October 22, 2019
The fly line shot out on an irregular tangent, the leader hinging and my bushy dry skittering across the surface before being swallowed by chop. The wind was irritating, and it also induced shivers. I’d been anticipating this outing all week, guessing it would prove to be the last dry-fly opportunity of the season. But fall in trout country can be fickle, evidenced by the chilly, blustery weather that can suddenly overtake an area.
I stubbornly tossed the dry a couple more hours, hoping action would improve as the sun firmly established itself. But the bone-chilling gusts continued. Dry-fly season had officially closed. But I had a full day free of work at my disposal and was on cherished trout water. I wasn’t about to give up. A change of gears was needed.
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Rooting into the darkest corners of a gear bag, I discovered the spare spool holding sink-tip fly line. Back on the river, I positioned myself at the top of an aquamarine slot, shot a length of line out at a 45-degree angle and allowed the current to pull a No. 2 Woolly Bugger into that secretive hole. A couple twitches and I came up tight on a chunky, head-swinging trout. A few minutes later an 18-inch West Slope cutthroat came to hand, as colorful as an artist’s palette.
Streamers make sense during the waning days of trout season due to a couple natural phenomenons. Most pressing, trout must lay on winter reserves for the long, sluggish days to come. A sense of urgency arrives as days grow shorter and water cools. Insect life will soon cease, while in many habitats winter water temperatures become so low trout must hug the bottom, semi-comatose, awaiting spring. On still other northern Rockies or high-altitude waters, winter anchor ice forces stressful migrations to protective lakes and ponds. Successful migration requires energy reserves.
Where brown and brook trout fin, fall marks the annual spawn (rainbows and cutthroats spawn in spring). While these trout may feed ravenously while staging before spawning, making streamers an obvious choice for success, as actual spawning begins savage territorial strikes can be elicited by stripping streamers over clean gravel beds where trout spawn.
MATCHING FORAGE — OR NOT
Big-calorie intake equates to larger forage, mainly minnows, chubs, sculpins, smaller crayfish, and even baby trout. These food sources represent streamer territory. Streamer choice ultimately depends on natural forage in the waters fished. Of course, general or attractive patterns can work in all waters. These are streamers mirroring nothing specifically but imitating tasty morsels generally. Catch-all Woolly Buggers serve as the archetype here (though also provide specific imitation in other circumstances). Classic streamers — Spruce series, Mickey Finn, Grey Ghost and any manner of fly-tier’s late-night permutations — are always worthwhile. Sometimes something that doesn’t make sense really rattles their cage—like the hot-pink Bunny Leech (tied for Alaska salmon) I once hammered a mess of thick-shouldered rainbows with at a lake inlet.
More often you’ll have a solid idea of dominant forage on local waters. Generally minnows are a safe bet, imitated by something like a Black Nose Dace, Matuka of appropriate shade, or Mylar-tubing and epoxy flies. Fat-headed sculpins are common in Western rivers, best imitated by Muddler Minnows, Marabou Muddlers, Spuddlers and similar patterns. The spun and clipped deer-hair heads produce a realistic profile, the clipped hair producing fish-attracting vibrations when moved through water. Baby trout are easily fashioned by layering appropriately-hued bucktail; yellowish overall with dark back and white belly for baby browns, silvery overall with green back and pink stripe for rainbows, for instance. Badger Matukas accurately feign striped Rocky Mountain chubs common in many waters, while the aforementioned Woolly Bugger effectively mirrors the profile and movement of fleeing crayfish.
How you strip streamers — how fast or slow, short twitches, long pulls or natural swings — really depends on what you’re hoping to imitate or the particular mood trout are in. Typical, standard, short, jerky strips, pulling fly line across your index and middle finger in 4- to 8-inch twitches, clamping the fly line against the cork during pauses, is standard. This short-jerk/short-pause cadence closely imitates injured or sick forage and triggers instinctive strikes. Vary tempo and strip length until a preference is discovered, or more aggressive strikes result, opposed to nipping short strikes.
