I’ve relayed this story fairly often, but it bears repeating. I grew up in a family where I didn’t know that nymphs or streamers existed. We attended the High Church of Dry Fly Fishing, and as far as I knew, that was the only real kind of fishing to do. Worm-dunking, or mashing Powerbait onto a hook, was constantly looked down on.
Then, when I finally got out of the nest a bit in my early teens, I discovered the world of streamers and nymphs. The rest is, as they say, history. While my grandfather is likely still upset with me for using nymphs and streamers, there’s no doubt that doing so has expanded my fly fishing game. Being able to target trout, wherever they’re located, is what makes fly fishing so much fun.
Now, if I had to pick between streamers and nymphs, I’d almost always pick streamers. I love the active work of fishing them, as opposed to the more laid-back approach to nymphing. Streamers require the same kind of constant movement and adjustment that made me fall in love with dry fly fishing in the first place, so I think that’s why I’m naturally inclined to it.
Just as with nymphs or dries, there’s an endless number of options for how to fish streamers. And for most of us, we’ll likely start with fishing them on a floating line.
Why floating line?
The majority of fly fishing is done with floating fly line. And if you’re going to start streamer fishing, you’ll likely start off with floating line. Buying sinking lines, or even sink-tip lines, is an added expense that may not be worth it if you don’t like fishing streamers.
So, that’s why we’re focusing entirely on how to fish streamers with floating line. For the record, most of the biggest fish I’ve ever caught on a streamer, came while I was fishing with floating line. So take that for what it’s worth.
Methods of using Floating Fly Line with Streamers
When you’re throwing streamers, you don’t need a fancy tapered leader (you don’t need it for nymphing either, but that’s a discussion for another day). A short section of heavy fluorocarbon is your best friend. I personally like using a five-to-six foot length of ten-pound Berkley Vanish, as I’ve found it to be the best for all sorts of streamer fishing.
I use a short leader because of how fishing streamers changes the physics of fly casting. Traditional fly casting leverages the weight of the fly line to throw small dries and nymphs. Since the flies we use are so small and light, we have to use a weighted line to get them in front of fish.
However, streamers are more like fishing with lures. And in conventional fishing, it’s the weight of the lure itself that powers the cast.
Now, when you’re fishing streamers on a fly rod, you’re still using the fly line to really add energy and power to your cast. That’s just how fly rods are designed. But, since streamers are so much heavier, they add their own punch to the equation. I’ve found that, if you fish them on a long leader, the streamer’s weight puts a hitch in your cast. Shortening that leader and keeping the loop tight, but still wide open, makes the cast feel a bit more natural.
Guide Tip: Keep a spool of 10lb Berkley Vanish with you everywhere you go. It makes great butt material for a leader if you have to improvise, and the stuff just doesn’t really break.
Even though it makes casting a bit more work, there are times when you’ll want a longer leader for streamer fishing. The best example is when you’re fishing deep pools, or even shallow ponds. A longer leader makes your fly sink a bit quicker, because the streamer isn’t pulling as much of the mass of a floating line down with it as well.
Just bear in mind that casting with a long leader is something that can take a bit of getting used to. The phrase “chuck-and-duck” likely orginiated the first time some fly anglers used a long leader and a big heavy streamer. It’s easy to whack yourself in the back of the head with this rig, as I’ve done on more than one occasion.
This has quickly become my favorite rig for fishing streamers. You still get the friendly cast-ability of floating line, but a sink-tip adds all the weight you need to help get your streamers down immediately. When you’re fishing fast water, or any of the big rivers in the West, this is an absolute must. Sink tips are generally available in different lengths, and you can even buy a separate sink tip that attaches to your floating fly line. Or, you can buy one that’s integrated into floating fly line.
Sink-tips add a lot more weight to your cast, since you’re throwing a heavy streamer, then heavy, tungsten-coated sinking line, followed by normal floating line. So, when you’re fishing sink tips, it’s important to remember that your cast needs to be long and slow, especially on the back cast. Let that loop open up behind you, don’t rush the front cast, and just enjoy the feeling of commanding that much line so effortlessly through the air.
If I had to pick one type of floating line to fish streamers with forever, it would be a sink-tip. It lends itself so well to fishing any water, as opposed to just straight floating line, which isn’t the best for quick, deep water, or when you’re on lakes and ponds.
Fishing the streamers
I learned how to fish streamers from two of the fishiest guys I’ve ever met. They’re both guides on Utah’s Green River, and the Green is an absolutely outstanding streamer fishery. Since it’s a tailwater, the water is crystal-clear, which lets you see the trout as they chase and eat your streamers. In fact, one of my friends gets some epic drone footage of fish crushing streamers, the water is so clear on the Green.
Anyways – since I learned how to fish streamers there, I’ve tried to apply those techniques everywhere else. And they largely work.
From a Boat
If you’re on a drift boat, or a raft, and you’re fishing streamers, the best approach is to position the boat near enough to one of the banks that you can easily cast nearly onto it. Then, you want to cast directly across from boat; or, in other words, you want your fly line and streamer to land perpendicular to the boat.
