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Fly Fishing the Bighorn River: Streamer Fishing

by Steve Galletta
Fly Fishing Streamers on the Bighorn River

This rainbow ate a Home Invader fished slow and methodically through a deep run near the Grey Cliffs.

It is hard to have confidence in streamer fishing until you have been successful with it. While anglers often streamer fish to go after some of the largest trout, at the right times it can bring quantity as well as quality to the net. The Bighorn River is one of the most consistent streamer fisheries there is.

The best times to fish streamers are early in the year—February and March—and then again in the fall, right before and after the brown trout spawn. On the Bighorn, this spawn occurs later than most, so fall streamer fishing will be best in October and November. In the summer, an overlooked time to fish streamers on the Bighorn, diehard streamer fishermen can find great success on smaller, more neutral imitations, especially during years of high recruitment of juvenile fish. Larger trout will forage on these smaller trout year-round. Matching your streamer technique and fly patterns to variables such as river type, water clarity, weather, and water temperature will have a significant impact on your success rate.

Casting proficiency is probably the most important element of streamer fishing. Whether fishing the banks or a mid-river structure, from the boat or on foot, your ability to place your fly in likely holding areas is going to be one of the critical keys to success. More often than not, the more spots you hit, the more fish you will have move to your fly.

There are many ways to present your streamer—from pounding the banks to slow and deep strips, long strips, short strips, strip-strip-pause, mend and twitch, dead-drift, and swing. All of these techniques have their place when fishing the Bighorn, based on the water you are fishing, the temperature of the water, and the time of year.

A little common sense goes a long way when deciding which method will work best the day you are on the river. If water temperatures are optimal for trout activity—46 to 60 degrees—you can expect fish to be more active than if the water is 38 degrees (on the cold side) or 68 (on the warm side). When temperatures are within their optimal range, the trout often welcome a faster, more aggressive presentation. The one time that I will slow down my retrieve, even if water temperatures are within the optimal range, is when the water temperature is falling. Trout will react to this and often become less aggressive on the Bighorn.

Streamer Fishing on the Bighorn

Guide Seth Byler rigs a 300-grain sinking line on a large arbor reel to be fished on a stout 8-weight rod. Jay Nichols photo

In the winter and early spring I tend to fish slower and deeper, when water temperatures are on the colder side of the optimal range, or when a significant temperature change has occurred. At this time, I typically incorporate longer and slower strips, often in the deepest part of the run, because the trout’s metabolism will have slowed down considerably. When fishing deep, I like to use full sinking fly lines (250 or 300 grain) to ensure that my fly gets down quickly to the bottom and stays there. These heavier lines can be laborious to cast but worth the effort. When fishing deep, I also often fish two streamers of different characteristics, since I am covering a less defined area of water. Being methodical in your approach is key when fishing this way. Cover as much water as you can, and be as diligent as possible. When water temperatures are in their optimal range, in late spring or in the fall, your retrieves can be more erratic and quicker. Trout will be spread throughout the river, holding in a variety of water types. This is when you can get the great surface strikes and big boils along the banks.

Streamer fishing turns on through the lower river when water is rising or clarity diminishes during runoff. At this time fish will often move tight to the banks, where clarity can sometimes be better. Prime streamer fishing on the banks often occurs when the river is dropping and just clearing. As visibility improves, it is time to pound the banks hard. This is a great time to move a big one down low.

Fishing the banks is a game of inches, and precision casts will bring you the most success. I like to key in on structures, seams, undercuts, and drop-offs within 2 feet of the bank. I typically do the best pounding the banks when water temperatures are ideal for trout—in the 50s or so. Your strips are typically fast and erratic and your arm should be thoroughly worn out at the end of the day from presenting your fly to the bank as many times as possible. The gravel-based water right near the shore should be your target area. Making a cast inches from the shore and stripping across this gravel area into the green-bottomed area can elicit vicious strikes. Also, cast into the still pockets of water right next to the shore. Large trout hold in these quiet bodies of water, waiting for an unsuspecting small fish to become their next meal. These pockets can be found along cliffs, where creeks enter, behind snags, or anywhere you find a current break or protection.

When fishing the banks, floating or intermediate fly lines tend to work the best. This is when we typically get the most explosive takes and what I call kill shots—there isn’t any chase to the boat; you just hit your spot with the fly, the fish immediately reacts, the line goes tight, and the fish is on. If you are getting several chases from the fish but no kill shots, first change the pace and action of your strip. If that does not work, change your fly.

