Sunday Classic / The Streamer Game

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Couldn’t Resist The Voodoo Child, Photo by Louis Cahill

Streamer fishing is addictive. It’s almost become a cliche, but it’s true.

Guys get into it and hardly want to do anything else. I’m kinda one of those guys. I do lots of kinds of fishing, but if I’m out for trout and there’s nothing obvious going on, a streamer is likely what I’m tying on. I can’t say for sure why other folks get hooked on streamers, but I know what it is for me.

Obviously, there is immense skill in fishing dry flies and nymphs. Each is an art unto itself but the very nature of a dead drift is inherently passive. Streamer fishing is active. What I mean by that is, you are directly imparting an action to the fly which fools the fish. For me, it just feels more personal. I am “making” that fish eat. Again, this is totally personal but when I see the fish chase and eat my streamer it’s incredibly rewarding. The really cool thing about this is that it leaves a lot of room for personal expression on the part of the angler. My action is my action, by my hand. It’s different from yours, and every dedicated streamer fisherman I know has their own style. Those styles vary widely, so I thought I would share some of the gear and tactics that are successful for me.

Here’s how I play the game.

I want to get in the fish’s face with a big fly that looks alive but vulnerable. I want that fly to look like a bait fish that’s disoriented and in a panic. I want a lot of room between me and the bank. I want to identify and hit multiple holding zones between me and the bank. I’ll drop my fly a few inches from the bank just upstream of a likely pocket, then as I work it back to the boat, I mend, or pause, or speed up my retrieve to work the fly through as many holding zones as I can identify. Fifty or sixty feet is an ideal distance. It’s a challenging way to fish, but for me, it’s deadly.

Here is the setup I use to overcome some of the challenges.

Loaded for Bear, Photo by Louis Cahill

The Rod
The way I like to fish is demanding. You need to make long accurate casts with a heavy fly and do it all day long. I’ve tried a lot of rods and here’s what I’ve found. I like a six weight. I started with heavier rods but they wore me out. A six weight trout rod will not give me the power I need but a six weight salt water rod combines light weight, fast action and it’s designed to fight tough fish. In my humble opinion, it’s the perfect rod for streamer fishing. I like the Thomas & Thomas Apex and the Scott S4s.

The Reel
The reason I fish streamers is to catch big fish. When I hook a big fish I want some authority and a lot of that comes from the reel. You need a good drag and a large arbor. I use a Nautilus 7/8 and overload it with backing to increase the effective arbor size with a six weight line.

The Flies

My flies are heavy…really heavy. I want that fly to get down fast. For that reason, I also favor synthetic materials that have little buoyancy. All my streamers are articulated. If you’re swinging a fly there’s no real benefit to an articulated pattern but if you are stripping across the current, you can’t beat the action. Most of them are about four inches long and ride hook up.

The Line

Sinking lines are a last resort for me. A sinking line pulls the fly down. But it’s a pain to manage and if you are fishing an unweighted fly by the time your fly is at the depth you want, it’s already too far from the bank for the big trout that lurk there. With a floating line I also get the benefit of mending to change the direction of my retrieve which is a huge benefit. I like a line with a short, heavy front taper to turn over a heavy fly and give me accurate delivery.

The Leader
Your leader could be the most important piece of the puzzle. I like a long leader, 9 1/2′, because it helps me get deep. When my fly reaches a deep pocket I can pause my retrieve and that heavy fly will dive without having to pull the floating tip down with it, but a long leader has some liabilities too. It’s much harder to turn the fly over and be accurate. Making a long accurate cast with a heavy fly requires a stout leader. I build mine from 2′ sections of fluorocarbon in 40, 30, 20 & 17 lb. then finish with 18″ of 15 lb. When fish eat streamers they aren’t looking at your tippet. No need to be shy.

I’ve tried a lot of streamer techniques and this is what works for me. You may hate it. It’s challenging, it’s a workout and a lot of it flies in the face of what you’re going to read on the news stand but the results are hard to argue with. I hope it helps to put you on some fatties!

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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36 thoughts on “Sunday Classic / The Streamer Game

  1. I am guilty of falling in love with throwing big, articulated streamers. A trip to the South Holston and a day on a local stream really cemented it for me. Brian’s videos didn’t help my addiction either. I was buying up feathers, rubber legs, lazer dub, dumbell eyes and B10s hooks like mad. That’s another thing I love about streamers…. they’re fun as hell to tie. I throw mine with a 6wt Predator/Redington Delta 7/8 setup. Right now I’m just throwing a Rio MS Bass line (sometimes Rio Streamertip depending on the fishery) and a leader that I build with a 50# butt section that tapers down to 15# fluoro that helps with the turnover. No matter where I go, I will always have a streamer setup with me.

