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Fly Fishing Streamers For Trout: Ultimate Guide To Streamer Fishing For Trout

Fly Fishing Streamers For Trout

The gripping sight of a gargantuan orange-bellied brown trout lurching from his rock eddy to take a swipe at your streamer is a hard rush to beat. While the traditional Fly-fishing

What Are Fly Fishing Streamers?

Fly-fishing flies are often lumped into one of a few generalized categories. The category of “streamer” flies, has generally encompassed larger flies fished subsurface to imitate larger prey items. Essentially the closest thing to a traditional “fishing lure” meant for fly-fishing.

Fly-fishing streamers are generally larger-sized flies than dry flies, nymphs, and traditional wet flies. Nowadays, you can find plus sized articulated streamers upwards of 6 inches that people are using on small streams and creeks.

Streamers, being larger, are generally meant to imitate larger and “meatier” prey. While a streamer pattern could be designed to imitate nearly any larger sized prey item for trout, here are the most common types of prey items that streamers are tied to imitate.

  • Batifish – When trout become large enough, they’ll often begin to key in on larger prey items such as smaller fish. The vast majority of streamer patterns are tied in a way to imitate some sort of baitfish. Regional baitfish species and varieties are going to vary extraordinarily and so will the fly patterns to imitate them.

     

  • Crayfish – Crustaceans are a high-energy source of food for fish. Just like “scuds” (freshwater shrimp) which are known for growing excellent trout, crayfish can serve the same purpose for trout large enough to key in on them. Big brown trout often key in on these as a food source and grow large doing so.

     

  • Large Aquatic Insects – There are some insects that live underwater that might surprise you by their size. Hellgrammites, larvae of the Dobson Fly, are large (and frankly creepy) critters that live under rocks in the water. There are a host of other aquatic insects such as dragonfly larvae that trout may mistake some streamer patterns for (such as a Wooly Bugger).

     

  • Leeches –  While leeches are a hot bait for some lake species such as Walleye or Perch, trout in streams and lakes can often key in on leeches as a vital food source. A whole host of patterns exist that imitate leeches. One of my go-to patterns is a “Simi-Seal” leech, which is a good general pattern that I feel can also imitate a variety of other prey species.

How To Fish Streamers

Fly-fishing with streamers is what I would consider to be a very active form of fly-fishing. With dry-flies, you’re generally going to be casting and waiting for the strike. With nymphing, good clean drifts and line mending are the name of the game. With streamer fishing, you’re trying to place a lot of movement and “action” into the fly on the end of your line. This can entail a lot of line stripping and rod tip movement.

Imitating Food Source

When fishing a streamer pattern, you’re generally imitating a larger food item, say a baitfish or crayfish. These types of critters are capable of moving quickly.  And predatory fish that key in on them know they need to make a move fast or risk losing a meal. This can work in your favor because a fast moving fly in swift water doesn’t give a trout much time to analyze what he’s about to eat.

fly fishing streamers for trout

The Retrieve

One of the keys to fishing streamers is the retrieve. How you retrieve your fly dictates much of the movement and underwater presentation. It can truly be the difference between a wary brown sucking down your fly or being hesitant and letting it pass. Here are a few retrieving techniques people use for some streamers.

Streamer Retrieval Techniques

  • Jigging Action – Retrieving your line and giving it quick jigging jerks is a good way to incite a strike in some fish. This is a technique that imitates a wounded baitfish or a crayfish moving along. Try to vary the speed and intensity of the jigging action. I have found that using the rod tip to jig instead of simply pulling line gives the fly better action (particularly on articulated streamers). However, to make big and quick retrieve movements, pulling line with my hand is the go to. This is probably my most used streamer retrieve.

  • Slow Crawl – Sometimes, a slow and consistent retrieve along the bottom or mid-water column is enough to entice fish. This can particularly be the case when water temps are cold and fish are somewhat slow and lethargic. This works well either using your rod or hands to pull line in. 

  • Swinging Drift– A popular style for fishing steelhead, a swinging drift is a great way to fish streamers for all sorts of trout. While with a dead drift nymph rig, the idea is to put zero movement into the fly; it’s not the same with a swinging drift. With this style, you cast out into the current and upstream, and then let the fly swing downstream and forward towards you. This still requires some line mending so you can have a good clean hook set. This is a great technique for a lot of baitfish and salmon style patterns.

