Photo: Aaron Abrams
I look forward to late fall and early winter the way most folks anticipate Thanksgiving and Christmas, but my excitement isn’t related to holiday festivities. Instead, these short, cold days mark the beginning of the best stretch of streamer fishing I’ll see all year.
Sure, some days it feels like I spend more time picking ice from my guides than I do casting or unhooking fish. But most days the fishing’s good enough I can ignore the cold in my fingers and toes until I thaw out in the truck.
However, if you haven’t played Russian Roulette with frostbite just for the chance at a great day of winter streamer fishing, you should try it this year. These tips will help the gamble feel like more of a sure thing.
“If you haven’t played Russian Roulette with frostbite just for the chance at a great day of winter streamer fishing, you should try it this year.”
Photo: Aaron Abrams
Don’t overthink the patterns
My fly boxes don’t offer a lot in the way of variety. Five years ago I had every pattern I could get my hands on; these days, I fish maybe 15 varieties of caddis and mayflies. The most specific I ever get is for regional stonefly hatches and small parachute baetis dries for early-season fishing. I carry that same simplicity to my streamer game. My streamers are arrangements of bunny leeches, clouser minnows, and wooly buggers. Black, olive, white, and gold are the only colors I ever really tie.
I’m not trying to downplay the importance of picking the right fly for the job, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking you need every monstrosity of a streamer in the bin at your local fly shop. I’ve found that the movement of a streamer in the water matters the most, followed closely by its color. The movement is what grabs a fish’s attention – at least, that’s what I think – and the colors help seal the deal. Toy around with color and action combinations while out on your local waters. Once you have a pattern established, you’ll be able to get away with just carrying two or three different flies year-round.
Slow it down
My streamer education came via my buddy Ryan and his intimate knowledge of the Green River in Utah. The first streamer-only float we took down the river lasted all of five or so casts before Ryan stopped me, stuck me on the oars, and said, “Fish it like this.”
I’d been trying to strip the streamer faster than the current, instead of letting the current do most of the work and keeping a tight line to my fly. Ryan made two or three casts before hooking up; most importantly, he didn’t tear his rotator cuff trying to outstrip the river’s flow.
Streamer fishing a river might feel intimidating at first, but you don’t need to drastically change your retrieval technique from how you’d tackle stillwater. Slower strips, interspersed with a variety of quick movements, are the key to successfully streamer fishing a river.
“Letting the current do most of the work while keeping a tight line to my fly— Ryan made two or three casts before hooking up!”
Photo: Spencer Durrant
Work with the river
I alluded to this above, but it bears repeating here – don’t try and work your streamer against the river. Baitfish don’t have the strength or mass to rip through heavy currents. Why should your streamer be any different? Sure, you might not be trying to imitate any baitfish in particular, but triggering that predatory instinct in trout is a lot easier with a fly that’s acting somewhat like a real fish would.
I like to toss my streamers across a heavy current, to the softer water beyond, and let the quicker water pull my line through the hole. A few strips to keep a tight connection to the fly is all you need to make sure you don’t miss a strike.
The steepest part of the streamer learning curve for me was the strip set. I’m a dry fly fisherman by nature; I was raised in the tiny creeks and medium rivers of the Rockies. My grandpa only fished dries, and so did my dad. I didn’t have much choice when I started fly fishing. Hell, I don’t think I even tied on a nymph until I was 19 or 20.
If the strip set is foreign to you, practice it a bit on a lake or pond first. Those takes are a bit different than what you’ll feel in a river, but the mechanics are the same. Instead of pulling the line tight and raising your rod simultaneously, you want to pull your line tight much harder than normal, then lift your rod to drive the hook home. A classic trout set when streamer fishing is the best way to yank defeat from the jaws of victory. I find myself reaching for streamers more and more year-round now that I’ve spent so much time fishing them in the winter. The learning curve can be brutal, but the end result is worth the days of frozen fingers and lukewarm coffee. And if I can learn it, anyone can.
Article By: Spencer Durrant. @spencer_durrant
Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer, outdoors columnist, and novelist from Utah. His work has appeared in Field & Stream, American Angler, Sporting Classics Daily, Trout Magazine, Hatch Magazine, and other national publications. Spencer is also the Owner/CEO of Cutthroat Creative Media. Find him on Twitter/Instagram, @Spencer_Durrant.
Rods we suggest:
SKY S6904 – fast action, extra power for punching bigger trout streamers
SKY 7904 – fast action, for throwing really big flies
DXF 51064 – trout switch, for easier two-handed casting (spey) and launching big streamers