There may be nothing more satisfying than watching a trout eat your fly. The visual reward of seeing a fish rise to a dry fly is the welcome completion of our efforts and anticipations. But to many of us, watching a large wild trout attack a streamer is even better, because these are not delicate rises. With a streamer at the end of the line, we participate in the trout’s predatory urge. We share in its hunger and its raw instinct to kill. The inherent thrill of seeing all of this come together is unmatched.
So we enjoy watching the streamer and seeing how our strips and rod movements affect the fly. But trying to see it all the time can be costly. In short, an addiction to watching the long fly limits our options and may drastically reduce our chances of catching the next big trout.
Let’s talk about that . . .
Watching the fly can be a wonderful learning experience. We come to understand what our line manipulations do to the fly. We discover the effects of cross currents and water depths by watching the fly’s response. While streamer fishing, I love to see my streamer. And, given the option, I believe most anglers would choose the same.
I fish the streamer better when I can see it. I dance it around rocks and through seams. I stall it in pockets and strip over pebbly shallows without contacting the riverbed. I’m more accurate, deliberate and effective with the motions of a streamer when I see the fly. And it’s just plain fun.
But it’s not always a good thing . . .
The correlation with productive streamer fishing and dirty water is well established. There’s widespread agreement that a river with a little extra water and color to the flow offers a better streamer bite more often. Long flies can produce in clear water, but not as frequently. So, unfortunately, the best streamer action often happens when it’s tough to see our fly through murky or muddy water.
Under such conditions, our flies may disappear at just a foot or two under the surface — often less. And our sustained efforts to see the streamer can result in working the fly too fast, too high or both.
That’s the problem.
If you find trout consistently willing to come through high water to eat a streamer in the top third of the water column, don’t tell anyone else about it. Because that kind of thing is worth keeping a secret.
For me, the best streamer activity (usually) happens by getting through the surface zone and into the middle or lower third of the water column. And under prime streamer conditions, with off-color water, I simply lose sight of my streamer when it’s at the right level.
Even given clear river conditions and shallow water, it’s often difficult to see olive or brown streamers. And if I’m not careful, I find myself moving the fly so I can see it instead of moving the fly to attract a trout.
That’s a problem.
If you choose to correct the bad habit of forcing visual contact to the streamer, then you’ll have to deal with what you lose — namely, the comfort of seeing the fly, knowing where it is and how it’s performing.
Ah, but there are ways to get most of these things back.
Of course, you can simply watch the line and guess where the streamer is. Anglers have done this for decades with fair success. Since streamer fishing is usually performed with contact to the fly, our strips, jigs and jerks help provide a reliable reference about where the fly is.
Or, you can add visual contact and excitement back into the streamer game in a few different ways.
Here are those ways . . .
I fish a two streamer rig more often than not. And the top fly provides a visible reference for the bottom fly.
Try this: Tie a small, visible streamer on a tag, about 24-30 inches above the point fly. Keep this fly small, in the range of #8-12, so its effect on the point fly is minimal. This second fly often swims in a different current than the primary fly. And we want it along for the ride, not dictating the course or being swept along in conflicting seams — so choose a small tag fly and let the point fly be the boss.
Fish the point but watch the tag, which inevitably rides higher in the water column. By using the visible tag fly as reference, we have an excellent understanding of how our movements influence the point fly.
To keep the tag streamer visible, I most often use white. But yellow, chartreuse and black can be good options as well.
Use a Sighter
Colored line tied into the leader provides an invaluable reference that indicates depth, angle, drop rate, fly speed and strikes. I’ve included a sighter in my streamer rig for the last two decades. A small sighter, from 12-20 inches adds another visual element. Having that visual — that reference point and aid — is key to my streamer fishing.
I choose Amnesia in red or green, Gold Stren or Sufix Siege Tangerine as my sighter. These are in diameters ranging from 15 lb to 10 lb, depending on the composition of the leader ahead and behind the sighter.
Here, I’ll caution against the use of standard Bi-Color sighter materials from Cortland, Orvis, Rio, etc.. These materials are manufactured to be limp and opaque. I prefer stiffness in all my sighters (even for nymphing), because I build by rigs and employ techniques built upon the principles of turnover first. Basically, a limp sighter in the middle of your streamer rig may hurt your accuracy.
I also prefer a sighter that is a bit more subtle. Opaque, Bi-Color sighters are more visible to our eyes and to the fish. When tight line nymphing, my sighter does not enter the water. But while streamer fishing, my sighter goes under the surface on some of my deeper retrieves, especially as I lay leader on the water and strip. Does this spook trout? Generally, I believe it does not. And the benefits gained by using a sighter far outweigh the occasional opportunity lost because a colored line crosses a wary trout’s path. However, by staying away from bright, opaque sighter material for streamers and choosing something like Gold Stren or Sufix Siege Tangerine, I believe I help my cause a bit more.
Troutbitten regulars run across the Backing Barrel in these articles and are often surprised by its usefulness. As the seasons pass, I continue to find more applications for this simple addition to a leader.
I include a small, thin, one-inch tag of orange 20 lb Dacron with a Uni Knot on all my sighters. The Backing Barrel with a tag adds another dimension to reading the colored mono sighter. It is amazingly visible in almost any light condition, and it draws my eyes to the sighter itself.
When I’m having trouble locating my streamer under the water — and if I want another reference point beyond the sighter, I may also add a Backing Barrel to the tippet section, sometimes with a tag and sometimes without. I place it anywhere from 2-4 feet above the fly itself.
This small but visible orange point tells me about my streamer’s location and performance, when sometimes, nothing else can.
Let It Go | Get it Back
There’s no doubt that watching our streamer dance down a run is great fun. But in many conditions, it’s a crutch that hurts our effectiveness more than it helps.
So stop stripping too fast or riding the streamer too high just so you can see it. Fish your streamers lower, down where the trout are.
Then reclaim your visibility by using a few key tools: a small locator streamer, a sighter and a Backing Barrel.
Remember, there’s a solution to every problem out there.
Fish hard, friends.
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Enjoy the day.
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