in the zone.
In a small to mid-sized river the dominant bank is always dominant. Fish are predictable in small water and you fish where it looks like they would hold. In larger rivers though, off bank is king in cold water early season situations. If you are lucky enough to be in a boat give this a shot. Try the dominant bank first since its impossible not to. When u make 2000 perfect casts in a row with no hit switch to the shallow, less descript bank. Even if it looks like garbage. I promise you will pick up fish there early season. The deep, juicy spots on the dominant bank sometimes just don’t work early season. The fish are happy down there and they aren’t coming out for any reason. A fish will come out in “B” water when a meal presents itself because it’s not a lie that’s overly hard to leave. The fish will eat. Do not get ‘roided out and start ripping flies off the banks. It feels good, but does no good. Try it just like u tried that dominant bank but after it doesn’t work, recognize it before you pull into the boat ramp and start ripping beers. It may be the difference between writing off an early season day and feeling good about the fact you “figured it out” and made the adjustments necessary to catch some fish at a time that others weren’t.
In bringing these points together, the main takeaway is that a successful streamer fisherman is a master at the process of elimination. The factors that can impact your success include, but are not limited to, fly selection, water type that you are fishing, presentation, and of course – the one you have zero control over, the weather. In focusing on what you can control, it’s important to play the odds and make changes as you narrow down what you believe is the reason you are not getting strikes on a given day. Early season the water type is not a mystery, since we know where the fish are – the slow stuff. The challenge is then, by process of elimination, finding the fly the fish want and presenting it properly. Early season that means smaller patterns in a slow to almost not even moving strip pattern. Of course that’s after you’ve put in the obligatory 15 minutes of ‘roided out casting to the bank with 2 Sex Dungeons and stripped them back to you in 3 foot strip lengths per second. As any streamer fisherman knows, the streamer world is a counter culture. We don’t listen, we try things that “wont work”, and when they do work it’s totally worth it.
By John Clark