I learned to trout fish by drifting live minnows on a spinning rod. My uncle taught me. We used a two inch long needle to thread a small loop of six pound mono into the mouth and out the vent of a fathead minnow. The needle was removed before a double hook went through the loop and into the minnow. The wounded creature lived for some time, depending on how skilled we were with the needle, and how good we were at dead drifting.
We cast up and across. And if I gave the fathead some slack, it always struggled toward the bottom. I watched the minnow’s performance in shallow water enough to understand some things. It tried always to face upstream. And when the split shot on the line above was carried downstream, the minnow was forced to follow as it was dragged downstream headfirst, until more slack was given in the system. Whereupon, inevitably, the fathead would attempt to right itself by turning to face the current again.
And each one of those turns — every time the minnow changed direction — was a trigger for hungry trout.
Years later, when I picked up the fly rod, I fished streamers relentlessly. And I caught trout. But it was decades before I fully realized the possibilities, before I understood that I had complete control over the streamer’s angle, and that I could induce an eye-catching head flip at nearly any point throughout the drift.
The Head Flip
A good river fisherman forms a mental image of his bait, lure or fly under the water. And a good streamer angler understands how the weight in the fly (or on the line) reacts to the surrounding currents and the tension on the tippet. These are all processed factors leading to a good guess of what an unseen streamer is doing underneath.
And the key part of that mental image is the head orientation. The head can be upstream, downstream, across stream, or at some point in between. And when the angler changes the tension and direction of the attached line, the streamer angle changes.
That’s what I call the head flip.
Why it works
The head flip can happen anywhere in the water column, though it’s especially deadly with the streamer close to the bottom, right in front of a waiting trout.
A head flip makes the progress of the fly stall for a moment.
Imagine a streamer traveling downstream and across the current, maybe on a slow slide off the bank. Now picture an angler changing the line angle and forcing a head flip. In the transition from down and across to up and across, the fly stalls for a moment. And the changing profile angle catches a trout’s attention.
Imagine next a fly downstream and across from the angler, let’s say only twenty feet out. The streamer’s head faces the fisherman, into the current, until . . . our fisherman changes the rod and line position enough to flip the head of the streamer downstream and across. Again there’s a slight stall, a minor pause in progress during the shift. And the head flip here looks a lot like a faltering baitfish, like a struggling animal trying to right itself against the currents.
The head flip, at any angle, draws attention because it looks available to the trout. It looks vulnerable, if just for a moment. Perhaps it’s wounded or has let its guard down. And in that instant, our trout sees an opportunity.
Just a few years ago, I fished a braided section of a favorite local river with my friend, Bill Dell. I took the left side, and Bill worked up through a series of channels on the right. An hour later, we met at the top, and I expected that Bill had experienced the same slow fishing I had.
“I caught one. How’d you do over there?” I asked my friend.
“Pretty good. I caught a bunch of fish on streamers,” Bill said with a shrug of the shoulders. “Some of them were big too.”
When I replied with some skepticism, Bill pulled out his phone and showed me pictures — a series of large wild brown trout all pushing twenty inches.
“What the hell were you doing!? I was fishing streamers too,” I said, pointing to the fly on my hook keeper.
I glanced over to Bill’s rod and saw a drenched olive Headbanger that closely matched my own.
“SAME FLY!” I said, pointing at his streamer.
I followed along with Bill for the only hour I had left that day, and we talked about his presentation. I watched him pick up three more trout and gain the interest of a handful of others. Bill was the first person I saw using a head flip so deliberately. And as I watched him, I remembered seeing those strung minnows faltering and fighting to stay balanced.
At close range, Bill flipped the streamer’s head by lifting the rod tip and dramatically changing the angle — so the streamer head followed. At long range, Bill mended the line to force the head flip. And that day, his head flip drew one strike after another. It’s like the trout were just waiting for it.
Variations and Specifics
Since that day with Bill, I’ve been much more deliberate about manipulating the head angle of my streamers. I put to use what I learned about fishing with dying fathead minnows, and I’ve learned to manipulate the line with my rod tip to force the head flip in key spots — in the prime spots.
The head flip works with weighted flies or with light flies and split shot. It works with sinking lines for the weight too, but the flip does not happen as dramatically or as precisely.
With a Mono Rig, I have maximum control over the angle of the streamer’s head, simply because I’m in excellent contact with the fly. I fish streamers on the Mono Rig a lot, even at long range, and performing the head flip is a big reason why.
By mending fly line, a skilled angler can achieve a very similar head flip, and he can do it at some angles that are tough with a Mono Rig. Both methods have their moments.
And no matter the rig or the weight used to get the fly down, when a streamer changes positions in the water, it draws attention. In fact, the head flip is the most reliable trigger in my arsenal of streamer tricks.
The Double Flip
One more tactic here — try the double flip. On a tight line with a Mono Rig, have the streamer working with its head pointed down and across. Now swing the rod tip upstream. The fly pulses and swoons for a moment. And just as it completes that shift in orientation, swing the rod tip back downstream to the original position to complete a double flip.
Try this with a visible fly, and you’ll see the streamer struggle. You’ll watch it look alive and available as it pauses. The marabou, the hackle, the rubber legs and more that we tie into our streamers pulses and expands for a moment — an articulated fly hinges just right. The double flip looks like a wounded fish struggling to gain its balance before it falters — an easy meal.
With some on-stream experimentation, you’ll find endless ways to make the head flip happen.
The change in angle and the pause in progress of a good head flip looks like what a trout is waiting for. For just an instant — when the fly stalls and falters — our hungry fish sees an opportunity. And if he’s hungry enough . . . he pounces. You gotta love it.
Fish hard, friends.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N