Is a big, articulated streamer with marabou, flashabou, rubber legs, polar chenille, rabbit strip, hen hackle and a lazer dub collar actually moving too much? Are there too many elements in motion for a trout to reject? And might we do better with streamers that incorporate less motion?
Likewise, are we moving our streamers through the water too much? Are we stripping, jigging, twitching and pulling so fast and so often that we’re turning off more fish than we attract?
I have far more questions than answers about the streamer game. It’s hard to form conclusions without consistent feedback — and streamer fishing is hardly consistent. I think there are a lot of questions left to be answered, so I keep asking them. And while I have some strong thoughts on streamers, my theories come with lots of maybe’s and I-don’t-know’s. Even the best streamer junkies start talking that way after a couple beers. But the unanswerable questions are also what make the game intriguing.
Materials in Motion
I believe trout are looking for reasons not to take a fly — they move to investigate, then look for any element identifying our fly as a fake. Bigger flies have a lot more for trout to reject. Likewise, a streamer with a dozen different materials has seven more elements for a trout to dismiss than a pattern with five. That’s just my way of looking at it. Don’t add anything to a fly that isn’t necessary. Don’t add anything that you aren’t certain improves it.
Many streamers are built from head to tail with materials that breath, wiggle and flow, even at rest and even in slow water. But with so much motion, do they start to look less like the baitfish they should imitate? A sculpin flares its gills, wiggles its fins and kicks its tail. When swimming fast (e.g., fleeing, trying to escape) they put out a lot of motion, so maybe the heavily-dressed streamer is a good look for that. But what about the dawdling sculpin or one at rest?
The majority of their lives, sculpins and other baitfish move slowly. They generally aren’t darting around unless provoked by danger. Even a dying sculpin doesn’t move much between its short fits of erratic twitching. But the heavily-dressed streamer never stops moving, pulsing and wiggling. Even in a gentle current, those materials expand, breath and wiggle — maybe too much to imitate a resting and slow-moving baitfish. Maybe big, overdressed streamers full of lively materials aren’t always the best look.
I think it primarily depends on how and where you present the streamer — so let’s get to that.
Predator or Opportunist?
All trout are opportunists. Only the largest ones are predators. But even those large ones are still opportunists.
Old-school streamer philosophy was about showing the trout something good and easy to eat: a hapless, unlucky baitfish is in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the opportunistic trout strikes. Then along came the modern streamer code with an idea to elicit the predatory instinct in a trout — to piss him off and make him defend his territory. We started imitating fleeing baitfish with jerk strips. And to keep the trout’s interest in such a fast moving target, the size of the flies got bigger.
Galloup and Linsenman’s excellent book, Modern Streamers for Trophy Trout changed the way most fishermen approach streamer fishing these days. Modern Streamers is about looking for predators — about big fish and big flies. It’s a fast game with chasing fish. Until Modern Streamers, most of the literature I read on streamer fishing was more about bringing the fly to the trout. Instead of asking trout to chase the streamer, it was about giving them an easy opportunity to eat a bunch of calories. The retrieves were usually slower and more … natural or common.
After decades and phases of experimenting, I keep coming back to the streamer-as-easily-available-food camp. I like hunting for opportunistic trout and bringing the fly to them. I catch more fish that way, and some of them are pretty big.
But I do it the other way too — a lot — because it’s fun. Fishing for predators with big flies and fast retrieves is more visual and more exciting. It covers water quicker, and it moves more fish to the fly. It’s also a hell of good time from a boat!
I’m not arguing that one way is better than the other. No. I’m suggesting that the easily-available-food tactic is too often overlooked. It has somehow become an old-school method. But old-school is cool.
The first fly fishing book I owned was Trout Tactics by Joe Humphreys. And the way I fished minnows as a kid lined up perfectly with Humphreys’ philosophy on streamers. It’s a mostly upstream, mostly low and natural presentation, often with a dying or injured baitfish look.
Too much stripping. Too fast.
Trout Tactics is a book that I go back to over and over and still learn from. Humphreys has about five different way of presenting streamers in there, and none of them are based on getting a trout to chase a fleeing baitfish. Humphreys writes:
“The speed of the drift is important: most streamer fishermen have a tendency to overemphasize streamer action. A twitch, lift or pull can move the fly too fast, so that it travels too far off the bottom. SLOW DOWN! ….. I’ve watched hundreds of fishermen work sculpin imitations, and most of these anglers fish them like frightened bait — stripping line in like hell and moving the flies erratically across the currents, not WITH the currents and on the bottom.”
