Swing, Strip, Set!
A streamer is a type of subsurface fly that is meant to be fished on the retrieve and most often imitates larger trout forage like baitfish, crayfish, tadpoles, and larger insects. The retrieve is what imparts these flies with an erratic, wounded, or fleeing action, often enticing trout to suddenly and quite viciously strike.
I came into the fly fishing world as a know-nothing spin fisherman, and I started my journey using these flies.
To this day they are still my favorite fly to use and I always have a few in every box (even a few stuffed into the open spaces in my dry fly boxes : )
I’m going to do a breakdown of some of the best streamers for trout and include some Youtube links so that you can spin up some of these classic and productive flies yourself. There’s nothing quite like a streamer take.
This article will include:
- Top 9 streamers for trout
- Streamer tips
- Streamer techniques
- Color and size considerations
- Frequently asked questions
- And much more!
Let’s get started!
The Best Trout Streamers
We’ve selected the top 9 streamers guaranteed to catch trout. Each selection provides a link to purchase these flies and a video of how to tie them.
The exact origins of this fly are unknown, but it is definitely regarded as the improved version of another classic fly, the Wooly Worm, which itself finds its origin from the British Palmer fly, a verifiable antique that dates back to Sir Izaak Walton and his fishing grimoire, The Compleat Angler.
This fly is an impressionistic masterpiece, and effectively imitates numerous trout forage, including but not limited to sculpins, leeches, tadpoles, crayfish, hellgrammites, and dobsonflies.
The Wooly Bugger is most often tied with a chenille body, a marabou tail, and palmered hackle over the chenille, usually strengthened by some wire spiraled over the palmer.
However, the variations of this pattern are truly endless, with flash, rubber legs, tungsten beads/wire, and numerous other materials added or subtracted to achieve the desired action, depth, and look.
Wooly Buggers can be fished in many different ways with the same deadly effectiveness. A fast constant retrieve works just as well as a short six-inch crawl, and they are deadly on the swing when trying to cover large bodies of water.
When using a smaller Bugger, they can even be fished statically like a nymph, and I often attach 16”-20” inches of tippet to the hook bend and tie on a subsequent small bead-head nymph as a trailer for a cracking good two-fly rig. The possibilities are endless, and the Bugger is a potent weapon in any water.
How To Tie a Wooly Bugger?
Here’s my favorite variation of the Wooly Bugger, tied by one of my favorite fly dressers, Barry Ord Clarke. Check this out, and if you like this tutorial, consider buying his book for beginners.
The Muddler Minnow was originally tied by Don Gapen in 1936 in an attempt to imitate the sculpins that were the primary forage of large, brutish Montana brook trout.
The fly has undergone numerous variations by numerous fly tyers, but it is almost universally regarded as a necessary streamer regardless of what water you’re fishing.
This is another super impressionistic fly that imitates a large number of baitfish and terrestrials both, including but not limited to sculpins, dace, chubs, grasshoppers, crickets, and even mice. Full disclosure, this is my favorite streamer.
Muddler Minnows can be tied in multiple different ways. They work well unweighted but are also deadly effective when a brass or tungsten cone is used at the nose, to get the fly sufficiently subsurface. The inclusion of marabou can add eye-catching action both on the surface and underneath it. This impressionistic fly has a nearly endless amount of variations much like the Wooly Bugger.
When fished unweighted, the packed deer hair head makes the fly very buoyant, and with careful twitching and flexing of the rod, the fly creates a decent wake and impressive surface disturbance (this is the Muddling!!).
No worries if your unweighted MM gets water-logged because now you can swing it and strip it as you would a normal streamer, to great effect. When fished small, you’ve got a great terrestrial imitation. When fished larger or weighted, you’ve got the perfect trout streamer. Learn this fly!
How To Tie a Muddler Minnow Fly?
Here’s Barry Ord Clarke again with a fantastic Muddler Minnow. To tie this fly, you need a firm grasp of several different techniques, and mastering them will not only enable you to produce super functional Muddler Minnows but will also up your fly tying game in general. Spend some time on this!
Developed by Bob Clouser to harass smallmouth in the Susquehannah, this incredibly versatile streamer works just as well on aggressive browns and ‘bows.
“If it eats minnows, it will eat a Clouser,” is a phrase I’ve heard repeated countless times at numerous fly shops, and it’s true. This fly effectively imitates a host of baitfish and is easy to tie with a little practice.
The Clouser minnow is a simplistic fly, with dumbbell eyes and bucktail being the main ingredients, but there are numerous variations ranging from the Deeper Clouser (with heavier eyes, added flash) to saltwater variations that incorporate rubber legs and lateral line tinsel.
You can fish a Clouser Minnow much like a standard streamer, with either a slow twitching retrieve or a fast, constant stripping retrieve. This fly also works well when allowed to sink to the bottom and “jigged” with light flexes of your rod tip. There’s no wrong way to fish this simplistic, deadly streamer. A must-have for your box.
