Not only do I fish for a living, but I tie as well. So if there’s a way I can cut my time at the bench, it translates into more money in my pocket. (And more time on the water.) One of the most helpful fly fishing books I’ve read is Bob Wyatt’s What Trout Want: The Educated Trout and Other Myths. In it, Wyatt hits home the point that fish have a brain capacity equivalent to a frog, and instead of focusing on extremely detailed patterns, an angler is better off tying what he refers to as “ammo”—simple, albeit effective, patterns that are easy to tie. Wyatt underlines this concept by arguing, “The trout’s simple brain doesn’t have the cognitive horsepower to do much more than fix on the target and move to intercept it. . . . How could it? A fish can’t possibly hold such a sophisticated concept in its tiny brain.”
Applying the same logic to small streamer fly design has worked great for me, and is why I don’t like to bother spending too much time creating lifelike streamers, nymphs, or even drys. I understand this approach isn’t for every angler—some like to spend more time behind the bench and love the intricacy of tying a streamer pattern that requires 30 steps and looks great, and that’s okay. But on the water, would you rather risk your most complicated ties, or the simple ones, to a hungry fish that’s tempted by either?
I have many clients who have already breached the upper reaches of their age ladders. On perfect days when the water is up and fish are calling for streamer presentations, some don’t want to toss “big ol’ flies,” because their arms and shoulders can’t handle it—especially when you throw in sinking-tip lines, dumbbell eyes, and weighted bodies. Things can get tiring real fast. Downsized streamers make the day much easier. Whether you have a hard time casting weight all day or not, small flies make for easier casting and fewer sore muscles.
Last but not least, if you’re not a fly tier, buying a dozen or more flies isn’t cheap—and the price certainly climbs if you’re doubling down on a supply of intricately tied streamers. I’ve seen some articulated models cost upwards of $20. That’s a hefty chunk of change, no matter how you look at it.
If you’re able to stick with small streamers that aren’t arduous to tie or composed of too many different materials, but still look and act great in the water, you’ll have more of your budget left over for things like gas to get you to and from the water. Look for flies that have materials with lifelike attributes, like rabbit strips and marabou—these materials are common, affordable, and look great underwater.
I recall a day on the Delaware River when water clarity was far from good. My friend Tony and I cast a couple of different patterns and presented flies with different techniques, but I didn’t start zoning in on fish until I switched to a small yellow Matuka—a simple recipe of feathers, yarn, and wire that creates a nice baitfish profile. It was an odd pick at the time, but I had a couple in my box, so I decided to act outside the envelope. It didn’t take long before we had a couple of wild rainbows in the boat. Proof that even the most common and often overlooked materials can be the winning ticket.
Tie or buy small streamers in natural colors like olive, black, tan, or brown because those shades work well year-round in an array of water conditions. If I know a particular river contains crayfish, I’ll pick a pattern with a brown tint. If the river has a high concentration of leeches, olive or black it is. You can apply this simple color scheme to any river. Before you even tie on a fly, take some time to pick up a few rocks or slowly wade close to the banks, keeping a sharp eye on swimming baitfish or other prey species. By noticing certain colors and sizes of natural prey, you’ll be able to narrow down your fly choice and ultimately increase your catch.
I asked Jake Precone, a former biologist for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission and Delaware River fly fisher since birth, about the effectiveness of small streamers, and he replied, “Small streamers work because there is small life existing in rivers and streams—and we are always trying to imitate life.” I’d be lying if I said you’ll never catch a trophy trout throwing big, articulated streamers. But it would be more of a lie if I said you won’t catch large, trophy-sized trout with small streamers that more closely resemble the natural food items they imitate. In fact, I believe you’ll catch more quality trout if you downsize your patterns.
Jesse Filingo guides in the Pocono Mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania and on New York’s Delaware River (www.filingoflyfishing.com).