Later, Humphreys writes:
“Stream minnows such as redfins and sculpins don’t streak around. Sure, a small sucker under attack may dart or dash for safety, and any minnow may dash for safety; but by and large there isn’t much chasing going on down there.”
That last quote has always stuck with me.
What materials then, Jim?
Ultimately it comes down to how you want to present the streamer. If you are jerk stripping or using another fast-fly tactic, then maybe incorporating a lot of moving elements in the fly works well, because fleeing fish move a lot. Fins, gills and tails are churning, trying to save a life and escape a predator. Building a lot of motion into the fly, therefore, might be a good plan.
But if you use a more natural presentation — one of available food, one with slower retrieves, upstream drifts and lazy strips — then maybe fewer materials in motion is a better imitation. If you’d rather imitate a dying, injured and vulnerable baitfish than imitate a fleeing one, then a pattern with less built-in motion may be the best bet.
The push to create more motion in streamers is probably best for the fleeing baitfish approach. And in those big articulated flies, using marabou, flashabou, rubber legs, polar chenille, rabbit strip, schlappen, etc. to create a churning, breathing and swirling fly can work wonders.
For the streamers-as-easily-available-food approach, I think including only a few elements of motion is more effective. The venerable Wooly Bugger has two: marabou and hackle. My favorite sculpin has just one: a rabbit strip tail that attaches at mid shank and flows over a dubbed body.
I’m still a fan of Ed Shenk’s White Minnow. I dub the bodies with rabbit fur. And to me, there’s no better tail action than a nice clump of blood quill marabou. Sometimes that seductive motion alone is more than enough.
No doubt, the extreme motion of an overdressed streamer is a specific attraction that catches fish. And fast, fleeing fish presentations work. But simple and subtle can be just as attractive at the right time.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N
This is my favorite post yet. I have been trying to focus on streamer fishing heavily the last few years. There are only a few things I’ve learned for certain. When you cast a big streamer a big fish is likely to strike with in the first 3 seconds of the drift. I think it depends on whether or not the fly landed in association to the fishes position. If it lands right on top of the fish you might get a strike shortly after the fly hits the water. If it lands in front of the fish you might get a strike just as you’re going to twitch the fly or after the first twitch. The main thing is being READY is super important. Have all your slack line taken up immediately as the fly hits the water. Any slack at all will have the fish hitting and spitting your fly before you can react. You MUST have a direct connection to your fly with line control to be consistently successful.
Good points, man.
I think simple is better. I think we out-coach ourselves sometimes and make things more complicated than they need to be. And, when fish aren’t chasing streamers they’re not chasing streamers, so I don’t waste my time.
Domenick, what are your “Go To” favorite streamers?
It definitely depends on how I’m fishing them. For the modern streamer style, I like Dungeons and Headbangers. For the old-school style I like the Bunny Bullet, simple Buggers and Motto’s Minnow.
I don’t get real complicated with my streamer selection.
What about you, Bruce? What streamers do you carry?
Hi Domenick, I carry mostly Clousers and buggers. I tie my buggers in size 8 and do best with black and olive. I had a great day on The Little Juniata this fall after a rare, decent rain event. It was one of those few days when I couldn’t keep fish from eating my black bugger. The next day they wouldn’t cooperate with the buggers. Go figure!
Some strong points here I’d agree with. There’s a crapload of flies over dressed and underfished before being Instagrammed _ do you really want to cast all that stuff wet all day? Ripping the fly back too is a small part of the game.
But while streamer fishing covers a wide swathe of fly styles retrieve rates, target species and presentations, we fly fishers tend to get locked into the narrow world we fish, ie the tactics we use on our own rivers become the only thing that is right.
Now to flesh out your arguments a little I’d suggest that the issues you are raising hinge on a few factors, what are the prey species, their behavior & movement and the conditions you are fishing.
A sculpin moves very differently to a creek minnow to a trout fry to 9″ stocker rainbow trout. Are you casting to the banks and ambush zones, fast water or frog water, or perhaps a brown trout flushing sculpins from the margins, or busting a school of fresh stockers. Similarly brown trout will predate differently in 55F water temps to 41 degree temps.
Fly fishing is full of maybe and it depends … sometime the it depends comes from the myriad of variables we are facing, and having a wider range of approaches to cater to these variables only enhances our ability to match them.
Sure. We need to look at all variables, consider all the options, and be flexible.
