Getting Started in Streamer Fishing

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Question: I’ve heard that pre-runoff streamer fishing can be some of the best of the year, but I’ve only fished dries and wets before. Can you give some advice for getting started in fishing with streamers?

Zeke T., Longmont, CO

Answer:  Streamers certainly fit the bill when it comes to fishing early and late season trout, and when the water is off-color or no bugs are visible.  They’re also usually the best choice for warmwater predators.  Some anglers love it so much they fish streamers exclusively, even in the peak warmer months when there are lots of bugs in the air and on the water.  The lure is often this: throwing and retrieving streamers is a very active way of fly fishing. You’re always doing something, trying a different retrieve or pattern or both.  And there’s a good chance that a fish caught on a streamer is going to be larger than the average.

We asked a few experts to give their top tips on getting started with streamers:

Kelly Galloup, Galloup’s Slide Inn and Fly Shop:  One of the most common question I am asked is how do I get started streamer fishing, and the answer is simply just go out and do it, but let me give you a couple tips that will shorten the learning curve.

First remember that line control is everything in all fly fishing and especially with streamers. Start close, streamer fishing is not hucking a fly as far as you can and hoping for a fish. You have to learn to control your fly and move the fly with your rod. So start close, say thirty feet max and then watch your fly. You should be moving your fly in small 6 inch movements with slight pauses between each six inch pulse. Cast across stream and always have a tight line.  Don’t worry about getting the fly deep, most fish are less than 3 feet of water, if the fly is moving properly the fish will come and get it. Cast across stream and always keep the fly moving back across stream, do not allow the fly to swing tail first down stream. In other words this is not a wet fly swing with a bigger fly, you look for likely hold areas and then stalk and cast that area keeping the moving across the current. Make the fish come and get the fly by its erratic movements.

Start with a bright un-weighted fly to learn to move the fly, I prefer flies like the woolly sculpin or Zoo Cougar. Bright flies that the angler can see, and are not hard to cast will make the learning much faster and more enjoyable. Again you need to learn to move the fly and the only way you can do that is to watch the fly and figure out if you are moving the fly correctly, whites, tans and yellow flies are great colors to learn with and will also catch fish. Simple way to chose a fly is bright day bright fly, dark day dark fly, but remember when you start out you first have to see the fly to know you are fishing it well so lean towards the flies you can see. Once you can move the fly well with the medium size flies, say a #4 then you can move into the bigger articulated flies and know you are fishing them well.

I like to start people with a 6 wt. rod and a 200 gr. sinking line (my Bank Robber St Croix with a Airflo Galloup streamer long 200 would be my choice, but I may be slightly bias) sinking lines are easy to cast and carry the flies well. Don’t worry about them sinking and getting caught on bottom, remember you are casting across stream and retrieving as soon as the fly hits the water so the line will not sink far unless you don’t start retrieving. You can use a floating line but you really should have one that is made for streamers. Traditional floating lines are made for dry flies and don’t carry the weight in the front half of the line that is needed to cast the bigger flies. If you are using a floater you may want to use a light cone head fly so it sinks a little but you still should be able to see the fly to know you are moving it properly.

With floating lines a 7’ 1/2 0X leader is fine, you do not need to have light tippet with streamers or long leaders. Long leaders make it very hard to cast bigger flies and they serve no purpose, I seldom go below 0X when fishing streamers. On the sinking line I use a shorter leader yet, 1 foot of 20lb butt section and 18 to 24 inches of 12 tippet, overall length 3 feet.

So in review, cast to a target and don’t cast long. Find a fly that you can see and learn to move it. A handful of flies in white, black, olive, tan, and yellow will get you going. You don’t have to fish deep, just move the properly and the fish will come and get it.  Helps to have a rod that is for streamers but not a necessity, fast 6wts are good starter rods. A sinking line or a floating streamer line with stout leaders.  Go catch the biggest fish of your life!

Michael Stack, Fish Tales Outfitting:   Start with a weight-forward floating line. It will be easier to cast, in my opinion, and allows the fly to swim with a more erratic jigging action. You won’t be fishing as deep as you could with a sink tip but if you’re new to streamer fishing this will make the casting much easier. Try a sink tip once you’ve had time to practice with a floating line.

