I first dedicated significant river time to the long flies in my twenties. Until then, I was like most anglers. I’d occasionally attach a Wooly Bugger to the line when I couldn’t get anything else going. It was a last resort that provided new hope and novel entertainment if not always a trout in the net.
Looking back, I know exactly the day when I shifted my focus to streamers for the first time. It was early fall. And although I went out of my way to find solitude on a river, I found myself in a pleasant conversation with an old-timer on the walkout. He told me that when the colorful maple leaves and brown oaks made their way to the water, it was prime streamer season. Fair enough, I thought. And in that moment I promised a full season’s dedication to fishing streamers. It was the beginning of my first streamer phase.
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It began as it does for most, I assume. I had a number of lack-luster days with few fish and more frustrations. I fished five days a week back then, so I had the time to make mistakes and try to correct them. I was largely influenced by the writings of Joe Humphreys. And by my count, he had four different ways to fish streamers. I practiced them all.
I remember it was a wet fall, with consistent rain that kept the rivers full and the anglers few. (These are still my favorite river conditions, no matter the season.) I carried only streamers, leaving all other flies behind. And after about two weeks and ten trips, I saw a distinct trend — I was missing a lot of trout.
My first streamer phase ended with the fall season that year, and I remember nymphing most of the winter. But I’d learned and developed enough of a streamer game to keep it in my rotation.
A few years later, I read Kelly Galloup’s Modern Streamers for Trophy Trout, and it re-sparked my interest. Galloup’s ideas were new to me, with large flies and aggressive presentations. Surely, I thought, this would improve my hookup ratio. I wouldn’t miss trout so often. But, of course, the opposite was true. I caught fewer trout because bigger flies gave the fish more to reject. And faster presentations made the streamers harder to catch. I just missed more trout.
That was the question.
Around this time, I found my first group of fishing friends. There were about ten of us who fished hard and shared ideas. It was the original Troutbitten group. Most of these guys had been through streamer phases as well, and everyone told the same story: Streamer fishing is full of missed takes. So at least I wasn’t the only one.
From our conversations, a better question developed. Were we missing the takes, or were trout missing the fly? Over time, over endless conversation, cases of craft beer and thoughtful theories, we came to understand that our hook sets were rarely at fault. No, we set fast and hard. We were good anglers, with crisp, attentive sets. The high percentage of misses were really the trout’s decision. We summarized it this way: Sometimes a trout misses the fly. Sometimes a trout refuses the fly. And sometimes a trout attempts to stun the fly before eating it.
Now, many years later, I believe this more than ever. Those missed takes are simply part of the streamer game. Sure, we can improve the odds by finding the perfect pattern and a precise presentation that convinces a trout to commit. But overall, streamer fishing is full of drive-bys and collisions. Trout like to attack the fly at full throttle. Then we set hard and feel nothing but an empty hook and a loose line. That’s the streamer game. And every good, honest angler I know tells the same story. Compared to dry flies, wets and nymphs, a solid streamer eat is far more rare.
Trout miss our fly in three ways. Here they are . . .
Through fifteen feet of water, Old Granddad catches a glimpse of polar chenille flashing through the backside swirl of his dead-log pocket. He’s the dominant wild brown trout here, and the oak log is at the edge of his territory. Something like stubborn aggression is triggered by the invasion of an apparently small trout through his staked-out spot. Old Granddad surges for your streamer, covering the expanse with two swift tail kicks and paddling fins.
You notice the charge, and you suppress an amateur urge to set too quickly. Time slows, and you pause, waiting the extra milliseconds required for the trout to hit your fly.
It happens, and you strip set. But you feel nothing — just a touch of contact and then loose line. Old Granddad recedes back to the shadows and you’re left with nothing. Correction — you’re left with the address of an apex predator. And that is something valuable, indeed.
Old Granddad never actually tried to eat your streamer. He changed his mind at the last second. He saw your fly for a fake and turned away, refusing your streamer at the final instant before committing. His momentum carried him into the fly. And as he turned away with swiftness, it surely looked like he tried to eat your streamer. But he didn’t. We all make this assumption for a while. Our eyes can’t gather enough frames per second to see this happen. So we assume that the trout missed our fly. Or maybe we set late or in the wrong direction.
But, no. This time, the trout refused our fly. And I think it happens more than anything else.
Trout do another thing that looks like a missed eat. They sideswipe or T-bone their prey to stun it.
I first learned about this from Galloup. And since then, it’s been correlated through videos and other sources. I think I’ve even processed enough frames per second once in a while to witness it first hand.
With larger baitfish or juvenile fish of much size, trout must eat their prey head first. Swallowed at this angle, the fins lay down, allowing the prey to slide down a trout’s throat. But eaten tail first, a small fish can become stuck in a trout’s throat, because the fins stand up and resist being swallowed.
Trout can force this head-first angle in two ways: They can swim to ambush the fly head first, or they can broadside their prey with a solid strike, then come back to eat the drifting food form with a confident, leisurely gulp. I’ve seen this happen twice on a float — not to my fly but to small, unlucky fall fish. This swift aggression and measured plan was something to see. And it made a confident believer out of me.
Sometimes trout hit our streamers hard, with no intention of eating them on that first strike. Logically, then, following the strike by dead drifting our streamers immediately after the assault should seal the deal. Right? But it almost never works. Instead, trout sense the fake on the first hit. On the stun, they realize their mistake. And the best fish in the river are not about to make that same mistake twice.
Sometimes, trout simply miss our flies. They take aim, timing their strike to eat the whole fly, expecting certain natural, predictable movements from their prey. When the motion we impart on our streamer doesn’t meet their expectation, our fly doesn’t end up where the trout had planned. And just a half-inch bankside can mean the difference between a direct eat and a clear miss.
So when a trout does miss our fly, I believe the error is usually in our presentation.
Most misses on streamers are not the angler’s fault. And we must accept these refusals as part of the game.
We can cover more water, to show the streamer to more trout. We can work on refining the presentation, to find a fly and a retrieve that seals the deal — making trout an offer they can’t refuse. And we can stay on point — ready to strike swiftly only after the trout eats the fly.
Beyond that, there’s not much to do about missed opportunities on a streamer. But we should always note the locations of the best trout in the river and come back swingin’ next time.
Fish hard, friends.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N