“Cast it upstream!” I hollered over clamoring currents. Standing behind and slightly to the side of Joey, I watched his next cast land the streamer inches from the opposite bank and directly across from him. It was a good spot, but it wasn’t upstream.
“Look at that!” He said. My ten year old son turned around and smiled with pride. We’d been talking about fishing streamers next to structure for weeks.
I nodded with approval, trying to be supportive. Then I leaned in close to his ear, bending down so he could hear me over the rush of of the river. We stood on a gravel bar, just to the side of a wide and rough section of whitewater — not an ideal place to race a streamer broadside across the river. Joey launched and retrieved two more casts as I explained.
“Joe, I want you to make the cast upstream.” I pointed up and across the river. “We want to put the streamer around structure, so let’s aim for just above that rock. See it under the water? Good. So shoot the streamer up there, and let it sink to the bottom for a second, kinda like when we tight line a nymph. Then we’ll lead it downstream so it doesn’t stick to the bottom. Lead it a little faster than you think you’d lead a nymph.”
One of Joey’s strengths is how quickly he learns — how he listens and then follows through. He’ll try anything if you teach him well.
On the second cast, he plunked the streamer upstream of the target rock. The fast current washed his streamer downstream a few feet, until the weight of the conehead took over and stabilized the drift. Joey recognized all of this intuitively — a skill that comes only from thousands of fishless casts — and he stayed in contact with the streamer from the beginning. He used a combination of the rod tip and slow hand strips to keep the streamer moving downstream.
He was close, but it wasn’t right yet.
“Faster,” I said. “Keep it moving along faster than the current, but not too much.”
“I got it, Dad,” Joey said with a hint of impatience. (This trait is growing stronger as he approaches his teenage years.)
So I backed off and walked to the leafy bank. I left him to fish for a while as I strung up my own rod with the same long-leader rig and a heavy streamer. Mine was smaller than the three-inch fly Joey was fishing, and in just a few casts, I caught our first trout of the morning on the speed lead. A few minutes later, another wild brown trout came to hand.
Then I saw Joey reel up, back off the gravel bar and walk upstream to join me at the edge of the pocket water I was working.
“What am I doing wrong?” he asked.
“Watch, buddy,” I replied.
As I made a dozen more casts, I chose a new landing zone every time.
“Every cast is a new target. There’s structure everywhere. Each one of those pockets is made by a rock, so that’s more structure, right? I pick a new target, then drift down a different seam each time too.”
I looked to Joey to see him watching my sighter and where my line entered the water.
“Good,” I said. “Now watch my rod tip. Watch my line hand too. Sometimes I change the angle of the rod tip and strip a little faster so the fly comes across the currents . . . like that. Right? But I’m mostly keeping the fly in one seam, keeping it on a path and leading it downstream. I keep it close to the bottom and lead it with speed
A good sized trout charged my fly for a couple feet, and we both let out an OHHH! as we saw it flash.
“There we go. Now you try it,” I said.
Joey stepped into the water in front of me. I kept quiet for a handful of drifts before I spoke up.
“Okay, you’re nymphing it,” I said. “But that’s not what we want to do.”
“It might work.” Joey argued.
“Of course, but that’s not the speed lead.” I moved in closer again, and from just behind him, I pointed to a new target. “Put it right in the whitewater behind that big rock, and lead it down on the edge of the seam, right next to the slow stall. Keep it moving through,” I said. “And give it some jigs this time. Pulse it.”
Joey hit the target on the next cast and did exactly what I’d described with the fly. On the second pulse, another good trout flashed and ate the fly.
“That’s the speed lead,” Joey shouted. And he set the hook like Cyril Chauquet (of his favorite fishing show, Chasing Monsters.)
As I told Joey, the speed lead is not just “nymphing the streamer.” But thinking of it that way is a good place to start. Get the fly into the water and on the river bottom. Then work the streamer down through the natural lane. Bring it along faster than the bottom current. Experiment with speeds. Sometimes a rate twice as fast as what the river is flowing works best. But more often, the sweet spot is a speed that brings the fly downstream slightly faster than the current.
Go ahead and experiment with depths, too. But the speed lead works best when the streamer is close to the bottom.
There are times when the wading angler has an advantage over the boat angler. This is one of them. The speed lead is easier to refine on foot than from the platform of a boat.
Notably different than the slow slide, which I wrote about a couple weeks ago, the speed lead is not a broadside approach. Although no one can really predict where the trout will be when it sees your fly, trout won’t see a broadside, full profile as often with the speed lead.
Like any streamer presentation, my focus — my concentration — is on the direction of the head of the streamer. With the speed lead, the head should be pointed downstream.
Jig | Strip | Pulse | Track
The base drift is as simple as gaining the bottom and leading the fly, with speed, through one seam. But success with streamers is about variation. And I constantly give trout a new look, until I find something that we agree on.
Try slight jigs. Keep them small. Think about what a sculpin does, what a black nosed dace does or what a crayfish does, and emulate that. Big jigging motions usually move the fly too much for this presentation. It’s the same with strips. Big, fast strips move the fly too much. Try slow strips, small strips, looooong strips, in addition to recovering the slack with your line hand. And try bringing the fly across stream a bit, drift it into the next lane. Do this by changing the rod and line angle, like I showed Joey.
Many times, you’ll find one look that interests trout more than others.
If you’re a Troutbitten regular, it will come as no surprise that I like the Mono Rig for the speed lead. With the extra long leader, I have more precise control over every way the fly moves. I can slow it down and hold it on the bottom, or I can swerve into the next lane at any moment.
I also fish the speed lead technique with a floating line and even a sinking line. Ultimately, it’s about the principle of getting the fly to the bottom, and leading it with speed downstream. Think about those things, no matter what line and leader you’re connected to, and you’ll have it.
The flies are perhaps the least important part of this technique. I say that because you can make any fly work with the speed lead — even a buoyant, unweighted streamer can be used by simply adding some weight in front of it. (I use split shot.)
However, for more precision, more efficiency, and more trout in the net, use heavy flies that hug the bottom. Use flies with lead eyes, heavy cones or beads instead of deer hair.
The speed lead works best with smaller flies. Save the five-inch monsters for another job. Big flies catch too much current for the speed lead. And it’s hard to keep them riding on the bottom. I like Rich Strolis’ single hook headbanger for this. When tying the fly, I add some weight to the hook shank as well, for that extra bit of get-down. Or try George Daniel’s Bunker Buster. An overlooked fly, this style, with the molded lead head on a jig hook is the perfect streamer for the speed lead.
Many of us have been fishing simple jigs like these for years. It’s hard to beat a round-head jig for riding the bottom effectively without hanging up.
My friend, Josh Stewart, gets credit for naming this technique. In a conversation about how we fished the jig fly variations, Josh mentioned what he called the speed lead. And as a writer, how could I not love the alliteration and the simplicity that so perfectly describes the tactic?
As the years have passed, I have a full series of favorite flies that are perfect for this technique. The CF Streamer, and the Bunny Flash will get the job done. Find those flies here . . .
And then . . .
When the speed lead doesn’t work, try something else. Move through some variations with jigs and strips and lane changes before you give up on it, though. And after all that, when trout still won’t eat it, go to the slow slide or the jerk strip. Keep showing trout something different. That’s good streamer fishing.
And if none of it works, fish nymphs for a while and catch some trout.
Fish hard, friends.
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