How To Tie a Clouser Minnow
There’s no better way to learn how to tie this fly than from the man himself, so here’s Bob doing what he does best.
Sculpins are small, bottom-hugging baitfish that make a nice meal for aggressive trout. They inhabit both fresh and saltwater and are also present in spring creeks and high mountain streams.
They are primo trout forage, so finding a fly that imitates them well can increase your chances of hooking into something big.
Sculpin streamers can be tied big, but I prefer sculpins that are small. This fish only gets to a maximum length of about four inches, so I’ve found going small here can make a more appealing fly for trout.
Larger sculpins are usually tied with metal fish masks and sculpin wool near the eye of the hook, and they sink fast. Smaller sculpin flies incorporate dumbbells or bead chain eyes.
Since sculpins are primarily a bottom-dwelling fish, fish these flies on the bottom, twitched, with the occasional long strip in between. A little marabou gives these flies action even when they are still, and all this adds up to an eye-catching fly that gets results.
How To Tie a Sculpin Fly
Fly Fish Food has a great Near Nuff Sculpin tutorial that spotlights Dave Whitlock’s now-famous pattern. Check this out!
A Zonker fly is a streamer that utilizes strips of fur with the hide attached to create a sleek, pulsating profile, reminiscent of a leech or baitfish.
These are usually tied a little bigger, generally with rabbit fur, but I have seen excellent Zonkers using squirrel, mink, and on and on.
These are generally very simplistic to tie if you have the Zonker material, and that makes them a great choice for fishing larger rivers and tailwaters.
Much like the Wooly Bugger, the number of materials that you can use to craft your Zonker is nearly endless. Whether it’s called a Bunny Leech, a Slumpbuster, or a Flying Squirrel, all these variations follow the same principle of using fur with the hide attached to achieve an undulating action and sleek profile.
These streamers can be fished the same way as a Wooly Bugger, and even statically if you lower your hook size and the “tail” of your Zonker strip. I like to use a long strip/pause retrieve.
How To tie a Zonker Fly?
Tightlines has a great Zonker tutorial, and once you get this pattern down you’re only limited by your imagination as far as color and profile go.
Tying tutorial —> Zonker
The Deceiver fly was created by Lefty Kreh, a verifiable fly fishing icon, that used these flies to pursue Striped Bass all along the Chesapeake Bay.
They were originally a smelt imitation, but as Mr. Kreh moved to salt water, the fish-catching ability of this fly really began to shine. In his book 101 Fish, a considerable portion of the fish Lefty talks about was caught in his creation.
It remains an incredibly effective fly, in saltwater or fresh, for trout or tarpon.
The Deceiver fly was created to be spun up a thousand different ways. The simplicity of using hackle feathers and bucktail to create the slim baitfish profile of this fly allows you to dial this pattern into whatever local forage your trout eat. Here again, you’re only limited by your imagination and the supplies at your tying desk.
Deceivers can be fished numerous ways, but when I use them I love swinging them in wide arcs while flexing my rod tip. I’ve found that I get the most strikes when I swing them like this and then make long retrieval strips with no pauses. These flies will catch fish regardless of how you fish them.
How To Tie A Lefty’s Deceiver?
Tightlines has another great video here explaining how to tie the Deceiver. If you learn this pattern well, you can fill boxes with deceivers imitating baitfish in every climate and condition.
Tying Tutorial —> Lefty’s Deceiver
This hybrid streamer by Blane Chocklett relies on the use of multiple linked shanks to provide articulation akin to a swimbait.
Game Changer flies can be tied in any number of sizes to imitate whatever baitfish are native to the waters you fish. I’ve seen seven-inch-long Game Changers for pike muskie, but the smaller ones (Micro Game Changers) are irresistible to trout.
The color and profile variations of this fly are numerous. Feather Game Changers are particularly impressive, and the variety of feathers available means even more color options. Tied big or small, this fly is deadly effective.
Fishing a Game Changer is fun. The swimming action that is so tantalizing to trout can be achieved by long sweeping swings or a fast constant retrieve. Opt for a weedless mono attachment and you can almost drop shot these flies, and this is particularly useful around cover or surface debris.
How To Tie a Game Changer Fly
Even the larger size Game Changers are effective for trout, especially near the spawn when they get aggressive, but I have found the Micro Game changer to be particularly deadly on browns and rainbows. This fly takes time and patience to tie. Don’t get discouraged, and check out this tutorial.
Fly Tying tutorial —> The Micro Game Changer
Trout love crayfish. Streamer flies that imitate crayfish are bound to get results.
Dumbbell eyes for weight and pulsating, undulating action near the hook bend to imitate waving claws make trout go nuts, and this is evident with the sheer number of crayfish imitations out there.
Crayfish do vary in hue and size depending on where you are, but they’re perfect trout forage, and thus, a great pattern to learn multiple variations of. Dave Whitlock, Tom Rosenbauer, and many other noteworthy fly dressers all have a particular variant that they swear by, so consider this when picking the pattern you like.
