The classic vision of flyfishing is an angler presenting tiny dry flies with precision, dropping them just-so on top of the water, and then watching trout rise to take the fly. This type of fishing can be productive, but it requires matching the local insects exactly and presenting the fly perfectly. It can also miss the biggest trout because they prefer bigger prey. If you want a simpler experience or bigger fish, you should check out streamers for catching trout.
Why should I use streamers when fishing for trout? Streamers are a style of fly that mimics baitfish, crayfish, and other underwater prey. While they aren’t always as productive as other techniques like dry flies, wet flies, or nymphs, streamers excel at catching big trout.
There are three ways that streamers trigger strikes from big fish.
First, big trout are aggressive. They are the largest predators in the fast-flowing rivers trout call home, and the kings of the river don’t like to be bothered. Smaller fish swimming by the home of the big fellows triggers an aggressive reaction to drive the little fish away. Streamers provoke this aggressive reaction as well as real fish.
Second, the biggest fish are territorial. They typically stake out the best habitat on the river as their own. They have access to the best supply of food, and they aren’t about to share. Big trout will strike at smaller fish to protect their prime habitat from intruders. The sight of a streamer mimics a smaller fish and gets the big ones to bite.
Finally, big fish are hungry. They are more than happy to snap up any easy meal that swims past. Streamers can mimic minnows, baitfish, crayfish, and large insect larvae. These are all perfect meals for big trout, so copying them leads to lots of strikes.
Streamers vs. Nymphs and Dry Flies
To get the best results from streamers, you should first understand a little about other types of flies and how they are fished.
- Dry flies mimic flying insects that land on top of the water. They are fished by landing the fly delicately on the surface of the water near the fish.
- Wet flies mimic aquatic insects emerging from cocoons underwater. They also must be landed delicately, but are drifted past the fish.
- Nymphs mimic underwater insect larvae and crustaceans. Nymphs are drifted with the current into the fish’s habitat.
Unlike these flies and nymphs, streamers mimic small fish or large invertebrates that are strong enough to propel themselves through the water. Because these creatures can move themselves, there are lots of options for presenting streamers to fish. The mobility of these food sources also mean trout aren’t as picky about them. They know that they must strike fast or miss the chance at food.
Streamers are much better at catching the biggest trout than other types of fly. Studies show that, as trout grow, their diet shifts from insects to aquatic prey. The shift starts at around fifteen inches. By the time trout are twenty inches long, they eat almost exclusively minnows. The big granddaddy trout aren’t looking for a little mayfly – they want a big crayfish or sculpin to eat. That’s where streamers shine.
Gear for Streamers
Most fly rods for trout will handle streamers, but if you’re going to focus on streamers, it makes sense to have a rod dedicated to fishing streamers. Since you are targeting big trout, a heavier rod makes sense. The best rod weights for dedicated streamer setups are five to seven weight rods. Look for a rod that is nine to ten feet long to help casting distance. Finally, get a rod with a fast action to help deliver the big streamers to the river.
Lines and Leaders
The best line for fishing with streamers depends on the kind of water you usually fish. If you fish bigger bodies of water – rivers with deep pools or even lakes – opt for sinking line that will get the streamer deep faster. If you fish creeks and small rivers, floating line is fine.
You don’t need a tapered line to fish with streamers. The taper can make it easier to cast tiny dry flies; it’s not needed to fish with big streamers. Some streamers even have small jig heads that make casting even easier. Level taper works fine with these big lures.
Since streamers are big flies that are fished on the move, tiny tippets and slim leaders aren’t necessary. The weight of the streamer also means that you don’t need a long leader to help keep the fly moving on the cast. For streamer fishing, three to four feet of twenty-five-pound test monofilament is a great leader setup.
Where to Find Trout
Like the criminal who robbed banks “because that’s where the money is,” you’ll have the most success fishing if you can put your streamers where the fish are. One of the biggest keys to success with streamers – or any other lure – is learning to read the river and predict the spots where fish lurk.
