So far this winter my nymphing game has been a little off — the numbers aren’t there. Maybe it’s me and maybe it’s the fish, but either way, my best efforts to recreate what I’ve gotten used to in the winter haven’t produced. Many of my favorite waters are still in drought conditions, so the low and clear water usually persuades me to fish small nymphs and stay far back from the fish. That’s not really lighting things up. On some days, after receiving the message from the trout that they’d like something different, I’ve had better results going to streamers. Not just any streamer tactics though — old school streamers.
A few weeks ago I wrote about some of the changes that streamer fishing is going through. The streamer game is on a new path. Galloup’s Modern Streamers for Trophy Trout started the ball rolling with a trout-as-predator concept and a big-flies-fished-fast approach that’s captured the enthusiasms of fly fishermen. It’s fun. It’s visual. It’s exciting. And it produces — sometimes and in some places.
The modern streamer approach asks trout to get up and chase something down, to kill it and eat it, while the old school streamer game presents an easily available chunk of protein to the trout. It doesn’t ask the fish to chase very much. In essence, old school streamers come to the trout, and modern streamers flee from the trout.
The bottom line
Sometimes, the modern streamer game is too much for a river. In low, clear, sunny conditions I have zero confidence that I’ll get fish to chase and eat a big streamer. And sometimes, even with perfect flows on a big river system, trout prefer the easy meal over something they have to chase down. My own preference is to fish the old school style while wading, and the modern streamer style from the boat. Although, even on a productive float, I like to mix it up and see which tactic might deliver the best trout to the boat net.
Streamers as an Easy Meal
When I talk to guys about fishing streamers this way they often shrug and tell me, “Yeah I dead drift streamers sometimes too.” But there’s a lot more to it than just nymphing your streamer, and through the years I’ve learned a set of subtle movements that seem to trigger trout into action. The streamer game can be just as technical as the nymphing game if you want it to be.
When fishing the old school streamer style, I always use the mono rig. It provides more control over upstream presentations; I’m in better contact. I can put the fly wherever I want in the water column and move it however I like. The mono rig also works well if I choose an across or a down-and-across presentation. So I can still sling the fly to the banks and bang out of few jerk strips.
Most of my streamers for the old school style are between 1.5 and 3.5 inches, and I like weight in the fly. All of my favorite streamers have built in weight, and if that’s not enough, then I add split shot to the leader. In bigger water, I often use large lead shot that we call cannonballs — they’ll get you down.
I usually run about 6 feet of 2X fluorocarbon tippet below a short, red Amnesia sighter. I like to add a small, white streamer on a tag about two feet above the point streamer (more on that below). I can easily change out this rig above the sighter and get back to my nymphing rig in about a minute — tying just one knot — by storing the pre-tied streamer and nymphing rigs on Loon Outdoors Rigging Foam.
Generally, the cast is upstream or up-and-across. Get the streamer to the bottom, then bring it downstream. At short distances you can feel contact with the riverbed, but at long distances the sighter is critical. Watch the sighter to gauge the current speeds and to indicate when the streamer has paused on the bottom.
Overweighting the rig is often the best bet. You have more control over the system with the extra weight — you stay in better contact and can guide the streamer with or against the currents.
Give the streamer some motion, but not too much. Try to get away from the idea of stripping. Just work the streamer through the water. (Sometimes I think of it as an active nymphing approach.)
I like to experiment with different speeds. There are a lot of options: you can run the fly downstream at the same speed as the bottom current; you can allow it to stall on the bottom, then hop or crawl it along; or you can give the line a good long pull every time the fly touches bottom and keep it traveling faster than the current.
Often, the rivers I fish have too much wood and vegetation for me to ride the bottom without getting snagged or picking up salad every other cast. In those cases I use either faster presentations and lighter flies, or I resort to drop shotting (video here). Yes, drop shot works with streamers too.
Sometimes I like to get real close to structure and put my streamers in there. Just get them in or around the structure and hold them in an area with light jigs and strips. I also like to run the streamer across lanes, through pockets and around rocks or logs.