The biggest thing to keep in mind is to replicate the movements of what you’re imitating. If you’re fishing a baitfish pattern, make it move like a baitfish. If you’re fishing a crayfish pattern, jerk it along the bottom like a crayfish.

Where to Fish Streamers

Streamer fishing is a versatile tactic that can work in a variety of waters. From lakes to rivers to tiny mountain creeks, it’s possible to entice trout with a streamer. While the type of water doesn’t quite matter, how and where you choose to fish that streamer does.

~Still Water~

Streamers have all the potential to work in lakes and stillwaters. When fishing streamers in a lake, I tend to gravitate towards big shallow flats to look for trout that are out cruising for food. Another good tactic would be to target areas of rock or cover and fish your streamer close to that.

For a less active form of fishing, a slow troll with a pontoon style watercraft is even a productive method for fishing streamers mid-water column. In most stillwater streamer fishing settings, a sinking line is going to be preferable.

~Creeks~ Fishing streamer patterns in mid-sized creeks is one of my favorites. First off, I like how you often get to see the fish strike or take a swipe at your fly, which is always exciting. Secondly, I really like trying to read the water and seek out holding cover for fish. I try to target my casts near areas I imagine a trout will be holding, waiting for a meal.

When casting streamers in creeks, I look for big long and deep runs broken up by boulders. Often there will be trout behind these boulders and drifting a streamer past them is a sure bet. I also like to look for undercuts. When I find one of these I try to cast upstream of the undercut and allow my streamer to get as close as possible to the undercut before stripping line and giving the streamer action.

Generally speaking, Rainbow Trout are going to prefer swifter water found in riffle and run habitat. Brown Trout, on the other hand, will be looking for more cover and shelter from the current. Think slower pools and runs or large breaks from the current. Fish deep for the big browns. Brook Trout can be found in a good mix of habitat, but like Browns, they definitely gravitate towards good cover in the form of undercuts of woody debris.

~Rivers~

Fishing streamers is a favorite method of steelhead and salmon fishing, so why not the same for trout? Fishing streamer patterns can be a productive method if you can find where the fish are holding. In a bigger river, fish like Rainbow Trout will generally hold at a current break or eddy near the end of a riffle section of river. They hang just beyond the swift current line and dart out when a prey item goes flying by.

In a big river, like smaller creeks, you want to try and spot habitat in the form of current breaks or cover. Swinging flies past this type of cover can be an effective method to cover ground. Alternatively, casting and stripping as you would in a creek also can work well.

Streamer Fishing Tips

Here are a few quick ideas to mimic some natural prey items. As you fish more and more, you’ll learn and develop new streamer fishing techniques that seem to work for catching fish or fishing certain types of features in the water.

  • Bank Slap – Small minnows and prey-sized fish often hang out right against the banks to stay out of the current and out of the hungry mouths of predators. In order to mimic this behavior, it can be effective to cast up onto shore across and “plop” your baitfish streamer into the water to imitate a spooked baitfish from shore. Big fish hunt by both sight and sound/vibration so this takes advantage of two of their senses.

  • Mousing – Perhaps one of the most interactive and interesting ways to catch big trout is something most people wouldn’t think of when they think of trout fishing. It involves fishing big topwater patterns that actually imitate mice and small mammals. Believe it or not, big trout eat nearly anything that falls into the water alive. Even mice and bats have even been recorded in the stomachs of brown trout. While some trout may be susceptible to mouse patterns during the day, most would recommend using this tactic at dusk and into the night. It can be an absolutely exhilarating and fascinating way to catch trout. The idea here is to use a big hairy fly pattern that floats and then retrieve it in a manner that looks like a small mouse struggling to swim. Utilizing a bank “plop” technique is a good way to start it out.

  • Fishing Downstream – Struggling Prey – While many streamer fishing techniques involve casting upstream and swinging past yourself to some degree, you can also cast downstream and fish it both down or up. You can start by standing above a likely spot to hold fish and let your streamer drift down ahead of it. You can twitch and release line to let it drift further and then pull it back upstream to imitate a small critter struggling to swim upstream. With this slow release, you can present your streamer for a longer duration past a spot likely to hold trout.

The Best Streamer Patterns For Trout

The amount of streamer patterns that exist out there are likely as infinite as there are locations to fish them. It seems often, more so than other types of flies, streamers are highly influenced by local preferences. It seems every local fly shop has their own “secret sauce” streamer recipe that for whatever reason really gets the trout going in that area.