To a beginner, a fast-flowing trout stream looks like chaos, with random patterns of fast and slow water. Learning to read the river means your eye can pick out patterns in the water to find the spots where trout are likely to be located.
To survive, trout need oxygen, food, and shelter from bigger fish. They are also lazy and will hold in places that they don’t have to work hard to get what they need. The best places in a river to find trout will provide food, shelter, and an easy current.
Shelter is the easiest need to identify. Shelter comes from structure – physical features in the river that protect the fish from being seen and offer escape routes from predators. Shelter is often found in the form of large rocks, submerged logs, and other physical intrusions into the river.
Food and oxygen come from fast-flowing water. Swift currents keep a steady supply of insects and small fish coming down the stream. Fast-moving water also mixes more, keeping oxygen levels high. Trout like to be near fast water because the fast water keeps them fed and breathing.
On the other hand, staying in the fast currents tire trout out. They like to find slower places so that it doesn’t take much energy to hold a position and look for food. Your challenge as an angler is to find spots on the river where fast currents, slow currents, and structure come together. The good news is that structure often provides a pocket of slack water next to fast water – perfect for holding trout.
Read the Water
Reading the water means looking at the surface of a river or stream and identifying the places where trout lurk. This is the most important skill an angler can have. Don’t worry so much about casting, lure colors, gear, or anything else. The key to catching fish is finding fish.
Large rocks, logs, and other structures often provide breaks from swift currents. Trout will hold in the slack water behind this cover and wait for food to drift by. Look for rocks that break the current, or humps in the water that indicate water flowing over a submerged rock. Catch trout by drifting a streamer with the current into the slack water, or by pulling it upstream.
Eddies and Pockets
Eddies are spots in the river where the current circles around instead of running straight. Pockets are little spots of still water in the middle of faster currents. These features are formed by a submerged cover, bends in the river, or holes in the riverbed.
Trout hold in these spots for the same reason they hold behind a structure. The slack current lets them hold position without much work, while the faster water outside the eddy brings a steady supply of food and oxygen. Try to work your streamer just along the edge of the eddy or pocket.
Seams are strips where fast and slow currents run side by side. These are caused by bends in the bed or features on the bottom of the river. Trout will hold just inside the slow side of the seam watching for food. Fish seams by working your streamer along the boundary between fast and slow.
These shallow stretches of river feature fast-moving currents and plenty of rocks. They are good for holding small trout, but not the big ones. The biggest trout associated with a riffle will be located at the lower end of the riffle where the water gets deeper and features some turbulence. Fish riffles by working the streamer into the deeper pools at the end.
Cut Banks and Deep Pools
Cut banks are found on the outside of river bends where fast-flowing water has undercut the stream bank. There is usually deep, still water under the bank. The banks protect the trout from predators from above, while the current keeps them supplied with food.
Deep pools are big areas of still water found along the stream. These are prime locations for trout because they provide cover, food, and oxygen. Cut banks and deep pools are the Beverly Hills of trout habitat – the places where the biggest, most glamorous fish will be found.
Fish these bigger areas of habitat with a streamer like you would use a spinner. Divide the water into strips and work the streamer down each strip until you have covered the whole pool. When you start for the day, you might make a few extra casts into each strip and use different retrieve techniques to see what the trout prefer that day.
A special technique you can use on cut banks is to cast the streamer onto the bank itself, then pull it gently until it falls into the water. This mimics the fall of an insect into the water, and it drives trout crazy. It can be a good producer in the right places.
Unlike other types of fly, there are a variety of techniques you can use to catch trout with a streamer. Since the streamer is imitating active prey, you can make it do different things and still catch fish. Experiment with different presentations when you fish – you will find different things work on different days, or on different rivers.
You can use the same techniques with streamers as you would with nymphs or wet flies. Cast the streamer to a spot above the place you think is holding trout, then let it drift down with the current. You can keep the streamer near the top of the water like a wet fly or let it bump along the bottom like a nymph.
