Swinging Streamers on Big Water

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Streamer Caught Brown Trout on the Swing. Photo By: Louis Cahill

Most streamer fisherman out there would agree that pounding the river banks with a streamer will catch trout just about anywhere. If you’re willing to put in the time and hard work eventually you’ll be rewarded with a big fish. During high water flows on rivers where habitat is insufficient out in the main river, many trout will relocate to the banks where they can use the irregular banks and it’s abundant cover to shelter themselves out of the excessive current. There next move, once they’ve gotten to the banks, is to find prime ambush spots where they can easily pick off prey moving by. This is why casting to the bank and ripping streamers back to the boat is so effective. You’re repeatedly putting your streamer right in the kitchen where good numbers of fish will be feeding.

The majority of the time this scenario works great, but what do you do when you find yourself in areas where the water is super deep and the fish are sitting on the bottom? These places make it extremely difficult for anglers using the pounding the bank technique to keep their streamers down deep in the strike zone during a steady retrieve. Even with a full sinking fly line the cards are stacked against you. Don’t get me wrong, it can still work, especially if you cast upstream of your target water, and give your streamer time to sink before you begin your retrieve. Unfortunately, you won’t always have the time nor the room to pull this off, and that should have you searching for an alternative method that’s better suited for fishing your streamers in these deep water locations.

Swing Streamers through deep water hot spots

The best method I’ve found to consistently get hookups from deep water fish is to swing your streamers across their noses. This allows you to keep your streamers in the face of the deep water fish longer, which often will yield more strikes.

Step 1: When possible anchor your boat upstream and slightly across from your prime deep water. (It could be a nice drop off, a series of buckets, or just a long deep run or pool. The main point is that the water is too deep for you to use a standard strip retrieve, and anchoring up will provide you time to work the area thoroughly).

Step 2: Make a cast upstream and inline with your target water directly downstream. As your streamer passes by you heading downstream to the target water begin mending and kicking out extra fly line. This will give you sufficient slack, so your fly can sink into the strike zone.

Step 3: As your fly begins entering your prime target water you’ll want to strip in any excess slack, drop your rod tip to the water, and slowly begin moving your rod to the left or right (depending on what side your target water is located on). This will create a belly in the fly line and initiate the swing of your streamer. Your goal is to have your streamer right at the fish’s eye level as you begin your swing. This will bring it right across their noses.

Step 4: When your streamer gets to the end of the swing it’s really important to let your streamer dance in the current for several seconds. Quite often you’ll get bites at this point from the fish following your streamer up in the water column. Another method for triggering bites at the end of your swing is to pull your arm back and forth (similar to hand cranking an outboard motor) a few times at the end of your swing which will swim your fly upstream a few feet and then slowly drift back. I learned this deadly technique guiding in Alaska. Some days it works awesome, others days the fish don’t react to it.

Swinging Streamer Rig

I prefer a 7-9wt 9′ fly rod with a reel spooled with a 250-350 grain full sinking fly line. I go lighter if the flows are less and the water is shallower. I’ve found many anglers fish too long of a leader (5-6′). All you need is about a 2-3-foot section of 12-20lb. Fluorocarbon. Trout usually aren’t leader shy when their chasing after a 3-6″ streamer in high water, and the shorter leader will help keep your flies running deep where you want them. Always change fly colors to determine the hot color during the day. Be aware it can change, particularly when light levels change. Doing this, you can turn an average fishing day into an epic day.


If you get in the habit of pinpointing, then fishing good swinging water as your drifting and pounding the banks, you often will increase your success for the day. Be willing to work the water thoroughly when you’re swinging your streamers through your target water. Sometimes the sweet spots are really small that you have to work your flies through, and it can sometimes take several swings to trigger fish to eat. Understand the weather plays a big role in how active and aggressive the fish will be. Just because you have one slow day on the water, doesn’t mean you can’t have a great day on the same stretch during different weather conditions. I’ve learned certain rivers fish better in completely opposite conditions. Always remember persistence usually pays off with streamer fishing. Remember every cast made with a streamer is one closer to a hook up. The key is to streamer fish hard all the way through. Louis and I will often take turns, one rowing, one fishing. That way we can stay fresh and fish strong the whole day. It makes a big difference for success.

Keep it Reel,

Kent Klewein
Gink & Gasoline
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13 thoughts on “Swinging Streamers on Big Water

  1. Excellent advice. I fished the WB of the Ausable River (here in New York) last week. That time started under conditions that can be called “high water” at best, and “pure raging mud” at worst. Water fell steadily, and as it did, so did the amount of dirt and debris.

    Still for most of my first 2.5 days on the water, levels were higher than I had ever experienced on this stream. Conditions were perfect, however, for my favorite type of fly fishing, streamers. My friends and I swung a variety of 3-6 inch streamers through deep pools. We were all rewarded with browns and rainbows ranging from 13 to 19 inches. Some of us watched in frustration as fish chased the flies but did not commit; while others screamed in frustration as an angry jump shook flies free.