Start with smaller streamer patterns. The bigger the fly the more effort it takes to cast. Big articulated patterns are all the rage and I love fishing them but I suggest moving up to bigger flies once you’ve gotten the hang of casting smaller ones. Start out with patterns in the size #8-6 area then move up to #4 -2 or an articulated pattern. Sometimes I use two smaller patterns because it looks as though a chase is already happening. This creates a sense of urgency to the trout (see tip #1). Trout, especially brown trout, are very competitive and will take advantage of every opportunity to grab an easy meal if another trout has already injured their prey.

Create a sense of urgency to the trout by making your fly look like it is injured or fleeing from another trout. The method I like is often referred to as “The Jerk and Strip.” Use the tip of the rod to jerk the fly with some speed down and away then strip the slack created under your rod hand index finger. You keep the tip down to keep the fly in the water and you jerk it away to make the fly jump and then pause while you strip the slack.

When fishing from a boat, cast and fish with a rhythm. I like to cast and fish with about forty feet of fly line. Making 6-7 rhythmic jerks and strips before picking up and casting to the next lie enables you to make your next cast with one back cast. Since hitting as many fishy looking lies is the key to covering the water and finding more trout, this just makes it a more efficient approach. When wade fishing, dissect the run into little pieces. Work from the inside shallow edge. Fish the close water first covering the run with your fly fishing in 2- 3 foot lanes. Take a step or two downstream and repeat. I like to fish the fly across the run a little more when wade fishing allowing the fly to swing completely across the run and even hang for a moment before I cast again.

Casper Leffel, Guide:  Many anglers share the mentality that trout are largely gentle critters with a diet comprised of mainly insects. This is true, but trout are also predators. Baby birds, mice, snakes, leeches, lizards, crayfish and most importantly smaller fish are on the menu for predatory trout.  Becoming a confident streamer fisher comes with time on the water and being willing to throw flies that imitate that larger prey. And you have to believe what you’re doing will work. Be aggressive.

Some rivers and lakes produce more meat eaters than other systems, so there is no substitute for trial and error. In other words you’ll never know if a particular river will fish well with streamers unless you go out and try it. I would recommend starting out small when it comes to streamers, while striving to adopt the mindset of “Go Big or Go Home.” A strong 6,7 or 8 weight rod with a selection of sink tip fly lines and heavy tippets will become necessary tools for the accomplished streamer fisherman. In my experience flies from about 3 to 6 inches accurately imitate a common large food source (baitfish) for browns and rainbows in the 20-30+ inch range.

Trophy status in regards to fish is different no matter where you find yourself as an angler. When talking about streamer fishing we’re focusing on the larger trout in a system. How do we fool the largest fish in the river? The same way we target the average-size fish: identify the food source and imitate it. In the case of many western rivers, larger trout become piscavores, meaning their diet consists of fish. Sometimes to learn new things we have to forget what we thought we once knew.

Trout are aggressive, ferocious eaters with an appetite for smaller, weaker specimens. Learn your water, try new flies and techniques, think outside the box and remember that a 30-inch trout will eat flies that are even bigger than the ones we can cast!

Chris Willen, Guide:

Getting started streamer fishing is easy, just go! The best way to learn is by trial and error. Go out and put in the work getting your cast dialed in.

Make sure you work in your backhand. When streamer fishing with big flies casting over the boat is a huge NO-NO. Safety first. Nobody wants a day on the water to end early.

Work on fishing your fly, not just stripping it in. Watch what your fly does as you try different types of strips. Stripping the fly in as fast as you can isn’t always the objective. Make it look like a struggling fish. It’s easy to get into a rhythm and just cast and strip. Remember you’re not always going to get that reaction bite—sometimes they need convincing.

A large hurdle that some transitioning anglers seem to have trouble with is the strip set. Setting with the rod streamer fishing, especially for larger fish, almost always results in a lost fish. Learn how to strip set! Point your rod right at the fish and strip set that fly until it is tight.  Generally the hooks are larger in streamers and it takes a little more to get the penetration. A strong lift with the rod tip doesn’t cut it the way it does with small flies and fish.

My musky leader set up is fairly easy: 40-pound fluoro or mono to a bite guard of 40-pound 7 x 7 nylon coated tie-able wire tied directly to the fly with a perfection loop. You also want to make sure your leader isn’t so long that you can’t manage it at the boat when doing figure-8s and other boat-side maneuvers.

Get after it!