This technique works best in eddies, along seams, and in pockets of water behind a structure. The trout are holding position and waiting for food to come along. Let your streamer flow into the pocket and the fish thinks he’s found just what he wants.
Unlike nymphs and wet flies, you can fish streamers upstream as well. The trick here is to make the streamer move like a real minnow or crayfish. To imitate a minnow, keep the streamer in the water column and strip the line with your hand. This will produce realistic jerks and lunges that look like the way real minnows move.
To imitate a crayfish, let the streamer sink to the bottom and retrieve it in a slow but jerky manner. It should stay near the bottom the whole time, but not move smoothly.
As with drifting streamers downstream, the key to upstream fishing is to get the streamer into the pockets of water that hold trout.
Just like with lead-head jigs on lakes, you can fish a streamer like a jig. Cast it out and let it settle to the bottom, then jerk the tip of your rod up to make it hop. Reel in some line, let the streamer settle, then hop it again. This can be irresistible to big trout in deep pools or along seams. The technique works both upstream and downstream.
Mousing for big trout is just like topwater fishing for largemouth bass. Keep the streamer on top of the water and reel it in using a quick, jerky motion. You want your streamer to look like a little mouse who accidentally fell into the water and is rushing to get out. This technique works best along cut banks or in deep pools where the biggest trout are found.
Mousing isn’t a high-volume technique. You won’t catch lots and lots of ten and twelve-inch trout. In fact, you won’t catch smaller trout at all with this technique. What you will catch are the big ones – the twenty-inch plus trout that are big enough to tackle a mouse.
Since streamers imitate fish that can swim as they please, you don’t have to follow any rules about how to present them to trout. Try different speeds, different jerk techniques, and different depths. You are sure to find a technique that works for you.
The right size of streamer depends on the size of fish you are targeting. For big trout in big rivers, you can go as large as a 1/0 hook on a streamer up to six inches long. These giant streamers won’t catch a lot of trout, but you will be proud of the ones you do catch.
For most streamer work, a much smaller hook is better. A streamer two to three inches long will catch plenty of big trout. These streamers usually have a hook that is about a size eight. This is a good compromise size. It’s big enough to interest the whoppers, but it’s small enough to catch plenty of other trout as well.
The basic streamer type has a single hook with feathers or fur tied near the eye that stream down the shank and extend well beyond the end of the hook. They may or may not have wings, a body, or an additional tail, but the streamer will always have a long hackle that extends from the hook eye past the end of the hook. Some even have a little glass eye for extra realism.
If you are fishing big water and need a streamer that will cast farther and sink faster, look for jighead or conehead streamers. These have a little weighted head at the hook eye to add weight. Jighead streamers have a round head like any other jig, while conehead sinkers have a cone-shaped head that helps them slip through obstacles easier.
For the biggest trout, you can get articulated streamers. These streamers are long enough that they feature a second hook further back in the body of the streamer. These are most popular for catching bigger species like pike and bass, but they will bring in big trout as well.
Like with all fishing lures, streamers come in a huge variety of colors, patterns, and materials. A quick trip to any fly shop will show you the huge variety of streamers available. There are always regional favorites and “secret” patterns that produce under specific conditions, but there are also classic patterns that tend to work everywhere. Here are a dozen of the best:
- Black Dace – this streamer imitates the baitfish of the same name. It’s little more than a hackle, an eye, and some shiny wrapping on the hook shank, but this pattern has produced for decades.
- Clouser – this pattern is just an eye and a long buck-hair hackle. They are usually two-toned, dark above and light below, to mimic small fish. Clousers come in just about every color and are productive streamers in all kinds of water.
- Crayfish – there are a number of streamer patterns that mimic crayfish. They are usually shades of brown or rust-red and are wider at the back to mimic the shape of a fleeing crayfish. These can produce well when fished along the bottom of rivers and creeks.