Another approach that often drives trout wild is a simple swing. This is the essence of traditional wet-fly fishing (which almost no one practices anymore), casting across current and quartering downstream, allowing the fly to swing across feeding lanes. Maintain contact with the streamer during the entire swing, mending bellying line as needed, holding the rod 90 degrees to the fly to cushion the impact of sudden strikes. As the streamer reaches the end of its journey, allow it to hang in the current 10-30 seconds, like a small fish fighting current. Try lifting your rod tip to bring the streamer to the surface, and/or plunging the rod tip underwater to cause a dive. The streamer can also be twitched upstream.
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Bighorn River guide Chris Madson taught me that sometimes bigger strips bring bigger success. I’d applied short twitches for an hour, catching one small brown and receiving many short strikes. Madson suggested applying longer, faster strips. Six more casts applying this more aggressive method resulted in two 16- to 17-inch rainbows. This includes long, fast pulls of 2-3 feet (dictated by how long your arms are) as quickly as they can be performed. My theory is this pace forces trout to make impulsive grabs, as it doesn’t give them time to think.
At the other end of the spectrum are slow hand twists. This seems most effective in stillwaters or deep, sluggish river pools. It produces best while using streamers tied from “highly breathable” materials, like marabou and rabbit strips, the fluttering fibers tantalizing suspicious trout. A proper hand twist requires some practice; line held between thumb and index finger of the retrieval hand, the hand turned inward to bring a loop of line into the palm. Withdraw the index finger from the loop and retain the line in the palm with the three remaining free fingers before starting another loop. When the hand becomes full of line simply drop the loops to uncoil freely. In most cases the hand twist is applied to give flies time to descend deeper, though the slow crawl is often most tantalizing to feeding trout. It is especially effective with large leech patterns in lakes and ponds.
For most streamer fishing a floating line is perfectly acceptable. There are certainly cases where a standard leader and streamer are fished at or close to the surface—when forage is behaving in that manner or trout are willing to come up for food—but more often split shot is added a foot above the fly. I’ve had days when forced to add so many split shot the rod’s action was killed, but it got the streamer down and the job done.
On smaller or slower-flowing waters a sink-tip line is better while streamer fishing—much easier to cast than split shot while accomplishing the same task and getting your fly down. Unlike the floating-line/split-shot route, while using a sink tip the leader should be shortened (3-6 feet instead of 7 1/2-9 feet) so the line has more direct effect on the fly. A sink tip can also prove useful on stillwaters with shelved structure. Full-sink lines are best on faster waters or large rivers with seemingly bottomless pools. There are instances on faster rivers where trout hold behind shelves or ledges, a full-sink allowing you to punch a streamer beneath the faster water overhead, plunging behind structure to present your fly to feeding trout. In many instances, like that time fishing with Madson on the Bighorn, the rod tip might actually be held 2 or 3 feet under water to push the fly deeper. Like the sink tip, a short leader, 2 to 3 feet, is the way to go here. Another deadly, full-sink ploy is using a buoyant fly (like a Muddler) on a slightly longer leader, the streamer diving with each twitch.
The classic match-the-hatch approach to fly fishing certainly has massive appeal. But there are simply times when you must adjust ploys to meet the demands of current conditions, and streamer fishing to fall trout is one of those. As an added bonus, fall streamer fishing often results in the heaviest trout of the season, trophy trout accustomed to feeding on larger portions and aggressively seeking forage imitated by a meaty streamer. Thinking back on my top-five trophy trout of all species, all came while streamer fishing, and most appeared in the fall.
Tailwater trout are renowned for being fussy and challenging to catch, sipping midges, micro caddis or fooled by drifting wee nymphs beneath strike indicators. This is how we approached northwest New Mexico’s famous San Juan River while guiding globetrotting clients. But after clients were safely deposited at motels and rental cars, guides returned to the river to toss streamers to behemoth trout. This wasn’t volume fishing (though there were exceptions), but we landed some monsters.
The point is that most catch-and-release trout served a steady diet of midge-based patterns are often ready for a change of pace, something more substantial. Stripping streamers on effete tailwaters can turn the tables on educated trout—because no one’s crazy enough to try it, sticking to the dictated tiny pupa, larva and emerger patterns. So next time you find yourself on a big-name tailwater, give streamers a try. You just might be surprised.