The great thing about this rig is how you can easily visualize exactly where your streamer is and what it’s doing. With the extra weight, the mono rig, and the sighter, you have full control over the system.
Sometimes I let the drift finish out below me and swing around. Sometimes I cast to the banks and do the Galloup jerk-strip thing — but just a little slower. If one approach isn’t working, I try the next one. I try to consciously cycle through a series of variations before changing flies.
Remember, the old school streamer style is about presenting an easy meal to the trout. You are not trying to elicit a predatory or defensive response as per the modern streamer method. You are not asking the trout to chase anything down or exert much effort.
The Sighter Streamer
I first picked up this idea from Joe Humphreys, and Burke wrote about it a couple years ago.
I add a small, white streamer on a tag dropper about 24-30 inches up from my main fly. White is usually visible in all but the muddiest water conditions. And even though I have the red sighter six feet up the line, the addition of the white streamer gives me an amazing amount of information about what my rig is doing on the bottom. It’s another invaluable reference point that indicates water speed and direction. And on many days, the fish eat it — a lot.
I like to keep the sighter streamer small and streamlined so it causes less drag on the line. I use a weighted Shenk’s White Minnow, or Burke’s White Variant, which is a spin off from Loren Williams’ Rat Bastard. I also use a small Motto’s Minnows.
The Big Rig
If you want to tie a couple more knots and catch a few more fish, then try what I call the Big Rig.
To the existing setup, add a nymph below the point streamer. You can tie it off the bend, but I prefer the Add-On Line method, and I usually run it on a 14 inch trailer. Yes, you now have three flies.
This idea takes advantage of every opportunity for a trout to strike. Sometimes they won’t eat a bigger meal. Even a two inch streamer may turn trout off, but streamers drifted through a trout’s area always gets their attention, so we might as well add a nymph to the rig and give them another option.
Keep the nymph unweighted, otherwise it will snag on the bottom too often.
My favorite nymphs for the Big Rig are a small stonefly (#10-14) or a tiny Zebra Midge (#20-22). One extreme to the other, I guess. I wrap foam around the hook of the stonefly (under the body) to keep it buoyant enough and off the bottom.
One more thing. If you ever get to watch a good bass fisherman work their various baits and lures, do it. Get close, and open your eyes real wide to take it all in.
I’m dumbfounded by how little some fly fishermen think about what they’re doing with streamers. Compare that to the competition bass fishing scene. Some of these guys are dialed in to a degree that is unmatched in much of the fly fishing world. And they have a literal boatload of tricks at the ready.
My good friend, Sawyer, seems to know all those tricks. He’s an accomplished fisherman, and yet he’s modest and happy to share his ideas. When Sawyer picks up the fly rod, he brings that same intensity for experimentation with him.
We floated a big river the other day, and Sawyer fished the old school streamer style the whole time. As I back-rowed, I watched his technique with eyes wide open, and I saw that he was doing something different. As the heavy-headed streamer came downstream, he hopped it, then let it fall. Sometimes he let it sit on the bottom for a second or two.
But here’s the thing — his streamer pivots. The head of the fly faces downstream during the retrieve, and when allowed to rest on the bottom, it immediately turns 180 degrees in the current. The streamer’s tail catches the current and swings around while the head remains in place, and in one second, the streamer is facing upstream. Sawyer showed this to me as I peered over the side of the boat. It was consistent and predictable. The pivot happened every time he let the fly rest on the bottom. And it looked extremely natural.
Sawyer caught most of his fish on the pivot that day, and we saw it happen twice.
The first time, a good sized trout followed his streamer for a few feet. Most streamer fishermen I know have the instinct to keep stripping. “Never let the fly die,” they say. Sawyer did the opposite. As the fish continued to follow, he simply dropped the rod tip. The fly touched the bottom, made the pivot and S-L-A-M … the trout ate it.
I think there are a lot of subtle movements like Sawyer’s pivot that trigger trout into striking. And I love trying to find them.
Good luck out there.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N