  2. Louis, your tactics sound like they will work very well on big water, but where I’m from that won’t cut it. I too am a streamer-a-holic, but here in Northern WI where a deep hole is only 4 or 5 feet and the rivers average about 30 feet wide, you had better be extremely accurate on the first cast. I use an 8′ 6 wt. very fast action rod with a WF6F SMB line and a 7 1/2′ 2X Leader. Most of my flies are about 3 to 4 inches long, usually bunny strip of some sort and also ride hook up. Some are articulated, but that is not a necessity since the fish will hit it in the first few feet of the retrieve most of the time. I believe the tactics you mention are mostly universal when streamer fishing for trout, but the specific gear differs in waters where you need to adapt to the prevailing conditions. When I go out west, I don’t change my tactics, just my gear to fit the water I’m fishing. Good article though.

    • No doubt the bank robber is a nice rod but you won’t be disappointed with a predator, and youll have some $$$ left over for more gear. I bought my 6wt and love it. I grabbed an 8wt soon after. They really are killer rods and the 6wt fits the bill when comes to streamer fishing. Hope this helps a bit.

    • I have put two hard years on a 7wt bankrobber, You have to figure out which line works.I used a Rio outbound sink tip line until recently switched to Air flo and both work great although I am partial to the must better handling Air flo line, the rod shoots line like a cannon. Really isn’t another rod out there that will allow you to work weightless streamers like this rod does. A lot also depends on how you fish the most, its a great rod in a drift boat. The action you can put on flies with the slightest twitches is just ridiculous.

  3. Louis,

    Great topic. I actually had a guide apologize to me one time when we had to “resort to” streamer fishing because the Toccoa Tailwater fish had turned off to dries and nymphs. There was no need for concern over my satisfaction with the trip, as I understand the ups and downs of fishing and appreciate a guide who will adjust to conditions. Anyone can put you on fish when they are jumping in the boat. But I do not understand the stigma of streamer fishing. I enjoy successful streamer fishing as much as I enjoy successful dead drift nymphing or successful dry fly fishing. Each has its time and place. Sure, dry fly fishing is something I try to do any time I can, but on my waters, it is probably available 5% of the time and less than that in winter. But, as you point out, streamer fishing is characterized by active involvement of the fisherman and the potential for big trout. Great formula in my book.

    • As southern fly fishers we learn to relish dry fly fishing when it’s available and we learn to produce fish in other ways the other 95% of the time. I couldn’t believe it the first time I saw some of my Idaho buddies pull up to a run, crack a beer and wait for the hatch. What a life!

      • My guides on western rivers and Alaska could not keep me out of the water. I had a guide in Paradise Valley who recognized my addiction, and when evening came he would say, “it’s wooly time.” We changed from dries to wooly buggers on Armstrong’s to go for cruising browns.

  4. I’m with you. I won’t nymph. I’d rather take that one impulse strike on a big streamer than stand like a blue heron and nymph a run. I run a similar setup, but I opt for a light 7weight, floating line with a three piece leader made of the stiff brown Maxima. I started carrying multiple setups in the boat, some days we don’t change flies but grab other rods with different colors. Just like bass fisherman. We have broken lots of rods, but I’ve found a crazy good rod at a cheap price. Dan Bailey has a 9’7wt four piece on their clearance page for 70 bucks. highly recommended.

  5. Gotta admit, I am also a crazy for fishing with streamers.

    While some of the flies I fish are articulated, my favorites are a grey/white double bunny and the basic, but so effective olive wooly bugger. Both flies have such great movement in the water. The rabbit strips on the double bunny have an unbelievable effect on the fish. I have caught large browns and rainbows, lake trout, small mouth and large mouth bass, stripers, blues, and so many more on the bunny it is crazy.

    Regarding rods, I am currently using a Cortland Big Sky 9′ 7wt. It is a great rod with a med-fast action and the power to fight large, aggressive fish. On some waters I use a longer rod, and have been using a Diamondback Swinger 11’6″ 6wt.

    I have to admit, I am also using heavier flies and do not like casting all day long. I prefer a set up that allows me to make long, well positioned roll casts. Both of those rods excel at that. Lately, I have also been sold on a intermediate tip (clear) fly line. The 10 foot length for the tip is perfect for all of my fishing needs. Cortland Line makes a great line that I am now using in both the 5 and 7 weights.

    I am also looking at adding a new 7wt to my collection.
    Cabela’s has the MTx in a 9’6″ 7wt. I really like that length, and miss fishing my old Heritage 7wt in that length. The MTx is Cabela’s premium rod, and uses the same 3M nano-silica resin technology of the Hardy Zenith and St. Croix Legend Elite. At $399, Cabela’s MTx it is a few dollars less than the St. Croix, and a couple of hundred less than the Hardy. Also, it is currently on sale for $299.

    Think I am going to fish this afternoon, and it looks like the water will be rising, and a bit off-colored. Maybe I should tie a couple of smaller, articulated streamers for some small stream, streamer fishing.

  6. Louis,
    Would love to see a post/video on how to make your own leaders. I know this is a bit elementary for some but would help others(like me)

  7. Nice post – can’t beat a post on streamer fishing. Dry fly fishing and sight nymphing is great, but casting a streamer to the bank and watching a nice size fish chase, chase, chase, and take (or refuse) is about as good as it gets. In addition to big articulated streamers, double streamer rigs can be really effective too!

