Fishing Trout with Streamers in Pennsylvania

Streamers are probably the least used of all trout flies. Everyone loves fishing dry flies, and the interest in nymph fishing, taught and encouraged by leading proponents like Joe Humphreys, has just exploded. Even wet flies see more time in the water, especially the soft hackles promoted by writers like Sylvester Nemes and Dave Hughes.

Yet streamers can be extremely effective, and not just in the high, roiled water in which they are normally employed. In the winter streamers can move sluggish trout that will allow nymph after nymph to go by unmolested. Recently Nelson Haines and Steve Sywensky of the FFP staff, both of whom fish streamers regularly, discussed their favorite streamer patterns and tactics:

STEVE: You fish streamers quite a bit, Nelson. What are your favorite ones?

NELSON: I use Leadeye Minnows often. I like dace-type ties — brown over white or black over white wings with a lateral line of red Krystalflash. I especially like this style of fly because I can fish it deep without getting hung up too much.

STEVE: You use Woolybuggers a good deal, too. What colors do you prefer?

NELSON: Black ‘Buggers seem to fish about the best. I like to put lead eyes on these, too, both to get them deep and because the hook inverts and they don’t get snagged as much. What do you like to fish?

STEVE: I’m partial to dark Woolybuggers, too, but I really prefer Black Sculpins. Sculpins have a meatier silhouette than a ‘Bugger, and I think this motivates the trout to move to the fly, especially in dirty water. On freestone streams I like a Black-nosed Dace Marabou or a Black Marabou. Both of these have red tails. Just like you, I’ve found that trout like a bit of red in a streamer. What sizes do you fish?

NELSON: I use streamers 1-1/2″ to 2″ long. This translates to flies in the #6-#10 size range.

STEVE: How do you fish your streamers?

NELSON: Mostly, I fish them up-and-across. This allows me to get the fly deep, which is especially important in cold water conditions.

STEVE: Years ago, I read a great article on streamer fishing by the late Joe Brooks. He argued that the up-and-across technique showed the trout a broadside look at your baitfish imitation. Brooks thought this enabled trout to see its prey quicker and convinced the fish that the minnow was injured.

NELSON: There’s another factor, too. When you fish upstream, you pull the fly back into the fish’s mouth, usually hooking him securely. When you fish downstream, the strike often pulls the fly out of the trout’s mouth.

STEVE: Speaking of strikes, do you get many short strikes when you fish streamers?

NELSON: Sure. We all do. I used to fish with an old minnow man who believed that trout struck the minnow to injure it, then came back to eat it. (Editor’s Note: For confirmation of this behavior, see Stolz and Schnell’s Trout, p. 77.) Maybe those short strikes are the trout attempting to kill the fly. I find that if I don’t pull the fly away, many of those short strikers will come back for it again.

DOUG WENNICK: I heard you two guys talking about short strikes on streamers. In Presentation, Gary Borger maintains that trout see a double image of moving flies. Maybe they strike at the wrong image sometimes.

STEVE: It may also have something to do with trout not being efficient piscavores.One of our customers did a lab experiment in which he compared the ability of bass and trout to capture minnows. Bass were far more able to catch baitfish than trout. That notwithstanding, in what kinds of water do you fish streamers, Nelson?

NELSON: Any place a nice fish can hide. But I’m really partial to the water upstream and downstream of large rocks. I like to swing the streamer into these slack water areas. Often good fish occupy these lies. What about you?

STEVE: Any obvious current brake, like a rock, log, or deadfall is a good place to pitch a streamer. I especially like the brushiest lies I can find. Most anglers won’t throw a fly back into brushy areas for fear of losing it. Fish in these protected spots see very few flies. Do you ever fish a streamer downstream?

NELSON: Sometimes. Especially if there’s no other way to get a fly to the fish. At Fisherman’s Paradise I work streamers downstream under the wing dams. I let the current push the fly under the cover and allow it to go under with no movement. They usually take it under the deflector.

STEVE: What kinds of retrieves do you use?

NELSON: I like a short strip-pause, short strip-pause. Most of my strikes come on the pause.

STEVE: Do you ever use the rod tip to move the fly?

NELSON: At the end of the drift sometimes, but using rod tip action causes slack, and this leads to missed strikes.

STEVE: I usually fish streamers on 2X and 3X tippets. Do you ever go lighter than 3X?

NELSON: No. The chance of a good fish on a streamer is always there, and I want a heavy tippet to handle a strong trout. Remember, too, that streamers are heavy flies that tend to put great stress on tippet material. Lighter tippets just aren’t right for large flies.

STEVE: With all the fishing I do around tree limbs and brush, I change tippets every hour or so. Abrasion on rocks and vegetation can weaken even 2X or 3X quickly. Speaking of time, how many casts do you make to each likely area?

NELSON: Perhaps three or four shots to each lie. When you fish streamers, you’re looking for aggressive trout. If they don’t hit after a few casts, I move on.

STEVE: What do you do if a good fish makes a pass or two at your streamer but does not take it?

NELSON: A trout like this has shown itself to be hungry. I rest him for a few minutes and change streamers, usually to a fly a bit smaller. Often this fish will take on the next cast.

STEVE: If this trout is a good one, I often put on an appropriate nymph. A cast or two near him usually brings a strike. Streamers are great for finding “hot” fish, ready and willing to eat, especially in cold water conditions.

Streamers can be frustrating, especially when the fish are striking short. The sight of a fine fish swimming back to his lie, without taking your fly, can cause curses to come forth from even the most laid-back flyfisher. But, for the several cold months ahead, streamers can be an effective counterpoint to cold weather nymphing.

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