Guide tip – Streamer Fishing
By: Mike Duffy
If you were a fry, a smolt, or a sculpin and you felt the warm breath of a brown trout lurking, how would you escape? With a flit and a flutter, you dash downstream, away from the harm. Downstream -riding the currents you are better able to win your freedom. You can’t out swim the predator, but you might be able to out maneuver it with your quick, sharp movements. Better not try to fight the current by heading upstream.
Hmm… What does this mean for our streamer presentations? Traditional methods instruct us to cast downstream and across to either a bank or a piece of structure in the river. We mend the line, let the pattern sink a bit, depending on depth, and then retrieve the pattern by stripping it back to us at an upstream angle. This presentation will work, but you are passing up many other fish that aren’t so easily fooled.
Thinking back, it’s funny how my buddies and I would rock-paper-scissor for the front of the drift boat. Fishing dries or nymphing, this position is tops. However, as we began to huck streamers more and more and then reaching a point where it’s all we would cast, the back of the boat became ideal. Chucking in the rear we found it easier to maintain a longer, downstream presentation through the vital habitat. Give this a shot: Quarter upstream and place the fly as close to the bank as possible. Lightly lift the rod tip and then set it back down abruptly at the same time, working slack out of the rod tip. This will hopefully allow the fly some time to drop. Just before the line comes under tension roll a downstream mend into the line again towards the bank. Your goal here is to stack the fly line below the bug on a vector that follows the stream bank. This will encourage the pattern to swim downstream amongst all those trout tucked in along the bank.
Once the fly is swinging, following that down steam belly in the line, I like to stay tight to the line by keeping my rod tip low to the water. What we don’t want to be doing is shaking our rod tip around trying to breathe life into the streamer. This can be done by simply varying our line strips. If we shake the rod around, we create slack and if the fish takes while the fly is off-tension, it is quite easy for her to spit the pattern before the hook can be sunk. So staying tight to the line, we are able to feel the take. As pressure from the attack builds, set the hook progressively with a strip set. As you feel the immediate pressure, let the tension in the line get the hook started and then finish the set by drawing the line towards you with enough oomph to driver her home.
The element of surprise is a key concept underlying this type of fishing. What we want to deliver, is a natural presentation, that comes across the fishes face without hanging around too long so as to give the fish too long a look at the pattern. We want to evoke a pure natural response. If we look at our own behavior, our responses are much more drastic if things come as a surprise. If we see a spider crawling towards us for a long period of time, we may sit and admire. There is no great sense of urgency like there would be if our periphery were to catch a fury steak scurrying out of view on our hat brim. Is it going to zip down our shirt and take a toothy bite? Just like a bear surprised in the woods, and the unfortunate son who takes off in full sprint just ahead of that thunderous, instinctual response. If the bear were to observe you walking away slowly, she might have second thoughts about having you for lunch.
Prey escaping downstream is natural. This presentation is also filled with motion designed to come into the predator’s line of vision, and then out as quickly as it arrived. Reckless fish will engulf the pattern head on, early in the drift. Others will take later. How do we hook these fish that follow and teeter on the edge of their curiosity? Great question. The take may not be as sharp, but I like to keep the pattern moving if I sense a follow. Keep the motion going, adding life-sculpted pops to the front of the strip as it nears the point of recast. I have witnessed countless times, a trout zipping out off the bank only to stop and stare at the pattern before turning around. Seeing the retreating trout brings me to another point.
Make sure there aren’t unearthly scents on the streamer. Handling your bug with sunscreen or bug spray will not help the cause. Fish have a keen sense of smell and if they pick up these toxic smells, you can forget about hooking that semi-committed fish that has followed beyond the initial stage. Before tying on your pattern, grab some organic stuff from the river, and wash your hands with it. Moss and sticks, dirt or leaves will help us blend our offering into the environment.