    Overall, the big winner this weekend is a pattern developed by Richard Garfield “The Sirloin”. Killer pattern, simple to tie. Deadly on big stream trout – and also big stream smallmouths.

    One thing to note, when fishing a sinking line, and short leader, your fly does not need to be weighted. The line will get it down to the correct depth.

    For the past year, I have been fishing an old Cortland Line 444 XRL 7 wt (no longer in production sadly) that features a 30 foot shooting head (Type V Sinking) directly fused onto a running line of un-coated braided mono filament. This line casts like a dream, and sinks like a lead stone.

    Wish I could find more.

    Anyway, thanks for the article.

    Love streamer fishing.

  2. Well detailed and right on. I caught some monster browns early last summer on the Gunnison River in CO when the water was still pretty high using two tube flies in tandem with a tungsten bead at the head on a fast sink tip on my spey rod.

    I cast upstream farther than one normally would to give the rig a chance to get deep before it got to my target zone. I did have to do some striping and mending to keep the drift correct, but no problem doing that.

    I was catching fish when most weren’t, they just were not able to get their traditional gear deep enough quick enough to attract a strike from any fish.


  3. Once again we’re seeing a common thread that runs through fly fishing. What you’re describing here sounds exactly like the “swinging a fly” that the Steelheaders and Salmon fishermen like to do. Different fish perhaps, but the same problem getting a fly in front of them and of course the same solution. By the way this also works well with Smallmouth, just look for softer water than you’d find a trout using.

  4. Hey so I know streamer fishing can be super productive in high or off color water, but how do you approach clear tailwaters that I fish a lot in California such as the Trinity, Yuba, or Lower Sac? Are there streamer tactics that work in gin clear water with spooky fish? I’m trying to diversify out here!

    • Yes Jon. Streamers work on any type of water. On clear water with spooky fish, look for overcast days, early mornings and late afternoons. More natural colors and profiles will likely work best. Target banks, buckets, seams and any likely ambush spots. Vary your retrieve and see what they like. Stay at it and you’ll get a big boy.

    • I live and fish on the southern coast of OR, largely for salmon & steelhead. I fish mostly by swinging streamers regardless of the season.

      Having said that, late in the summer when stream flows are slow and the water is clear I find that I need to use a smaller streamer than I would normally in higher faster water. Maybe something tied on a #4 or #6 hook. Since the water is slow and the effect of the swing produces less action on the streamer, I find it becomes necessary to “twitch” the streamer, maybe strip and then let it drift again, etc. to create some like-like action. In slower water the fish have a lot more time to look at anything drifting by so you need to make the streamer look alive and act like something real and alive.

      Hope that helps.


    • Sometimes I will fish small spring creeks in this region (NY, PA). Typically, tactics include tiny dry flies, tiny nymphs and tiny emergers (sizes 18, 20 and smaller). I often have success with smaller (size 8, 10 and 12) streamers. The fish are so used to seeing fly fishers use the same flies and tactics, that a small streamer (which is large in comparison) can be deadly.

      On one trip this winter, there were tiny olives and midges hatching, and fish rising to eat them off the surface. My friends and I spent most of the day trying to match the hatch. We had very limited success. Finally, I tied on an unweighted olive wooly bugger (size 8) and on my second cast, hooked and landed the largest fish I have ever taken from this stream. My friends laughed at my “luck”. By the time I had landed my 4th wild brown, the others had all tied on olive wooly bugers. And met with similar success.

  5. I am so envious of the streamer fishing you guys have in the USA. It is a tactic that I love and very occasionally get to use it on trout and smallmouth bass here in South Africa, I also use it in out estuaries from time to time. But my favourite is swinging streamers for Tiger Fish in the Zambezi River and Okavango rivers using fast sinking lines. One of the challenges is getting the fly deep and this article explains a lot and is most helpful and I have used mending to great effect.

    But my main question which maybe the readers and Louis can answer is how important is weighting flies? We mainly use 9 weights with clouser minnows with heavy eyes or other patterns with plenty of lead wraps, but unweighted brush flies have become popular. I am reluctant to tie up a bunch before leaving for a trip on the Upper Zambezi in July.

    I would be very interested in hearing peoples thoughts on this as I feel an unweighted fly will keep the heavy sinking line from getting down deep enough even with a short leader.



    • Jeff from Oregon here.

      Nearly all of my streamers are un-weighted. When confronted with waters where I am having trouble getting my streamer down quickly and deep enough I string a tungsten bead on my tippet before tying on the streamer. You can be the judge on how many you need. To much weight may make it tricky to be able to cast the streamer. If you don’t have tungsten beads plain old small splitshot will work.


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