3 Fly Fishing Situations When I Will Stop My Streamer During the Retrieve

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Sculpins patterns should be fished with a stop and go retrieve. Photo Louis Cahill

Warning: The fly fishing advice you’re about to read may go against your present beliefs. There’s a good chance you’ll feel inclined to tell me I’m nuts for recommending it. That’s totally cool, I just ask that you read what I’ve written, before you make the decision to set me straight.

It has long been drilled into our heads, that the worst thing a fly fisherman can do when a fish is tracking his/her streamer, is stop the retrieve.

I agree with this advice 95% of the time because most prey when threatened by a predator, will swim as hard and fast as possible to escape being eaten. That being said, I’ve been on the water many times when the constant-strip retrieve, or even the speed-up retrieve with my streamer, has failed to get me the hook up from a following fish. It was only when I thought outside the box, and found the courage to go against the popular view that streamers should always be kept moving when a fish is tracking, that I found myself with a bent rod.

With most things in fly fishing, there’s always exceptions to the rule. No matter how rare the exception may come up, a fly fisherman should always be willing to experiment when traditional tactics aren’t producing. If I told you that you were going to be streamer fishing a river where there were lots of injured and dying baitfish, would you still believe that a constant retrieve with a streamer would be your best tactic? What about if you were fly fishing trout water that had huge populations of sculpins or I said you were going to be fly fishing on a lake for largemouth bass, with water temperatures in the high forties? These are just a few fly fishing situations when I’ve found that a stop-and-go retrieve with a streamer can produce better than a constant retrieve, when fish are tracking but not eating. Below are three situations when killing your streamer retrieve, could prove to be your golden ticket.

About five years ago, fly fishing along the banks of the White River in Arkansas, I watched Louis lure in one big brown after another with his streamer, only to watch each turn off at the last second or short strike his fly. Over and over, Louis kept his sculpin imitation moving, just like he was taught to do his entire fly fishing career when a fish was tracking his streamer. After several failed attempts, I recommended he try stopping his sculpin and letting it lay motionless on the stream bottom, the next time he got a brown to follow that wasn’t committing. As soon as I got the words out of my mouth, Louis responded with, “Are you crazy, Kent? I was taught that’s the absolute last thing you should do when you’re streamer fishing and have a fish following.” Despite it feeling completely wrong, Louis tried my suggestion on his next cast. One of the familiar browns that had followed his sculpin and turned off a number of times prior, showed up like clock work, but this time instead of Louis continuing his retrieve, he killed it, and the brown eagerly sucked in the sculpin off the gravel streambed. “Holy shit, I can’t believe that worked”, Louis replied.

Believe it or not, sculpins don’t swim long distances when startled. They often tend to use a few quick bursts of their powerful tail to propel them several feet away from the immediate threat, and then they’ll quickly settle to the stream bottom and remain motionless, where they can use their molted bodies as camouflage to hide until the threat has past. Fly anglers should keep this in mind when they’re fishing sculpin patterns. Especially if they’re noticing fish are following their pattern but not committing. Most veteran sculpin junkies will tell you, fishing a sculpin deep, with a quick, strip-strip pause, is the correct approach when imitating the swimming motion of sculpins. If you’re fishing clear shallow water where you can see trout following, but they won’t commit, I’d try killing your retrieve, and you may just find the same success Louis did that day on the White River. It obviously won’t work all the time and I’m not recommending you try it right out of the gate, but if a constant strip isn’t working for a fish tracking your streamer, what do you have to lose?


