Trout Streamers And The Problem With Pushing Water

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Photo by Louis Cahill

Photo by Louis Cahill

That fly pushes a lot of water, but does it catch a lot of fish?

Like most human endeavors, fly fishing is subject to fads. One of the latest fads in the sport is flies designed to push water. Largely fueled by the increased popularity of musky fishing with the fly rod, fly tyers are pushing the boundaries like never before. Streamer patterns commonly resembling something Tina Turner might have worn in Mad Max are the norm and nothing is off limits. It’s the Wild West.

The mantra of most folks tying these flies is “push more water.” The idea behind pushing water is simple. A large fly with a blunt head displaces a lot of water when stripped. Fish “hear” this water displacement through their lateral line and it helps them key in on the fly. Nothing wrong with that logic. It’s all true.

When fishing for species like musky or redfish which rely on sound more than sight to hunt, it’s a truly important principal and flies that push water produce. But it’s not always the most important element of a fly’s design. In fact, when this idea that a fly must push water makes it’s way into trout fishing it often causes more problems than it solves.

Trout are predominantly visual feeders. They live in clear water where their excellent vision is their greatest asset. This is not to say that they pay no attention to what they hear or smell but they do not aggressively eat midges because they push water.

It’s much more important that a trout see your fly than hear it. When streamer fishing for big trout, the fly needs to get in their face. Like a small fish invading their space. That’s what triggers his predatory response. The biggest challenge In showing a trophy trout your fly is getting it down to his depth. That’s a hugely important task. The trout feels safe in his holding zone. Asking a big experienced trout to show himself is asking a lot. Think about the really big fish you’ve caught. Did you see the eat, or did it happen in that zone just below where you could see?

There is a very popular idea that fishing unweighted streamers on sinking lines is the only way to catch big trout. Kelly Galloup, who I both like and deeply respect, has pushed this idea to the forefront of popular thinking but Kelly lives on and fishes the Madison, a ninety mile riffle where this technique works well. It’s not the best method on every river.

In most rivers, the largest fish live near undercut banks and stream side structure. When you fish an unweighted fly on a weighted line, your fly does not reach its optimum fishing depth until you have moved it about ten feet. This means that you have made your least effective presentation to the most productive water. Do you feel good about that idea?

When the fly tyer starts thinking about pushing water, they start piling on more materials. These materials have natural buoyancy. The more you put on, the more the fly floats. The less effectively it fishes the bank. Sure the fish hears it, but does he chase and eat it? Is he more likely to eat a fly that gets into his holding zone? I think so. In fact, I am certain of it.

The streamers that produce for me are designed to get down fast and have great action. Putting the fly in front of the fish and making it move as if it were alive results in vicious takes. Some patterns are natural in color and profile but some of the best are super flashy and slim with a pulsing action. I’ve had friends laugh at some of my streamers when I tie them on and ask for a second look when I start wailing on fish.

Here are a few things you might want to keep in mind when tying trout streamers.

Action is key.

If a fly looks alive it’s going to get eaten. All the streamers I fish are articulated in one way or another. The materials I use move freely in the water. Rabbit strip, marabou, and long fiber flash materials. I like flash fibers that are flat and smooth like Hairline’s Ice Dub and Larva Lace Angel Hair.

Avoid materials that float.

Most natural materials float. The more of these materials you use, the longer it takes for your fly to sink. Big deer hair heads are like life preservers. Try building a head from EP Crustaceous Brush. The synthetic fibers sink much faster. I use synthetic materials whenever possible.

Tie them heavy.

I use a lot of weighed wire and dumbbell eyes. A heavy fly sinks faster, pure and simple. I want that fly to sink a foot or more before I start my retrieve. The flies can be a challenge to cast but you get used to it.

Tie them big.

I like my streamers four to six inches long. When I fish streamers I’m targeting big fish and they’ll have no problem eating a big fly. Trout will regularly eat fish half their own length. Don’t be shy.

Tie like a steelheader.

Steelhead flies can be a great inspiration for streamer tying. Steelhead patterns, good ones anyway, are very sparse while still presenting a nice profile. Tying techniques like palmering marabou in front of dubbing balls or palmered hackles create nice silhouettes without all the bulk.


There’s nothing wrong with pushing a little water. Just don’t get so worked up about it that you loose sight of the big picture. Trout streamers that sink fast and have great action will put you on fish just about any day.

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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14 thoughts on “Trout Streamers And The Problem With Pushing Water

  1. Louis, Jeff in OR here:

    I make my streamers for steelhead, and salmon, with material that helps create a good profile and good movement that will resemble food to the fish. Yes, it is very easy to get carried away and get too much material to “push” water. I prefer to create action and profile and not worry about the water push. In fact, most of my streamers are tied with no more material than necessary to get the look and action I want, but vary from 3″ to 5″ long. I also go for articulated streamers. In situations where I want to get deep quick I use a fast sinking tip and string at least one tungsten bead on my tippet before tying on the streamer.
    Having said all that, I use many of these same streamers fishing for trout and they produce lots of fish.

    Good post !

