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