Dom, well said my friend. I find I have a hard time conveying this idea to other people. Not so much the materials aspect, but the movement aspect in general. It takes on another element at night too. I like my flies to have more natural movement, so I have to move the fly less, but that seems to be what works for my waters. I always set my ideal movement to mimic a dying baitfish; one that moves in small bursts, and then the movement dies immediately, and freefloats for a moment. It sure is easy getting caught up in moving things too much.
With patterns, more and more I find myself moving to the natural colors camp, with just a bit of flash in some cases. And, I’m definitely a utilitarian when it comes to flies. No point in going all crazy with materials, especially when a simple few will do. I love the patterns that are quick to tie. They are far less painful to lose, and allow me to fish more aggressively. Not necessarily in movement, but in water coverage. Those big flashy patterns (which I do like to tie and fish on occasion) are painful to lose, and so I find I don’t cover the water as well for the fear of snagging up.
Yeah, I keep trying to improve some of my best patterns by adding rubber legs or something. Most times it doesn’t work. My best patterns are best for a reason I guess.
This is a very well thought out question posed that should make you all think. In the long run however, I will tell you that there is something to be said about materials and streamers for that matter that have movement rich materials in their construction. You have to remember, depending on where that fly is being presented, i.e.; moving water, slack water the like. If a movement rich pattern is pulled through heavy current swiftly, it may very well not move that much at all. The materials slim down, become more streamlined etc. Very similar to that of a pattern sitting statically in a section of non moving water. I think in the grand scheme of things, movement can be very beneficial at times and at other times not so much. The key is to figure out what the fish are responding to and take it from there. There are no absolutes in fly fishing. Whenever I hear the terms, never, always or doubtful I will usually dismiss what is being said. One of the biggest obstacles in streamer fishing in my opinion is the angler. If you don’t open your mind to constant change and the ability to continue doing something when the going is tough, which streamer fishing can be as it typically is not always associated with a high numbers game in terms of the number of fish you will catch, you will never grow as a streamer angler. Most would rather give up and go back to drifting nymphs which is totally cool too. That being said, put a well rounded selection of a variety of streamer types in your arsenal and you will be well equipped to tackle most situations.
Good stuff, Rich.
“One of the biggest obstacles in streamer fishing in my opinion is the angler.”
THIS!!! Well put, Rich.
I really like this well thought out article, Dom. I seriously have to agree with the movement imparted by the fisherman…..the usual “big streamer guy” is usually a total Type A, borderline ADHD super hyped dude—-so ripping a fly through EVERYTHING is what I am personally seeing a lot of my fisherman want to do. SLOW DOWN. I kind of stick to a “faster water, faster retrieve–slower water, slower retrieve” mantra.
Almost a year later from the last post but hey, why not? What do ya’ll think about fishing the top of the water column? Im a recovering bottom dragger but have very begrudgingly worked to fishing up with lighter and more castable flys. Alot of my fly pattern development is linked to how the flys will cast, sink, and swim for different occasions. Any one with thoughts on keeping the fly high? (Not as a rule).
Ps. I found this blog searching “why rubber legs” any one want to argue for there purpose or at least the thinking behind rubber legs?
Hey Jeremy. “Why rubber legs?” Strange search query, man. 🙂 But I’m glad it got you here. Rubber legs are at the heart of some of my favorite patterns. They just look alive, and I think that’s all there is too it. A little jiggle and a little wiggle goes a long way.
Regarding streamers high in the column: For me, it’s a day to day thing, or maybe hour to hour. Sometimes trout are willing to swim to the top, and sometimes they’re not. Personally, I’d never set out to fish the top all day long without the readiness to go deeper. Fishing the top is fun because you can see your fly — it’s addictive. But around here, I get a lot fewer hooks into trout by fishing the top of the column.
I will mention that nighttime can be a different story. I find that I often do better with flies above the fish than at their level.
Due to fact almost all of my fishing done with 10.6 3wt tend to never use the big,loaded streamers,but if you ever want proof on simple is best I’ll send pictures of my buggers. All basically small Malibu tails,a sparkle chenille body,couple of hackle wraps and various bead heads. None larger then #8. And tho might be missing giant trout too lazy to move for tidbet,the ease of being able to fish this fly so many ways compensate for any missed giants. Average trout about 18,and have had 6 in brown nail them. And 100% agreed with lack of movement,dead drifted has far out produced all other methods,actually hardly ever retrieving upstream unless very calm water. And after a few fish,a bugger basically looks like large wet fly,yet fish continue to wallop!!