  2. I’m guilty of tying those the same big, bulky patterns at times. The thought that “more is better” has created some interesting streamers that I thought would be successful. The truth is, most of those patterns with big, bulky bodies are just sitting in a case, and haven’t seem the end of a leader in quite some time. My most successful patterns are exactly what you described. I’ve had way more success with patterns that are more sparse, and focus more on visual cues, than those more focused on water displacement. And Amen, don’t be afraid to throw some freakin meat for trout! If you’re throwing streamers, chances are you’re wanting to catch big fish. Right? So throw something that will get their attention. I’ve caught trout up to 16 inches that have been chased around by larger trout while I was trying to get them to my net. Most of my streamers are articulated and 6-8 inches in length. Great post Louis!

  3. Great post. I have wrestled with this idea a lot and have had mixed results using both methods. I think one thing that is worth mentioning is that some people enjoy watching the eat almost more than anything. The large buoyant streamer on a sinking line often affords this opportunity more than a heavy fly method as you mention above. I employ both methods and agree that numbers wise the heavy fly has been more productive on average, that being said, I enjoy fishing an unweighted cougar or fathead because the probability I am going to see the eat is higher. Your blog is awesome!

  4. After tying thousands of Bass Bugs, I find it difficult to tie on deer hair without packing it down so tight it floats really well. The last time I tried to tie up some Muddler Minnows I ended up using them as top waters for Smallmouth. Tie in the hair if you must, but don’t pack it.

    Any chance you guys could come up with a list of synthetics that have proven successful?

    Thanks, another good read!

  5. Great post. I agree with everything that you wrote, and use most of these techniques in my tying. In general, my streamers are 4-6 inches in length and move well in the water. I do fish plenty of articulated patterns, but I would say that those flies still make up the minority of my patterns.

    I have also incorporated stinger (or trailer) hooks into my pattens as often as possible. These hooks, that generally hang at the very tail end of the fly, have increased the number of hook-ups that I have on short strikes, and also decreased the number of thrown hooks during a fight.

  6. Interesting piece. All new to me as living in Montana I basically fish rivers and streams and lakes.
    Good info to know.for future reference.

  7. Hi — first time here. Great post, and I too agree with lots of what you say, but would add one thing. I tie lots of streamers (both for trout and saltwater stripers, etc.) with fairly dense, bulky heads and long, mobile tails for reasons that have nothing to do with “pushing” water. I’m actually pretty skeptical that a 4 inch fly will ever have enough mass to alert a fish from that far away. But … a fly with that profile — which also happens to be a good imitation of most baitfish shapes — will often swim better, because the water flowing over the dense head creates all kinds of currents that make the tail kick. Baitfish, from little dace to big adult bunker to mullet, shad, and everything else I can think of, mostly wiggle in their tails. Fat head/long soft tail combos imitate that action really well. That principle is in fact key to a lot of the most important saltwater patterns, like Bob Popovics flies. Personally, most of my bulky heads are either tied with Kinky Fiber or Senyo’s Laser Dub in a 360 degree shape, so they sink pretty well, but sometimes they need a split shot or sinking line to do the job. The Kinky Fiber can trap some air, but its worth making adjustments to get that tail wiggling action — at least for me!!! Thanks.

  8. Interesting enough is that a heavily weighted sparsely tied streamer pattern is Kelly Galloups sex dungeon. And if Ya need em, I got em for cheap!

  9. I’m learning way to much from your blog posts. Keep them Coming! I’ve never caught a Trout larger than 15″ on the fly yet, perhaps I need to read this about ten more times, let it sink in, and once I’m home this weekend set down at the bench and get to work… Good stuff here.

  10. I couldn’t agree more. I like slender conehead bunny patterns with lots of wiggle. The more bulky streamers don’t dart as quickly and they are more fatiguing to cast and retrieve. Bob clouser always preached keeping streamers sparse.

  11. Great article guys. I agree and disagree with some points, but I enjoy the debate and conversation nonetheless.

    If you are fishing deep waters after sun up and before dark- yes you will want weighted flies if you cannot cast an appropriate length to allow for the fly to sink.

    You CAN catch tons of trout with unweighted flies with Galloup’s methods- even midday- I have. Nothing more beautiful then watching a swirl on the bottom and have it come over the top and crush it’s face.

    I will caution about weighted flies though. If you are truly hunting the biggest trout with streamers- you need to fish after dark or before sun up. At this time they are feeding, and cruising the shallows. Good luck throwing weighted flies at this time. You will hang up every cast. This is truly where the Galloup system proves itself. It is also the time when you will catch the biggest trout in the river, most likely.

  12. Weighted line, unweighted streamer and a short leader work fine. Is casting 5 inch weighted streamer all day really fun? Not for me. I still catch big fish. Maybe not as many, but success isn’t measured, or at least shouldn’t be, by the size of fish. Was it fun? Did you enjoy the day outdoors? What interesting thing did you see or experience along or in the river? What memory did you make? Not, my shoulder hurts…..

  13. Good advice. I believe in both techniques, but as you pointed out, they must be applied in the right situation. I recently had a day where spotted bass were so tight to a brushy undercut bank that the only way to fish the one foot zone was to side arm a heavy floating line and weighted streamer. I had a look or take from every fish that I threw to properly. That same day we moved to stripers where I fished a lightly weighted Whistler designed to push water, on a sinking line with a short leader. It caught stripers all afternoon while my stubborn buddy stuck with the floating line, and was skunked until he switched hours later.

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