Luring Early-Season Trout With Streamers
September 24, 2010
The roiling waters of a new season call for large streamer flies to entice a sluggish winter trout onto the end of your line.
Photo by Tom Evans
Streamers, oversimplified, are elongated flies that imitate fish and other small aquatic critters, such as crawfish and leaches. They are typically fished actively by stripping the line and are not drifted. Streamers work well early in the season for a couple important reasons. First, most can be worked effectively near the bottom, where trout do the bulk of their feeding at this time of the year. They imitate large menu items, which allow trout to gather the most calories with the least effort expended. That can be important when metabolism rates are low.
During high-water conditions, which are quite common right now, and through early spring, streamers also provide a good-sized target in high, roily water. Generally large and sometimes flashy streamers can get the attention of trout when they would never even see most nymphs drifting along beside them.
Let's look at high- and low-water conditions individually. Either is apt to be found early on in the year, depending on recent days' and weeks' weather, and each lends itself to different fly selections and angling approaches.
HIGH WATER Swift water created by heavy rains and/or melted snow will turn a lot of anglers away without them giving the trout a fair chance. While such conditions can make things tough in some ways, they also give anglers a distinct advantage. Holding areas are often very distinguishable and sometimes hold concentrations of trout that must compete for meals.
Midstream boulders, cuts in the bank, significant ledges and other features that create distinct eddies provide the best habitat for trout, by far. Anglers can often do well by simply moving from eddy to eddy, laying streamers in them and making a couple quick strips.
Currents that race around eddies sometimes make it difficult to keep flies in the strike zone for long. Often, however, a trout will take a streamer quickly under such conditions because they are being forced to ambush prey. Long leaders and fly rods help anglers keep the fly line out of the water so they can keep flies in the strike zone a little longer.
In addition to clearly defined surface eddies, long deep runs, which tend to hide protected pockets, sometimes produce well. Anglers often find success by making fairly long casts either directly upstream or quartered upstream, letting the fly sink and stripping the line as slowly as the current will allow.
Where the current is really racing through long, deep runs, an alternative approach is to work from upstream and to work a fly very slowly across the bottom, against the current. This approach calls for a heavy fly and a lot of patience, but at times, traditional downstream retrieves simply don't allow the fly to move slowly enough for winter-chilled fish.
A heavily weighted Woolly Bugger works great for this approach because it looks good being worked or drifted. It can be cast directly across a stream or slightly downstream and then allowed to dead drift until it finds the bottom. Then it can be slowly stripped all the way back. Both the drift and the retrieve may produce strikes on certain days. Often, the number of trout caught will determine which method you'll use.
Good fly patterns for high-water fishing include Clousers and Deceivers, and the trout don't know that these two lures are designed for saltwater fishing. Mickey Finns, Black Ghosts and black or white Woolly Buggers also work well. All are highly visible in the water, so the trout cannot miss them. Clousers or conehead Woolly Buggers are especially good if the water is extra swift and deep, because the head weight gets them down to where the trout tend to hide.
High, dirty water dictates larger streamers than otherwise would be used in a given stream; however, there really is no magic fly size for all waters. The best sizes depend on the size of the stream an angler fishes, the size trout the stream tends to produce and the level of the river that is present.
Sinking and sink-tip fly lines can also be beneficial for getting flies down when the water is high. Many anglers overlook sinking lines outside of lake fishing, but they can work great for probing long, deep lines. The downfall of sinking and sink-tip fly lines during high-water conditions is that they are not good for hitting isolated eddy pockets. The line is tough to keep out of the water; oftentimes it will get caught in the current and will pull the fly out of pockets even more readily than a floating line would.
LOW WATER Dry winters and cold springs give trout streams a completely different character early in the season and call for very different fly-fishing approaches. Streamers and slow presentations are the common denominators. At this time of year, trout preserve energy when they can, stay deep and grab big bites when given a choice, whether the river is raging or calm.
Low water provides both advantages and disadvantages. The main advantage is that a streamer is far easier to get to the bottom and to present properly without swift currents tugging on the fly line. Disadvantages are that trout tend to spread out more and that they enjoy the opportunity to examine offerings longer before deciding whether to take them.
The low-water approach tends to be very methodical during the early season. Veteran anglers spend a long time fishing big pools and long, deep runs, making casts at many different angles to all parts of each pool. On each cast, they let the fly sink almost to the bottom, and then they strip it very slowly.
Trout tend to orient to pools early in the season, but they won't always be in the deepest part of a pool. On sunny days, especially, they will be holding on the shallower slopes at the heads and tails of pools. Other days, most fish will orient to timber or rocks or other cover along the edges of pools. Veteran trout fishermen pay close attention to where strikes - or follows - come from, and then they work similar features in other pools with extra care. If anglers are observant, even spooked trout can reveal what kinds of areas the fish are holding in that day.
Streamers that have a natural appearance tend to work best during low-water conditions. Streamers that are muted olive, gray or tan in color, somewhat resembling crawfish and other small critters, generally will out-produce bright or flashy flies when the water is low. White or silver flies, although less subtle, work great in streams that have a lot of minnows or other baitfish in them.
Specific patterns and sizes de
pend on the kind of forage that dominates a stream. Various crawfish and sculpin patterns tend to produce well, as do Muddler Minnows, Matukas and Zonkers. Woolly Buggers work well under all conditions, but beadhead and conehead versions are better reserved for high-water conditions.
Sink-tip fly lines are especially valuable for low-water conditions because they allow anglers to fish deep without using weighted flies or adding lead to the leader. That allows light flies like Muddlers and Zonkers to move uninhibited, giving them a natural appearance in the water. When streams run clear and flow gently, eliminating any need for trout to ambush prey, finesse presentations can be very valuable.
Clear-tipped, sink-tip fly lines are ideal for this style of streamer fishing because they put the colored line a good distance from the fish. Fluorocarbon leaders, although expensive, are also helpful when streams run very clear. Virtually invisible in the water, fluorocarbon lines allow anglers to go with a little larger tippet than they otherwise could get away with, which is helpful for fishing large flies.
Whether an angler uses a sink-tip line, weighted flies, split shot or some combination, it's essential that streamers be worked close to the bottom during the first part of the season. The trout typically hold low, where the most food stays. Flies that don't get hung up occasionally probably aren't spending enough time in the strike zone. You've got to be in the strike zone at this time of the year to catch trout.
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