I fish crayfish like a sculpin. I try to sink them to the bottom and retrieve them in short, six-inch twitches, with occasional flexing of my rod tip. In between twitches, pop your rod tip, it gives the fly a struggling, fleeing action.
How To tie a Crayfish Fly?
There are too many variations of the crayfish pattern to list, but this is the one I use (and yes, it is also very effective on bass)
Tying tutorial —> Easy Crayfish Fly
Mouse flies are super fun to use and can be incredibly effective, especially with big old hook-jawed browns.
Meant to imitate small field mice (that have made a huge mistake by getting into the water with hungry trout about), these flies are surface disturbing, skating, swimming quasi-streamers that are also incredibly effective when used at night.
The first mouse fly I ever saw was a tiny, round piece of spun deer hair with black mono eyes and a chenille tail. Fly fishers have leveled up considerably on the profile and action of mouse flies with new materials, especially foam. A lot of the variations take a more impressionistic approach, and they work.
Make your mouse weedless, and fish it similarly to a frog. Toss it near the bank and make it swim precariously into deep water. Gentle flexes of your rod tip will make it bob up and down as if it’s treading water.
There are so many ways to fish a mouse. These are deadly near cover as well. Learn how to impart the desired action to it and then try taking a couple of these out at night.
How to Tie a Mouse Fly?
The Morrish Mouse is an unsinkable, effective mouse fly that I use all the time. Here’s the Ken Morrish mouse explained
Tying tutorial —> Taming the Hair on a Morrish Mouse
Even though streamers can be tied large, you don’t have to throw big streamers for success. In fact, I have found that sizing down and slowing down your retrieve can often mean the difference between getting a wary brown to strike your fly or ignoring it and fleeing.
When using feather wing streamers (Deceivers, bucktails, etc) remember to occasionally look at your fly and make sure it’s in one piece, especially if you’re working around cover or getting snagged occasionally.
Streamers work great in fast current, especially weighted ones. Carrying the same pattern with different weights is always a good idea.
When to Fish a Streamer?
In my opinion, there is no wrong time to fish a streamer. Regardless of temperature, water conditions, visibility, and other factors, a streamer is likely to get a reaction strike if you can get it within the field of vision of a trout.
That being said, I have found streamers to be particularly effective in the fall, when trout are getting ready to spawn and become aggressive.
Size comes into play here as well, because I have found that I have great success in early spring when fishing small streamers with a light touch (avoid a constant retrieve, tons of water disturbance, etc).
What About Color?
What color to use and when is a question that has no concrete answer. It’s very subjective to the conditions of where you’re fishing. I always opt for natural colors, as I think that they garner more interest from trout and have less of a chance of spooking them.
However, I always use black when visibility is low, say when there’s big snowmelt and the water is grey or discolored. The answer to what color to use and when changes with the seasons and the conditions, so bring an assortment of colors, and always examine the coloration of the local forage.
The retrieve is how you impart life into your streamer. How you retrieve these flies will determine how they act in the water. When I throw weighted streamers into deep pools, I allow them to sink to my desired depth and then strip them back to me with occasional pauses. With a sculpin or crayfish pattern, let the fly hit bottom and make it skitter amongst the rocks.
Muddler Minnows and mice can create a nice wake on the surface and can be made to “swim” via flexing your rod tip with occasional short strips mixed in. Deceivers and Zonker flies are extremely effective “on the swing” when launched into fast water and then pulled back towards you.
When swinging streamers, pretend your rod is a paintbrush, and cover areas of the water in “brushstrokes” with your fly. This is a great-searching method.
When fishing smaller streamers I usually always attach a 16-24” piece of tippet with a small weighted nymph tagging along, and when fishing like this, I sometimes let the nymph and streamer go static and just float.
If picky trout won’t take the streamer, they are often enticed to strike when they see the smaller bug drifting behind it.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: What size streamer for trout?
A: I have seen a ten-inch trout attack a seven-inch Game Changer fly. Normally when I’m streamer fishing I start small and incrementally increase the size of the streamers I’m using as the day goes on. If I’m fishing big water, I’ll start a little larger. The old adage is true– ”Small bugs catch big fish and small fish.”
Q: What line weight should I use to throw streamers for trout?
A: A 5wt has the muscle necessary to throw a variety of small-medium size streamers and is a great line weight for trout. However, when you start throwing bigger, heavier flies like sculpins and crayfish or bigger Game Changers, a 6wt or 7wt will effectively get your streamers to turn over.
Check out our other Informational Articles:
Reeling it in
Streamer fishing is an active, physical, fun way to fish for trout. The strikes that streamers can evoke from trout are violent, sudden, and powerful. If you’re a dedicated euro nympher or dry fly enthusiast, try some streamers this Summer, and definitely into the Fall when the trout get aggressive.
I hope this little breakdown has shed some light on the flies and techniques necessary to fish this way. Give these streamers a shot, and see what it’s all about. You might just become partial to streamers when other methods aren’t producing. As always, stay safe on the water and tight lines!