Shad kill on the White River. Photo Louis Cahill

That same trip on the White River, we were fly fishing during a massive shad kill. Thousands, upon thousands of shad, were being discharged out of Bull Shoals Dam. Not all, but the large majority of them were floating downstream stunned, wounded or dead. Our guide for the day had us fishing a variety of shad imitation streamers, but he didn’t have us stripping any of them very fast or much at all, for that matter. When we weren’t dead drifting them, we were instructed to make two or three erratic strips, followed by a long pause. Almost every trout we caught on streamers that day, came during the pause. When the fly fishing was over and we got back to the cabin, I thought about how our guide’s streamer retrieve instructions went against the norm of always keeping streamers moving. Then I thought about what the trout were witnessing on the river. and how they all seemed to be singling out and eating only the wounded shad. It made me realize that the trout weren’t feeding out of territorial behavior (which is often the case with large streamers) but instead out of positive triggers being provided by the “erratic dart and pause” of the injured shad. Fly anglers should always be aware of situations on the river when a massive influx of food can cause fish to save energy and feed primarily on cripple or wounded prey. The “pause of a fly” during the retrieve waves the flag of an easy meal, and can trigger the feeding instincts of the trout to come in for the kill.

Fly fishing on large reservoirs with baitfish streamer patterns during the late fall or early spring can yield similar results like the ones previously mentioned on the White River. When water temperatures are cold, bass aren’t as active. Most tournament bass fisherman will tell you in cold water situations, coaxing bass into biting lures or flies is all about having the discipline to slow down and pause your imitiation in the water for several seconds in between retrieves. You can learn a lot from studying the way conventional fisherman target bass with their lures on lakes. Take for instance, the plastic jerk bait (Fluke or Bass Assasin) which really shines when you give it a few erratic movements, stop it, and let it suspend or slowly sink. It perfectly imitates a injured or dying shad, and fly anglers should try to mimic this action and retrieve on the lakes when fishing conditions call for it.


Alabama Rig

Not too long ago, Louis and I were fishing with a tournament bass fisherman on Lake Guntersville, in Alabama. Our guide spent the majority of the day fishing one of those crazy Alabama Rigs. If you aren’t familiar with this rig, it’s basically a cast-able version of a shad umbrella rig, which has anywhere from 3 to 7 plastic swimbaits attached on a wire umbrella. It’s normally used to cover large areas of water quickly, with a fast pace retrieve, and it looks exactly like a school of baitfish swimming through the water. The Alabama Rig has become quite popular among the conventional bass fisherman crowd, the last few years, and when it’s hot, you can catch a large sac of bass crazy quick, sometimes catching multiple fish each cast. That day, our guide fishing the Alabama Rig didn’t do so hot. In fact, he got out fished by me with my fly rod, fishing a single buck-tail streamer. The bass weren’t active enough to want a constant retrieve. Instead, they were lazy and preferred a presentation that was retrieved for a few feet, and then paused for 3-5 seconds. I’ll probably never out fish our buddy again on Guntersville, but it did strengthen my view on how important it can be to kill your retrieve with streamers on lakes with cold water.

Those are three different situations when killing the retrieve has helped me catch fish with streamers when a constant retrieve wasn’t producing. Give it a try when you find yourself in situations when fish are following your streamer but not committing. Again, it’s a niche tactic, and should only be used when you’ve already tried the constant or speed-up approach. If you experienced another fishing situation where you’ve found the “stop approach” to be effective, please share it with the community. We’d love to hear about it.

Keep it Reel,

Come fish with us in the Bahamas!

Kent Klewein
Gink & Gasoline
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27 thoughts on “3 Fly Fishing Situations When I Will Stop My Streamer During the Retrieve

  1. Good idea! 30 some years ago when I first learned how to use Rapalas (jointed or not) I was taught to mimick a dying baitfish, the principal is the same with streamers. Dying fish are opportunity eats for predators.

  2. Sound advice! Its all about what the fish wants at the present time and situation. What is going on in the fishes environment around him and how is he reacting to it? Its hard to cast from inside the box….

    • JSA,

      You just said what took me over a thousand words in only two sentences. LOL. That away to make me feel like an idiot. In my defense I threw in some short fishing stories.

      Seriously, super glad you commented b/c I’m probably going to use it next time I refer to a client the rare situations when someone should consider killing a streamer during the retrieve. Cheers.


  3. More good advice. Many of us have figured out that following long standing practices is not always ideal. There are always exceptions, and understanding them can often be the difference between a great day on the water and a frustrating day under the sun.

