Target structure in the water thoroughly as you work your way downstream. Once you reach the home site, strip your streamer across the front; then target the side and back edges. If you strike out, move to another site. It’s important to move often when streamer fishing to cover water and potential sites, but if I’m fond of a particular place, I’ll return later to fish it again. Just because no one is home the first time doesn’t mean a large trout won’t answer a knock on its door a bit later.
If you fish a tailwater river, rising water levels from increased dam discharges provide an ideal opportunity for streamer fishing. The change in water flows alter small fish feeding lanes and feeding lies, sending them fleeing to the river margins or other places of safety. The displaced prey fish are an easy target for large trout as the smaller fish scramble about. If you fish from a boat, try to ride the crest of high water as it courses downstream, casting streamers to the trout that are capitalizing on the blown-out feeding lies of smaller fish.
TRAILING HOOK: Gamakatsu 48111, size 1/0.
THREAD: White GSP 100.
TAIL: White Whiting American Rooster Saddle Hackle.
BODY: Chartreuse Polar Chenille.
SHOULDER: White bucktail.
HEAD: Chartreuse guinea feather, palmered.
ARTICULATION: Dally’s Streamer Balls strung on 30-pound monofilament.
FRONT HOOK: Gamakatsu 48112, size 2/0.
TAIL: White bucktail.
BODY: Chartreuse Polar Chenille.
SHOULDER: White bucktail.
ACCENT: Pearl Lateral Scale Flashabou.
COLLAR: White bucktail.
HEAD: One pencil-sized clump of chartreuse bucktail, then one pencil-sized clump of white bucktail.
Winter Streamer Retrieves
After you cast, strip the streamer using a slow retrieve. If nothing strikes, increase the speed and length of the strips on your retrieve or try adding pulsating movements to mimic the swimming motion of a prey fish. When one retrieve doesn’t work, you can sometimes tempt reluctant fish with a different motion altogether.
Another tactic for locating piscivorous trout is to identify intercept routes used to capture prey fish moving to and from their feeding and holding lies. Present a streamer along soft water edges next to riffles or runs that empty into deep pools. Piscivorous trout often cruise the slack water margins, hoping to intercept a smaller fish transiting between feeding lies and holding stations. A piscivorous trout will rarely attack a smaller fish when it occupies a feeding lie or attempt to chase it from its home site. It is more energy efficient to attack when the smaller fish moves back and forth between sites and it is exposed and vulnerable.
I also like the back edge of drop-offs, gravel bars, and other staging areas where smaller prey fish congregate. Larger trout prowl those transition areas where smaller fish wait to move into feeding positions or subordinate fish gather—ones that are too low on the pecking order to command a desirable feeding site. In most rivers, there are not enough good feeding lies for every fish, so the displaced, smaller, weaker, or subordinate fish are easy pickings for predatory trout.
In deeper water, a sinking fly works best to reach fish holding near the bottom. If the fly is too light to sink quickly, a sinking-tip offers another option, though remember casting weighted flies or sinking lines is a challenge, so make casting adjustments as needed to avoid frustration. Bob Clouser’s inverted loop cast (described in the sidebar) is ideal and easy to learn. The casting stroke keeps the weighted flies from colliding with the rod and might save you from a trip to the chiropractor because the motion is gentle on the back and shoulders when casting.
Mimicking Winter Sculpins
A sculpin imitation is always a good streamer choice since sculpins are a staple in almost every trout’s diet. (See “Natural Reflections” on page 58.) Sculpins forage for immature insects and small crustaceans along the streambed, and with their natural mottled camouflage, they blend in, spending most of their time nearly motionless along the bottom. Often only a subtle flick of their large pectoral fins or kick of their tail betrays their presence. They dart to safety when startled, but since they lack a swim bladder, they sink whenever they’re not actively swimming. So while they can work up through the water column, they drop to the bottom when they stop, resulting in an up-and-down movement pattern.
This swimming style is easily imitated with a streamer by making long line strips while vibrating the rod, interrupted with brief pauses and dropping the rod tip toward the water. The motion adds enough slack for the streamer to settle on the bottom. If the speed of the current allows, don’t hesitate to let the streamer rest on the river bottom for a few seconds.
In the summer, sculpins are more active at night when food is plentiful but in the winter, when food is scarce, they tend to extend their feeding into daylight hours to maximize food intake. The low light conditions found near dusk and dawn recommend tying on a sculpin streamer, but heavy cloud cover extends the most effective fishing time into later morning and earlier in the afternoon.
CJ’s Mega Minnow
HOOK: Gamakatsu B10S, size 2.
WEIGHT: 10 wraps of .030 lead wire starting where the hook bend meets the shank, wrapping around the bend.
THREAD: Ginger GSP 100.
TAIL: Olive Whiting American Rooster Saddle Hackle.
BODY: Root Beer EP Sparkle Brush.
SHOULDERS: Olive bucktail.
ACCENT: Copper flash tied between two gold saddle hackles.
SHOULDERS: Ginger bucktail.
EYES: Orange 10-millimeter stick-on eyes coated with Clear Cure Goo.
HEAD: A coat of dried Clear Cure Goo, then gold glitter, then another thin layer of Clear Cure Goo over the top.
CJ’s MegaMinnow tied with sculpin colors is a good choice because during the pause in the retrieve, its weighted nose causes the pattern to sink headfirst like a natural fish. Though the color of sculpins varies from river to river, brown, olive, and burnt orange are common.
Imitating a wounded baitfish is another effective technique for streamer fishing. The combination of a buoyant fly and a sinking line offers the perfect opportunity to mimic the erratic swimming style of a dying minnow with the appropriate retrieve. The weighted line tends to pull the fly downward during the strip, but an accentuated pop added at the end of the strip creates slack and bounce-back enough to allow the fly to float upward like a wounded baitfish. That’s one reason I like CJ’s Sluggo—it easily resembles a wounded prey fish.
Since trout overtake prey from behind after a short chase, I like a second hook or stinger hook for lone-bodied flies. I believe most initial strikes are meant to cripple the prey fish so the trout can turn and finish the job, swallowing the prey fish headfirst, especially when it comes to sculpins, which have prominent spines in their dorsal fins. If you experience a short strike, instead of ripping the streamer from the water, stop and let the streamer float and flutter in the current like a crippled fish. Often the trout will hit a second time, and you’ll hook up.
In late winter, I often switch to smaller streamer patterns with a flash of orange or bright red at the throat to imitate trout sac fry escaping a redd. These tiny trout have yolk sac remnants below and behind their mouths. The yolk sacs sustain them for the first few weeks of life so they can remain in the coarse cobble of a redd, where they’re protected from predators. When that energy reserve is exhausted, they flee and must fend for themselves. They are plentiful and easy targets for predators.
My preferred rod for fishing big streamers is a 9-foot 7-weight rod that easily handles the heavy flies and large fish I hope to catch. The stiffer spine on a heavier rod makes all-day casting much easier compared to lighter, slower-action rods. I also prefer a six- to seven-foot-long, 1X or 2X untapered leader.
A winter streamer trip might just be the cure for your winter blues. Back from the river, I put the rod on the shelf, a little more content to withstand the remaining winter’s unrelenting nature. Perhaps I’ll manage the bleakness a few more weeks, or at least until the river calls again.
Jason Randall is the author of Trout Sense: A Fly Fisher’s Guide to What Trout See and appears regularly in American Angler.