The reason behind this is that you want the fly just slightly behind the boat. Using the speed of the current to help it along, you can give the streamer a much more lifelike appearance this way. If you’re casting downstream and trying to strip upstream, the streamer only looks natural for a few seconds. Baitfish, and small trout, definitely swim upstream against the current. However, they don’t do it while swimming at 45-degree angle facing directly upwards, which is what happens when you’re trying to pull a streamer up through heavy current.
The two exceptions to this rule are when you’re in a big eddy or pool. At that point, you’re casting to where you think the fish should be, letting your flies sink, and stripping in.
Guide Tip: Remember to vary your retrieval pattern with streamers. Try short or long strips, or sudden stop-and-starts on your retrieve, to trigger a predatory response from trout.
You can also have a lot of success fishing directly downstream of the boat when you’re in the riffles above a big pool. There’s a spot on the Green River where my buddy Ryan and I can set up with a streamer rod, cast it out, let the current swing it into the riffles right on the edge of a big pool, and slightly bounce the fly up and down. Because the current is so gentle here, the movements of the streamer look natural, and the fish just can’t resist. In fact, it’s so effective that we can hand the rod to Ryan’s nine-year-old son and he’ll just sit there, pulling in fish after fish.
If you’re fishing from foot, don’t worry – streamers are still very effective. I live not too far from the Provo River here in Utah, and last fall, I had one of the best days I’ve ever had on that river with streamers. The Provo is a small water that’s best served by wade fishing, and throwing streamers there wasn’t a problem at all.
When wading, I’ve found the best way to fish streamers (aside from swinging, which we’ll dive into here in a moment) is to cast on a 45-degree angle upstream, and quickly strip in the slack line. I pick spots next to the bank that look fishy, throw a cast up into them, and pull the line back in as quick as I can. Once I’ve picked up the slack, I focus on keeping my line just tight enough that I can feel the streamer, but not so tight that I’m pulling it through the current.
You’ll also have a lot of success throwing it directly to the opposite bank, and stripping it back towards you against the current. Usually, you’ll get a hit right off the bat with this method, since the streamer doesn’t look anything close to natural when it’s ripping through current in the middle of a river.
How to Swing Streamers with a Fly Rod
Swinging streamers is what I think most people think of when they think of streamer fishing. This is the style of fishing that you see anglers using when chasing steelhead in the Pacific Northwest, or even salmon. A lot of the big brown trout in Iceland are caught on the swing, too. It’s a very effective fishing method that has old roots.
The idea is to step into a river at the bottom of a fishy-looking run. Think of a long riffle that tails out into a pool, or a big glide that gives way to gentle riffles. Spots that you look at and immediately think there should be a fish there.
Once you’ve found a spot like that, you want to be well below it. 100 feet is a good distance to start at. Then, you want to cast your streamer up and across the current, letting the current take your fly as it will. This should make the fly swing right through the bottom of the fishy-looking water. The “swing” part of this comes when the big bend in your line is straightened out.
A cast up and across the river creates a bend in your fly line almost immediately, because some line is moving quicker than other bits. The slower-moving line stays put, while the current pulls the rest into a big arc. Finally, the current grabs the fly line that was holding in slower water, and pulls it out – swinging it, in effect, directly through the fishy water you’re hoping holds a trophy.
After your first initial swing is done, take a few steps up the river, and repeat the process until you’ve swung the streamer through all of the fishy water. You’ll either end up with a trout in the net, or you’ll move on to the next hole. It’s an active, but also relaxing, method of fishing streamers.
Favorite Streamer Flies for Trout
I keep things pretty simple with my streamer patterns compared to most anglers. I’ve found that a few patterns, in different sizes, produce better for me than a box full of tons of different flies.
My favorite, by far, is a white bunny leech. Bunny fur moves so wonderfully in the water, and it’s just about irresistible to trout.
Another stellar fly is the Zuddler. This is a cross between the Zonker and Muddler Minnow, and it’s awesome. The fly is heavy, durable, and has all the movement and flash to it you could want.
I’d also highly recommend that you have a black wooly bugger on hand, because it’s such a versatile fly.
Lastly, I’ve caught tons of fish on a Clouser minnow. These flies are easy to tie, heavy, sink fast, and just flat-out work. I’ve caught everything from dolly varden and pink salmon to brown trout on these, and I know I’ll keep adding to the species list the longer I’m fishing them.
Is Sinking Fly Line Better for Streamers?
A full-sink fly line is tough to manage, both in casting and in the water. While a full-sink line has its advantages for fishing in lakes, its not necessary for fishing on rivers. In all honesty, I don’t remember the last time I actually fished a full-sink line.
That’s not to take away from the full-sink line. They have their place, especially on a lake like Pyramid Lake. Those huge Lahontan cutthroat trout live deep, and you’ll likely need a full-sink line to get down to the biggest ones. Aside from those few instances, though, I can’t say that a sinking fly line is better for streamers.
That being said, I would highly encourage you to add a sink-tip line to your arsenal. These are the most versatile type of fly lines for fishing streamers. Anything with a 15-foot sink-tip that sinks at a rate of 3 inches per second or more is going to be just the ticket for the vast majority of the water you’ll find yourself fishing.