  4. Great stuff Kent. This has served me well small mouth fishing up north. once the temps drop you have got to slow the whole thing down.

  5. The stop is deadly. Contrary to poular belief as you highlighted in this awesome article, the stop can make it happen. I boated three muskie this year on the stop. These were interested fish, doing the long follow. When I dropped the retrieve and the flies started to sink, flutter and appear lifeless, did the fish inhale the fly. Same goes for smallmouth bass. My biggest bass to date came to the long pause of a clouser.

  6. Yep Kent, there are lots of those days when success is based on fishing smarter not harder. Smarter most always requires some “out side the box” thinking.


  7. Hey Kent,

    Cool article and something I started doing myself. I learned this method through fishing for red fish as most of the time red fish will pick up the fly off of the bottom of the water when it is dropping or bouncing off of the bottom. I may have just been making an error when going from salt to fresh water when first trying this but, it does work and I caught a lot of fish using this method on the river recently.

    Keep up the great articles,


  8. Love the disclaimer..

    I often feel my opinions or strategies might seem a little sideways to most fly fishing people so I usually don’t show my cards..
    When I fish streamers, I think “action” first. I believe in presenting erratic behavior and that typically involves stoppages..not fly first..action first..

      • I sound a little vague..what I mean is..I don’t rely on the realism of the look of the fly to attract fish..I rely on the manipulation of the fly because honestly I tie a lot of impressionistic type of flies..particularly in still water where you want that “motion without movement,” and I fish very slowly with flies that you may or may not call streamers..with pretty long pauses to be frank..thanks!

        • I swing a lot of streamers in my home waters in OR that are NOT going to win any tying awards. I shoot for something that will have lots of movement and cast a nice profile. Not too many things in any river swim a steady pace for very long. I think the pause is an important part of presentation. Anyhow, it works for me !!

          • Jeff,

            Thanks for sharing your opinions on how important fly movement and the pause can be for swinging flies in OR. We appreciate your information. Cheers.


  9. If you’re ever fishing a chum line in saltwater, the preferred method is to drop the streamer in the chum line, and give it as much slack like as you can. You want a perfect drift, with a streamer. Tuna, snapper, and macks eat it up.

  10. Another area where stopping streamers or even fishing them static seems to work is fish that are “shutdown” deep in snags. IMO its one of the areas where fly fishermen have a real advantage of lure slingers (divers and lures that need to be retrieved to give them action anyway, plastics can be fished in more or less the same way), in that naturally, marabou, bucktail etc all provide “movement” and “action”, a feeling of life so to speak, without much “action” by the angler. Being from Australia, fish like Australian bass, bream, barra, murray cod etc (not sure what your US equivalents are) will sometimes sit up deep in snags and just won’t venture out from them (or will at least be very hard to tempt out of the snag)… In those situations, pauses and static presentations of streamers can work a treat. Its probably more about being able to leave a fly in the “strike” zone for a decent period time more than anything else, but it works. When the fish wont leave a snag, you have to present a fly in the snag and you simply cant do that all that effectively with say a deep diving lure that needs to be retrieved to “work”… A fly or plastic though, can be put right in the snag to gently float down, then fished with the odd short sharp strip (and more pauses), while still having the “movement” or action needed to entice a strike…

  11. Pingback: Dally’s Streamer Love Fest On Again in Feb. | Temple Fork Outfitters

  12. Well, not everything is taught in schools. There are some things that you have to learn through practice or experience. Perhaps anyone can be confident enough to experiment when they have been fishing for several years already.

  13. Pingback: “Vary it up”- musings on fishing dogmas | Flick and Fly Journal

  14. San Luis Res in CA has many huge stripers that go down 20 or more feet in summer for cooler water. T14 heads take the fly down if left alone for 20-30 seconds. That first strip is often key; a long strip and a simultaneous lift of the rod get their attention. But key to this discussion is this; often the bait is hit or get a tail-swipe. If you feel a tick, but not a solid hook up, let the fly sink for a few seconds. Like a stunned bait fish. The big Moe is often lurking below the bait school, waiting for easy stunned pickings to drift down.

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