Depth of the fly can be key but it all depends on the day. There are times when trout are extremely reckless, and they will travel for river treats. Often they will pull into shallower riffles and tail outs and when this is the case, floating lines and lightly-weighted patterns are fine. I typically stick to throwing a line that has an integrated tip fused to the end. I like a 10 ft type 6 streamer tip and from there, I will further influence the depth by adding weight and changing the length of leader used. Fishing light, I run about 4 ½ feet of straight 1x tippet tied loop to loop to the end of the tip. This is a great casting set up, however, if the fish need some coaxing and I want to dredge, I will tie on a 12 foot leader and a medium to large sized bullet weight at the head of the fly. I am able to affix the bullet weight into the loop knot that I use to tie on the fly. The one I use is the no-slip loop knot and for those of you familiar with it, just slide the bullet weight onto the tag end after creating the initial overhand loop. You then thread the remaining tag through the eye of the hook, thereby trapping the weight into the loop. It can be a bear to cast, but by dredging, and allowing our patterns to bounce and skitter freely on or close to the
river bottom, we are off the bench and in the field of play. Fishing like this may yield that giant fish. That fish that has learned to pick his battles wisely and use up as little energy as possible to stay satiated.
Banks are not the only places I concentrate. Soft seam lines on inside corners are often very productive. Fishing from a boat, these places become vital because as the vessel drops into a corner, the boat will often plow right up against the outside bank. Looking to the inside, you can work some faster, shallower drifts up high in the cleft of the shelf. Longer, deeper drifts can then be made by quartering upstream followed by a big slack mend allowing the pattern to sink. Then roll the line downstream so that the pattern dredges down along the entire length of the seam. Sometimes, the only place for the boat to go is to the inside because a shallow shelf blocks the higher entrance to the bank. When the boat drops into the corner, as soon as you are able, lob your pattern as far upstream along the bank as possible. Often, these fish will lay up higher on the shelf riffle because it is soft current, is a nice food lane, and there is nice bank cover right close by. An upstream cast here will encourage a beautiful drift back towards the boat, all the while trolling through some immaculate habitat.
Don’t forget the rock seam. Boulders provide a wonderful bit of structure for fish to lie up on. There is a soft pillow of current just in front of the rock, and another, longer one below. The largest trout that I have ever hooked came from behind a boulder while stumbling around the Box Canyon on Idaho’s Henry’s Fork River. I had just finished working this piece of water quite thoroughly with a nymph set up. I picked up a couple respectable fish and thought I had better give the streamer it’s chance before wading on down. I tied on giant, chartreuse, rubber-legged, dumbbell-eyed creation tied by a buddy of Kelly Galloup of Montana. I made a cast about 10 ft above this big submerged boulder, made an upstream mend, made one more slack mend and then allowed a downstream belly to form in the line. When the bug finally came tight, it came to life and swung downstream slumping into the boil from the far end of the boulder. A shot of lightning jolted through the line, that I can still feel to this day. A leviathan breached and without adequately sinking the hook, she spit in mid-air, that fake meal of feathers and hook. It had to be the largest trout known to man, or at least this man, but I would never know her intimately.
Another fish that often rides the train of my thoughts was one that I actually landed on the Madison River in SW Montana. Somehow, my line had had become a jumbled pretzel, caught around my feet and about every other hard edge in the rear of the drift boat. I had a medium-sized sculpin pattern adrift, but my attention was fully directed at untangling the nest at my feet. After what seemed like profanity filled forever, I finally got straight and went to lift up my line that had been trolling down behind the boat. It was snagged on the bottom, until the bottom began to shake and shoot upstream like a missile. Much later, the most gorgeous Brown Trout lay gasping in my hands at the surface of the river. We were both gasping and happy was I to be connected in this magical, fateful event. Hmm, evidently trout like natural looking patterns that move naturally in the river. This pattern was bouncing and skittering amongst the rocks on the river bottom which, guess what, is what real, live sculpins actually do in the wild.
Give the streamer a shot. Fishing them can be extremely active and rewarding. I believe that it is the finest way to raise the beast- you know, that fish that I like to call Henry. He is an elder fish, a champion of the river. He is full of wisdom and his instincts are honed. The years have refined him to mythical status amongst his brethren. He is large in size and grit, and he will undoubtedly peel gobs of fly line from your reel. He will relent only if you promise not to tell all his buddies what happened. And if you are lucky, he will swim in the currents of your soul until there is there is no place left for him to go.