I recently wrote an article for Southern Culture on the Fly magazine that talked about streamer fishing tactics and rigging for small trout water, and I wanted to share it on the blog. Make sure to check out the full fall issue of SCOF, which is gangbusters as usual. Below is my revised version that I’ve edited to be a little more clear, and I’ve added further explanation in areas that I felt needed it.
Streamer Tactics for Small Trout Water
Streamer fishing isn’t for everyone. I’ve known fly fisherman that would refuse to tie one on, even if you offered them a 20 dollar bill. But for those very few anglers that find fishing them repulsive, there’s plenty more of us out there that hold a deep love for streamers. It’s long been known by fly fisherman that streamers hold an uncanny ability to tempt the largest fish in our water. Streamers work on all types of trout water (rivers, streams and still-waters), but despite their wide range of effectiveness, most of the attention and information provided to fly fisherman in the past has been heavily skewed toward only promoting fishing them on our larger rivers and streams. To some degree, this favoritism has resulted in giving the impression to many beginner and intermediate fly fisherman that streamer fishing isn’t meant for small stream applications, and they should leave them at home. The truth is, that’s not the case at all. I’ve landed some of my largest trout on small streams with streamers when I couldn’t get them to eat a dry or wet fly.
It’s important for fly anglers to know they can have just as much success with streamers on small water as they can on larger water, and they shouldn’t overlook the opportunity to use them when conditions are right. Furthermore, if we lumped all of our trout water together in the region, the overwhelming majority of it would be considered small trout streams, creeks and high-elevation tributaries.
Small Stream Strategies for Streamers
The first thing you need to understand is that you need to fish streamers differently than you do on large trout water. Large water streamer fishing is all about making repetitive presentations and covering lots of high percentage trout water–you make considerably longer casts and stealth becomes less of a factor. On small trout water, stealth is huge and you don’t want to cover a high percentage of trout lies by carpet bombing it with a plethora of presentations. You’ll find it much more effective if you instead take a hunter’s approach that focuses on making a one-shot kill.
Start out by first locating where you think a large trout may be holding, approach the spot with a high degree of stealth, and lastly, strive to make a presentation that allows you to work your streamer through the highest percentage spots right off the bat. You want to accomplish this with as few casts as possible, preferably only one or two.
There’s no dissecting water with your streamers here, folks. We’re not trying to see how many fish we can catch out of each hole. Nor are we trying to cover every square-inch of water. The excitement that triggers a trout into chasing down or eating your streamer lasts only for a brief period. That’s why it’s so important that you take the time to pick and choose your first couple casts strategically. So always cast to the prime water first and the subpar or secondary water second. If you target the water in the opposite order, most of the time your fly will swim through the water out of the target fish’s feeding range, and you’ll greatly decrease your chances of surprising and triggering a reaction strike (your best case scenario for a hookup). You’ll also risk alerting and spooking the fish before you have a good shot at getting your fly in front of them.
Streamer Gear & Rigging for Small Streams
To be successful at streamer fishing, it’s critical that you choose the correct fly fishing gear for the type of water and location you’ll be fishing. Your fly rod, fly line and leader need to be handpicked so that they all work together. That being said, you can’t effectively streamer fish small streams with most of your big water gear. You don’t need a full sinking line or an eight or nine weight fly rod, and you don’t need to chuck giant streamers to catch trout either. If chosen incorrectly, it will keep you from fishing at your full potential, and you’ll find much less success.
Start out by choosing an eight to nigh-foot medium-fast action fly rod. I’m not talking about a stiff broomstick. We do want the rod to have some limberness so it can perform well at short casting distances, roll cast fairly well and allow us the ability to present the streamer reasonably quiet during a cast if needed. One of my favorite small stream streamer rods is a Thomas & Thomas Helix 9-foot 6wt. You’ll next want to choose a weight-forward floating fly line with an aggressive front taper that excels at turning over large and heavy flies (like a Rio Power Fly, SA Floating Streamer Express or Orvis Hydros Power Taper). So far, that’s relatively common sense for most, but I take it a step further by attaching an Airflo Poly 5-foot Leader (clear-floating or intermediate version) to the end of my fly line. It’s very similar to a smaller diameter version of your fly line that’s clear and turns over streamers effortlessly. By using a Poly Leader, you’ll find your loops won’t hinge and seldom will collapse from a heavy streamer at the end of your cast. I generally go with the clear intermediate version because its slow sink rate helps me to keep my fly a little deeper during the retrieve. However, I will use the floating version when I’m dealing with really low water conditions.
How many times have you had a trout follow your streamer to the boat and have it turn off at the last second because it spotted you? It’s happened to me plenty of times. On smaller streams we are constantly fighting to stay under the radar of fish. The smaller streams and shorter presentations put us close to the fish, and our bright fly line even closer. Plain and simple, the Airflo clear floating and intermediate Poly Leaders provide me with a little bit of extra stealth during my presentations when fishing streamers on small trout water.
The last component in my small trout water streamer rig is my tippet. I generally attach a short three to six foot section of fluorocarbon tippet (4x-2x) to the end of my poly leader and tie on my streamer with a non-slip loop knot. I’ve been using this setup for the last few years with great success. It casts way more graceful than your standard WF fly line and tapered leader setup, improves accuracy, helps keep my streamer in the correct depth and improves my overall stealth.
9 Tips for streamer fishing on small streams
- Don’t make the mistake of thinking the larger or heavier the fly, the harder you need to cast your fly rod. Focus on timing and smooth acceleration throughout the casting stroke.
- Match the speed of your retrieve and/or strip to the speed of the water current you’re fishing (fast water = slow strip, slow water = fast strip).
- Choose either a downstream-and-accross or upstream-and-across presentation depending on what’s best for the situation. Many anglers prefer to wade and fish streamers down stream, and that’s fine, but keep in mind, by doing this on small streams, you’ll greatly increase the risk of spooking fish. Don’t rule it out completely because there will be times when it’s the only way to get your fly to the target water. Take the time to think your approach out so you’re fishing smart.
- Carry streamers in various weights and sizes to match the current water conditions, and make sure they represent local bait-fish/juvenile trout, sculpins and crayfish.
- Don’t stick with fishing only one streamer during the day. Experiment with the color and size of your streamers if you’re not getting the trout’s interest. Sometimes all you have to do is down size or go from a dark pattern to a light pattern.
- In tight quarters or super short presentations where you can’t get a lot of fly line out, try tying on a heavier streamer and jigging the fly up and down in the water column to keep the streamer in the strike zone and productive water longer. This method works great for pocket water and undercut banks.
- For high water, consider fishing an intermediate or sink-tip fly line, or use a sinking airflow poly leader.
- Use dark streamers in low light or for off-colored water conditions. They will provide a much better silhouette for the trout.
- Use realistic, brighter or flashy streamers when it’s clear water or sunny conditions.