How to Pick the Right Fly (BONUS): Streamers

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This is the final article in our series on how to pick the right fly for any fishing situation. To see all the posts in this series, click here.

By Spencer Durrant

Streamers are like every caricature of a reluctant hero in a summer action flick. They’re effective in certain situations, but they’re moody and often misunderstood.

They even have superhero-type names. The Meat Whistle. The Sculpzilla.

I’d read those comic books.

Today, we’ll peel away the mysticism around streamers. We’ll expose their secret identities, to continue with the comic book metaphor. As with all the posts in this series, the goal is to help you feel comfortable with streamers. We’ll also share some of the go-to streamers you should always have in your box.

What do streamers imitate?

In the broadest sense, streamers imitate baitfish. Whether that’s a sculpin, shiner, chub, or even other small trout, these flies are often designed to look like a food option.

Often, though, streamers are effective because they trigger a predatory response in fish. As Tom Rosenbauer says in a video on fishing streamers, “Perhaps trout just take streamers out of reflex because they look like a big juicy bite trying to get away – in other words, a lure. Streamers are effective on trout for the same reason they eat spinning lures.”

So, to recap – streamers can, and often do, imitate specific baitfish. Often, though, they’re tied with the goal of provoking a predatory strike from the trout willing to take a bite.

Are streamers really irresistible to big fish?

It’s often said in fly fishing circles that you’ll catch bigger fish by using streamers. After all, only the biggest, meanest trout have the appetite to eat other small fish, right?

That’s not 100% true. Just like anything else in fly fishing, there are no absolutes when it comes to fishing streamers. Your chance of catching a truly big fish certainly increase when fishing streamers, but it’s not the only way to catch giants. And it’s not a guarantee that you’ll only hook into big fish either.

As an example – my good friend Mysis Mike Kingsbury once caught a 26-inch brown on an egg pattern (no, he wasn’t fishing over a redd). Conventional fly fishing wisdom tells us a fish that big should only eat other fish.

close up of a large brown trout in an angler's hands.

The problem with that line of thought is that it ignores the fundamental truth about trout (and other fish): they’re opportunistic predators. Present a food item close enough to them, and there’s a good chance they’ll eat. Trout want to eat by expending the least amount of energy possible in return for food. Sometimes that means eating another fish. Sometimes it’s eating an egg as it drifts by.

Now, this brings up another point we need to discuss. I’m going to let my friend Domenick Swentosky, from Troutbitten, explain the concept:

“Rarely does a population of trout fall all over themselves to eat a streamer, no matter how well it’s presented. And I think it’s unfair to advance the notion that fish are out there waiting to pounce on your streamer if you can just get the presentation right.”

Dom’s article about streamer fishing myths is worth reading in its entirety (find it here), but the point above is something you need to remember as you go down the rabbit hole of streamer fishing.

Yes, your chances at catching big fish increase if you’re fishing streamers. But there’s no magic-bullet presentation that forces fish to fall over themselves to eat your streamer.

When to use streamers

You can fish streamers year-round, but there are certain times and conditions that make them more effective.

Some of the instances where you’ll want to fish streamers include:

  • High, off-color water (not during peak runoff, but before or after can be good streamer fishing)
  • Late fall, as fish pack on weight for winter
  • Early spring, as fish wake up from a long winter
  • When dry flies aren’t hatching

Again, that’s not a comprehensive list of when to use streamers. In fact, it’d be impossible to come up with one, since you can have success with them year-round, provided water temperatures stay high enough that fish are active and moving.

Another tip from Tom Rosenbauer about using streamers is to use them after a rainstorm. He says that “The very best time to fish a streamer is when a sudden rainstorm raises the water level, because in the increased turbidity, predator fish like trout have an advantage over the more maneuverable bait fish because the bait fish get pushed out of their shallow water havens.”

Where to use streamers

Just like with any other fly, there are certain areas where you should concentrate on when fishing with streamers. Wills Donaldson put together a good piece on this topic for Fly Lords, where he said that, “The best places to target streamers are protected places such as under banks, behind large rocks, and around submerged logs or trees; as well as in the seams of the currents, and in deep pockets of water.”

The big thing to remember here is to look for cover. You want to toss streamers to places where trout can ambush – or quickly chase down – their next meal. Anything from submerged logs and trees, to big boulders, pools, or seams, counts as cover. Quick transitions from shallow to deep water – like shelves – are also a great spot to target with streamers.

One of the tips you’ll hear most often about streamers is the need to get them deep. No matter where you’re fishing – tight to the bank, against a sunken log, or in a seam – you need to get that fly down deep.

So, to recap – look for cover, and get your streamers down deep.

Picking the right streamer

Since there’s not a “streamer hatch,” how do you know what streamer you should tie on?

Well, there’s an old adage that still holds fairly true – if it’s a brighter day, use bright flies. If it’s a darker, cloudy day, use a dark fly.

Using that as a guide, I’ve found it’s helpful to look for streamers that have the following characteristics:

  • Size: You want the streamer to be a reasonable size for the fish you’re chasing. For example, a 2/0 Sex Dungeon is a bit big for a stream that’s home to mostly 13-inch brown trout. They’ll still probably attack the fly, but they can’t get their mouths around something that large. That fly is great if you’re in a big river where 20-inch or larger trout are a possibility.
  • Movement: The streamers I do best with are the ones that have a lot of movement. Whether they’re articulated (have more than one segment/hook) or just packed with a lot of materials that move freely in the water, you want something that’ll catch the attention of fish.
  • Weight: As mentioned above, you need your streamers to get down to the bottom. Big, heavy coneheads, and lots of material are great ways to weight a fly down so it sinks quickly. Unless I’m in exceptionally shallow water, I’m always fishing heavy streamers.

With those criteria in mind, let’s take a look at some streamer patterns you should have in your box.

That’s by no means a complete, comprehensive list, but it’s a good place to start if you’re looking to stock up your box with go-to streamer patterns.

Start Swinging

Catching fish on streamers is one of the unique experiences in fly fishing, because you’ll often get to see fish chase your streamer. I know anglers who say they only want to see the chase, and they don’t care about hooking up with trout. I’m not quite at that level of zen, but watching the chase is a ton of fun.

Load up on some streamers that are the right size for your local fishery and start swinging these flies. You’ll quickly learn for yourself why so many anglers are streamer junkies.

Do you have a favorite streamer pattern? Share it with us in the comments.

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