- Deceiver – this is a popular saltwater streamer, but the pattern is also productive in freshwater. It is similar to the Clouser but adds feathers to the hackle for some extra motion and size.
- Leech – these streamers are long and usually dark. They imitate leeches that are a common food source for big trout. Weighted heads and articulated bodies are common with leech streamers.
- Marabou – just like marabou jigs, these use fluffy feathers for a soft, flowy hackle. These streamers come in all colors and sizes.
- Mickey Finn – this is a classic salmon streamer, but it works great for big trout as well. It’s named after a drink spiked with knockout drops, and it knocks fish out as well. It’s a simple pattern with a bucktail hackle and shiny hook shank.
- Muddler / Bunny Muddler – this is a more complicated pattern with a head, wings, and a tail in addition to the hackle. Muddlers are usually tied with shades of brown to imitate baitfish. Bunny muddlers use rabbit hair instead of feathers for a more flowing motion.
- Royal Coachman – this is a very old pattern that’s usually tied as a wet fly to imitate mayflies. Tied with a long bucktail hackle, it’s a great streamer pattern as well. It features a white wing that works great in dark or stained water.
- Wooly Bugger – another old pattern that still works. This streamer has a fluffy body with longer hairs poking out combined with a long feathery tail. Wooly Buggers come in a variety of patterns so you can find one that works in just about any condition.
- Zonker – these streamers are made with a strip of fur and are usually dyed shades of brown or yellow. The fur gives the streamer a waving action in the water that big fish can’t resist. Zonkers often have a glass eye and / or a weighted head for better casting and faster sinking. They work best jigged or fished along the bottom.
- Zoo Cougar – the Zoo Cougar is a streamer pattern as wild as the name. It has a deer hair head and body with a feather wing and marabou tail. Zoo Cougars are light streamers that work best fished just under the surface.
Types of Trout
Trout live in cold, clear waters. They are found in much of the country, with the exception of the deep south. There are many different species. Let’s take a look at them so that you know what you are catching.
Rainbow trout, or just rainbows, are native to rivers in western North America and eastern Asia. These trout have been introduced into rivers throughout America and the world. They may be silver or golden, but they are always speckled and always have a pink stripe running the length of their bodies.
These trout are often grouped with salmon instead of trout because they have a similar life cycle to salmon. They are spawned in rivers, live as adults in the sea, and return to rivers to spawn. However, they are actually trout – rainbow trout. Some rainbows live their whole lives in fresh water, while others go out to sea and return as steelheads. They are found only in the Pacific Northwest. The Columbia River is famous for steelheads.
This is a European species that has been introduced into the US. They are found in most trout streams in America now, and pose a threat to native trout in some places. Brownies are golden or brown colored with large black spots.
Brown with white or gold spots and a pink belly, brook trout are the native species in the eastern US. Individual populations may be threatened by introduced rainbow or brown trout. Brook trout can be found in a wide range of habitats from the Great Lakes to tiny Appalachian streams.
What brookies are to the east and rainbows are to the Pacific Northwest, cutthroat trout are to the Rocky Mountains. They are a smaller species that thrives in the cold streams of the high mountains. Cutthroats are lightly spotted golden or silver fish with pink gill plates. They get their gory name from pink or red stripes below their gills.
As the name suggests, these trout live in lakes. They are native to Canada, Alaska, and the Great Lakes, but have been introduced into other large lakes as well. You are unlikely to catch lakers with a streamer – the big, deep lakes where they live are best fished by trolling or jigging with heavy jigs and spoons.
Give Streamers a Try
For your next fishing trip, grab a handful of streamers for trout. They are easy to fish, versatile, and can catch the lunkers that dry flies might miss. You don’t have to worry about “matching the hatch” or figuring out exactly what the fish are eating, and you can present them in several different ways. They will produce even when dry flies won’t. Tie on a streamer, and you can’t go wrong.