Sculpzilla trout streamer fly
Sculpzilla Streamer Fly  (Credit: Charlies Fly Box)

With that said, streamer patterns are often “generalist” patterns and don’t require the precision tuning of a size 18 dry fly. In my personal experience, it seems that a good “general” streamer pattern is capable of catching fish just about anywhere.

Here are a few trout streamer patterns that should find their way into your fly box. This would likely be my streamer box if I had to be reduced down to only a few streamer patterns.

  • Wooly Bugger
  • Zonker Minnow
  • Sculpzilla
  • Crayfish Imitator
  • Big Articulated Streamer

The world of streamers is big, colorful, and lots of fur/feathers. They can be fun patterns to tie and due to their size are excellent for beginners. I encourage you to get out and either purchase or learn to tie a variety of streamers and see what you like fishing in addition to this short list of my best trout streamers..

Selecting the Right size of Streamer

As far as sizing goes, you want to fish with something as big as you can get away with for the fish you are chasing. If 20”+ brown trout was my target for the day. I wouldn’t hesitate to throw a 6 inch long articulated streamer. However, if I am targeting slightly smaller rainbows, I may reduce down to a baitfish pattern 2” or 3” long. Generally, these are going to be hook sizes on the small end of 8 and then up to some saltwater sized hooks like 1/0.

Types of Line for Streamer Fishing

~Floating~

The biggest question a lot of people have when it comes to fishing streamers, is whether or not you can use floating line. The answer is, absolutely. In certain situations, floating line will be able to get your streamer just as deep as any sinking line. If I’m fishing streamers in a fairly shallow creek, I will almost always just use floating line and a heavier streamer or sink tip.

~Sinking~

However, if you’re trying to fish streamers in big rivers or stillwater, you may need some help getting it to proper depth. This is where a sinking line can come into play. Sinking lines are rated in the sink rate of “inches per second” and your selection simply comes down to how deep you plan on fishing and how long you want to wait for your fly to sink.

~Sink Tip~

A middle-ground compromise is to utilize a “sink-tip” line attachment on your floating line to get your line down just a little deeper. While this isn’t a good way to get your fly down to the bottom of a lake or big river, it can help get your fly just a little deeper than it it would with just a floating line.

The Best Leaders For Streamers?

You may be used to traditional long and tapered leaders for fly fishing. Upwards of 9 feet in length, these long tapered leaders are good at casting small flies and prevent your fly line from spooking fish. However, with the demands of streamer fishing being much different, a much different leader setup will also benefit you.

When casting large streamers, a long and thin leader is going to make casting big heavy flies difficult. Most anglers would recommend a hand-tied leader from 3 to 6 feet in length. This shorter length helps to improve energy transfer to the large fly, makes your rollovers cleaner, and keeps your casts in better control.

Won’t fish be more likely to see your fly-line? Surely it’s a possibility, but with the quick movements of streamer fishing, the risk of your fly-line being seen and spooking trout chasing your fly are not very likely.

While streamer leaders are not often sold in stores, it is fairly easy to make one of your own. Taking a middle section of an old 9 foot trout leader and tying a loop on one end to attach to your fly line works well. You can also custom make leaders by reducing down line sizes in 2 or 3 sections with streamline knots such as “blood knots”. Remember you can get away with using larger diameter lines than with dry fly fishing or nymphing.

Final Thoughts

By now, you should have a fundamental understanding of modern streamer fishing for trout. It’s a fun and active form of fly-fishing that is sure to excite anglers of all types. Another aspect I enjoy is the large and often flashy streamer fly patterns. They’re fun to look at, fun to tie, and even more fun to fish.

With a fly box containing a few general streamer patterns and a general idea of prey behavior, you can start dialing in your streamer fishing technique. Whether you’re casting from shore on a large lake, flicking line into tumbling creeks, or drifting in big rivers; there are still plenty of nuances to be learned. As you’re willing to experiment and think more like fish, skills should begin to build in your repertoire. As I said earlier, if I’m going to a new piece of water, the first thing on the end of my line is most often times a streamer.

Written by Don

When I'm not bass fishing or looking for steelhead in my home state of Oregon I can be found working on house projects dreaming of my next fishing adventure.

I started this website to share just some of the things I've learned along my fishing journey, and the many things I'm still learning. Enjoy!

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