Another technique I like to use is a dead-drift and/or mend and twitch approach. This approach is fished slower and works well in drop-offs, seams, around mid-river rocks, and when fishing runs out of a boat. For example, when you come upon a mid-river boulder you will have deeper holding water in front of, on the sides, and behind the boulder as well as in the accompanying downstream seam. Fish will sit in all of these. The dead-drift and twitch approach allows you to quickly get your streamer down to the fish around the likely structure.

Your ability to manipulate your line through mending will allow you to get your fly deep in the hole and, most importantly, keep it there. Once it’s in the strike zone, you can impart action to your fly, in association with the plunging action of the current, through short twitches. Keeping your fly down and sliding off the rocks increases your catch rate and is an effective technique when imitating the abundant populations of leeches that hold tight to the river bottom.

Equipment and Rigging

For streamers, I typically use a 9-foot, 6-, 7-, or 8-weight fast-action fly rod. I tend to lean more toward the heavier rods, because then my casting tool never limits me. On a 7- or 8-weight rod, you can effectively cast and turn over any line or fly you will need. The weight of the rod I use is dictated by the size of fly I am going to use and the water that I am fishing. Deep, fast water requires heavier flies, which in turn require a heavier line and a rod rated for that line.

For most of my streamer fishing, I fish a forward segment of sinking fly line in front of a floating line. I have two sinking lines (or a sink tip) ready to fish at all times, one with a 15-foot sink tip and another with a 24-foot sink tip. I like my streamer lines to have a sink rate of 3 to 8 inches per second (ips). The 15-foot line is the best all-around streamer line, typically of an intermediate sink rate, and the most user friendly. It is easy to pick up off the water, shoots line well, and is effective at getting your fly down in a wide variety of water. The longer line with a 24-foot sinking section is most frequently used in the winter or early spring season when I need to keep my fly down on the bottom or when I’m fishing heavy currents. I also use this longer tip when I fish the lower river, where deep holes are more common. In some of the largest, deepest holes in the Bighorn, a full sinking line is necessary to be most effective.

When water temperatures are warmer throughout the summer or early fall and fish are more apt to move a long distance to chase a fly, I often fish weight-forward floating lines with short front tapers and weighted one line size heavier. These lines are ideal for loading the rod quickly and turning over large or heavy streamers.

For anglers who don’t want to invest in an additional reel, spool, or sinking line, sink tips that you can attach to your floating fly line work fairly well. I always use a sink tip of 7 or 10 feet in length. Longer tips become difficult to cast with a floating fly line. These sink tips come in sink rates ranging from 3 to 7 ips and can cover a wide variety of streamer fishing conditions and match well with many different rod actions and weights. I most often use the Rio 5.6 ips, 7-foot sinking leader.

Off the end of my sink tip, or full sinking lines, I fish heavy 4- to 6- foot monofilament and fluorocarbon leaders. For the butt section of my leader, I use heavy 30- or 35-pound Maxima monofilament. From here I quickly taper my leader down to fluorocarbon tippet. There is no need to go light here—12- to 20-pound-test tippets are ideal. I prefer fluorocarbon tippets because of their superior abrasion resistance. Just be sure you don’t make your leader too long for the water you are fishing. If you use too long of a leader in deep water, your sinking line will go down and your fly will take longer to sink because the length of your leader is making your fly lag behind. My leaders are often as short as 4 feet and never longer than 6 feet when fishing small, subtle patterns.

Pattern Selection

If there is one rule for streamer pattern selection, it is to fish the fly you have confidence in. We all have a fondness for a certain fly that has brought success in the past. Your ability to present your fly, not the pattern itself, will decide your success fishing streamers on the Bighorn most of the time. Often it is best to go with your instinct.  If a pattern worked well once, why not again? I always enjoy changing flies and trying new patterns, but I definitely have certain trends I seem to follow when it comes to selecting the right streamer pattern.

Common traits I look for in a streamer pattern are movement of the fly in the water, silhouette, and color. I have a thing for flies tied with rabbit strips and marabou. These materials move or “breathe” extremely well in the water. I also like deer-hair heads, which push water and attract fish, especially in dirty water. One of my favorite patterns also incorporates lead in its body, which allows the fly to wobble in the water, making the fly act as if it’s injured.

Carry a wide selection of flies in various silhouettes and colors. There is nothing wrong with trial and error. If you have fished through goodlooking water and haven’t turned a fish, don’t hesitate to change to a different pattern or color. Keep your hooks sharp and fish hard.

 

Excerpted from Fly Fishing the Bighorn River: Hatches, Fly Patterns, Access, and Guides’ Advice by Steve Galletta (Stackpole/Headwater, 2015).  All rights reserved.

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