  8. My small stream rod, I’m talking 6′ – 30′ southern Michigan trout streams often channelized drains with high banks and 100 year old canopies, that most people drive over and a few throw spinners in, is a 71/2′ 5wt St Croix that I built with over sized guides. It handles size 6 streamers perfectly and 4/6 articulated pretty well. I build the flies with bead chain eyes usually with sparse deer hair heads, bunny strips, rubberlegs and some flash and slip the conehead on the line. Sinking tip or floating line. It’s a myth that you can’t throw a backcast in a tunnel. Wade upstream a couple good casts and move along. It’s a workout but what a hoot. Same rod throws dries if they show up. Streamer leader is 6 feet of 6lb flouro, I think it gives me more action.

    The premier streamer fishing here is on the bigger rivers for smallmouth. As the weather heats up 50 fish days are not unusual. Same program except add 4 feet of 8lb behind the 6, and when you hook a smallie you camp until you run out of fish. Unlike browns they tend to congregate. One fish holes are unusual, My favorite rod is an old 9′ 7wt Lamiglass G1000. I stole a Rise level series 5wt this spring at a TU banquet and haven’t put it down it handles the streamers and fish up to 22′ if you drop the tip a little and makes the smaller fish more fun.

    Streamers are a ball to toss around, but nothing beats a trico hatch on heavily fished sections of the Au Sable where the fish are really fly inspectors in drag.

      • Greg any advice for the Huron around the Ypsilanti area? I’ll be up there for a week at the end of June. Looking for a good place to chuck some flies

        • I’m on the Kalamazoo, the Huron’s sister watershed just to the west. Contact Mike Schults at Schults Outfitters in Ypsilanti. A quick google search will bring the shop up. Mike will tell you where to get on the water. Lots of parks and public access on the Huron. It usually takes surprisingly little wading to get away from the crowd

  9. Nice read! I to use a 6 wt. But I lined up to a 7 wt Rio Gold line and don’t use a tapered leader, just 6-8 ft of 10 pound spiderline , you know the braided stuff the ditch pickle guys use. I find its supple enough to let my fly do whatever it wants to when I’m twitchin’ and strippin’. Also use articky’s most of the time, lately I’m tying some articulated Gartside soft hackle streamers. Simple and deadly! marabou is just the perfect streamer material, throw in some flash, mayb a rubber leg here or there and BAM! We off to da races.

  10. If you want some beast streamer flies check out rich strolis flies. There just filthy.…..I like your reasoning on your lack of use of a sinking line, i know plenty of people who love to use em to get deep quick, myself included and with unweighted streamer flies it could seem like a necessity, Ill have to rig up some long leaders like you mentioned. great post.

  11. Great article! Do you ever use a loop knot on the fly? Any particular reasons for/against a loop knot?

    Can you also describe your favorite retrieve? Stripping downstream, cross stream, or upstream? Slowly work it through the targets or rip it through?

    I got hooked on throwing meat last year and had a great season, but I’m off to a really slow start this year and I can’t figure out why. I lost my confidence and I think the fish know it…

    • You might be hyperfocusing on your cast. What I mean is this: are you casting WHERE you think the trout are? If you are then you are missing them due to sink rates and stream flow, Try throwing your streamers earlier, like 5-7 feet before the trouts lie, then throw a huge stack mend in behind it so the meat has time to get down and you can strip it past the bruiser. Just a thought, I know I had this problem when I first started chuckin big streamers

      • Honestly, I don’t really pick my targets much for streamer fishing. That could be my problem. Normally, I’ll fish a standard riffle or run by standing in the middle of the river and casting directly across to the bank. I’ll let it sink and twitch and strip as it swings all the way down below me. After each cast I take a big step downstream and repeat. In my mind this covers all the water, but maybe I need to pick out more key holding areas and focus on those.

        • Reread the first paragraph. I fish my streamers with the mindset of a small baitfish trying to escape some big brown or find a new place to hide. I stay away from the open, middle of the river because small baitfish would be easy prey there, so in normal situations a smart trout would know that what your throwing doesn’t “look right”. If your fishing streamers look for structure and focus on it. I’m a bit older and if I were to throw a streamer like you do I wouldn’t last but an hour maybe 2 tops. I’ve had big trout go out of their way to come smack my streamer because it was in its likely lie. I’d like to read more about Louis techniques and thoughts. Hopefully He’ll do a follow up but I’m thinkin its time to fish!

    • Greg, I always use a loop knot. The fly gets better action and sinks faster. I use a jerk strip retrieve most of the time. When fishing from a boat I retrieve across the current which is the most effective but on small streams I’ll strip down stream or up.

      Confidence is the key my friend. That and persistence. Hang in there and stick to the program. It’ll happen.

  12. Timely advice. I had my first experience throwing buggers for trout last week with great success. That was on a 4 wt. I borrowed a 6 wt and slung a big articulated streamer one evening for about an hour. One follow and one explosive strike got my heart racing, but I wasn’t able to land either. I’m about to go all in and have been researching rods like crazy trying to figure out what I want.

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