Updated November 08, 2020
Streamer fishing is exciting, fun, & explosive—a staple technique for all fly anglers to have in their arsenal. This comprehensive resource guide covers everything you need to know about fly fishing with streamers.
In this guide I’ll cover:
- Types of streamer flies
- When to fish streamers?
- Streamer fishing setup
- How to fish with streamers?
- Streamer fishing styles
- Streamer retrieves
- Favorite patterns to tie
- Streamer fishing tips
Let’s Dive in!
Introduction – What Is Streamer Fishing?
Streamers are big flies used to imitate small bait fish and other moving aquatic invertebrates and creatures. The majority of the time these active flies will be given additional movement by different retrieves; also known as strips. Streamers are useful for all types of fish species including: trout, bass, pike, sunfish, salmon, and steelhead—along with most salt water fish. This method of fishing will oftentimes coerce a ferocious strike from wily fish of record size.
Types of Streamer Flies for Fishing
Most subsurface flies imitate the larval, nymph or emerger stage of insects, while dry flies most commonly imitate adult insects floating on top of the water for a variety of reasons. Streamers are intended to match certain insects, but mostly, small bait fish and minnows.
Streamers also imitate crayfish, leeches, frogs, and other subsurface creatures. Certain streamer patterns don’t imitate anything specific, but the bright colors and flowing movement of materials cause instinctual strikes from big fish like pike and bass.
There are hundreds of different streamer patterns and variations, but we wanted to mention a few of the most common streamer flies that you will probably use in many freshwater rivers and lakes. Although saltwater fly fishing is primarily fished with streamers, we decided to focus solely on freshwater fishing for this article.
This is one of the most common streamer patterns and is often a go to favorite among anglers. It’s easy to tie and represents a variety of fish food including; leeches, minnows, and small baitfish. These streamers are tied using hackle, maribou, and chenille. You can find almost any color of wooly bugger, but they are frequently seen, and most effective in black, olive, and brown.
The clouser minnow is another simple yet famous fly to imitate small bait fish. There are several differences between these flies, but the original from the late 80’s is made from bucktail, krystal flash, and brass or tungsten dumbbell eyes.
Renowned as the best trout streamer fly in the world. This articulated fly is the closest representation to the very common bottom foraging fish, sculpins. Sculpzillas are made using a heavy conehead bead with eyes, rabbit fur, dubbing, hackle, and marabou.
Muddler Minnows have been around since the 1930’s and are still a go-to pattern for imitating sculpins and other small bait fish. It can also be made without weight and float to represent a mouse, frogs, grasshopper or other big bugs. The original pattern is made from spun deer hair, squirrel hair, turkey feathers or maribou, and sometimes wire or tinsel for added flash.
Here is another fairly common and effective streamer pattern, the zonker fly. It can be tied using a variety of materials and colors, but as its name suggests the main material used is bunny zonker strips and sometimes mink or squirrel. These natural furs are great, as they add realistic underwater movements similar to small baitfish.
Very similar to the clouser minnow, but with some slight differences. The Deceiver is used for imitating different bait fish depending on the colors used. The materials include bucktail, hackle feathers, krystal flash, and flashabou.
Streamer Fly Colors
Streamers come in practically every color possible. The color streamer you use is going to vary from region and river, mostly based on food sources present. Some argue that the streamer color has less effect on catching fish than the retrieve and pattern itself. However, we recommend checking with the local fly shops on their favorite streamer colors. But, as a general rule: use dark streamers on dull and cloudy days, while lighter streamers on bright and sunny days.
When Do You Fish Streamers?
The short answer, almost anytime.
For a longer analysis—there are certain conditions and times during the year that yield better for fishing streamers. Streamers are large protein rich meals that fish will desire when needing to add on pounds—primarily in early spring when fish are starting to move out of their winter lies looking to make up calories from the slow winter.
Fall is another popular time to throw streamers as fish are needing to bulk up before winter. Fall is also a time with less hatches and insect life, making the main food source small bait fish and other aquatic creatures.
It can also be productive to fish streamers when you’re exploring new waters and are not sure what insects or other food sources are present. They can be very effective when water is high and off-color, mainly after a heavy rain or during run-off. This turbid water makes finding small nymphs and other insects difficult for fish; thus, turning their attention to bigger more identifiable food sources.
Lastly, streamer flies are a safe bet when fishing lakes or deep pools. This method is useful and efficient as it allows an angler to cover more water in a shorter amount of time. Instead of fishing nymphs in a big pool for an hour, one can cover that same pool in half the time or less with a streamer.
Fly Fishing Streamer Fishing Setup
When fishing streamers you will use a different setup than regular nymph or dry fly fishing. First off, you’ll mostly likely be using a heavier line and rod/reel weight. This is to help cast these extra heavy flies, and additionally, manage bigger fish that will often seek out streamers. A good streamer rod/line for trout is a 6 or 7 weight rod.
Tippets and leaders will also be bigger, generally the bigger the fly the bigger the tippet. Therefore fly sizes between 2-6 will require a 1X-2X tippet, and sizes 6-10 will be better suited with 2X-4X tippet. Obviously, there are other factors that will determine the size tippet such as water clarity, type of fishing, and fish species you’re targeting.
It is possible to fish streamers with floating lines and longer leaders. However, most often it will be easier to invest in a sink-tip line to help get your streamer on the bottom of the pool where the large fish are at. Another alternative to sink-tip lines are sinking leaders. These are usually anywhere from 8 -15 feet long and offer different sink rates depending on the depth you’re fishing.
Streamer fishing tips:
- Sinking line or sink-tip leaders are not necessary in shallow water.
- Shorter leaders are optimal, as they give the angler more control. 42″ from fly line to fly is preferred.
Streamer Fly Fishing Techniques
There are several different ways to fish streamers to fit the water you’re on and the type of streamer. We have outlined three common streamer fishing techniques, but there is a lot of room for creativity and combinations with each of these three styles. It’s important to check with your local fly shop on some of the most productive techniques depending on the river or lake you’re fishing.
Like a lot of nymph fishing, dead drifting streamers can be super effective, and is generally the easiest method. Dead drifting will imitate a dead or wounded fish, along with a crayfish or leech that is naturally floating down the river. Cast the streamer upstream with or without a strike indicator and let your fly move downstream, taking in slack as necessary.
Adding slight twitches can be applied to mimic a struggling fish, oftentimes generating more interest. Once at the end of the run, slowly retrieve back upstream before you recast, this might also encourage a strike from a curious fish.
This is the preferred method when fishing for salmon and steelhead. These fish, found in fast, cold water are sometimes less likely to chase after a stripped fly and prefer one that swings right in front of them. This streamer technique also allows the angler to fish a large area of water more efficiently.
Start by working the upper section of a run and cast across or across and slightly upstream. Let the fly drift down downstream while mending upstream. The fly will swing across the current, and ideally in front of a big fish. Repeat this method again, taking a step or two downstream after each cast.
Across and Retrieve
The across and retrieve is another very popular and effective way to fish streamers that mimics a small baitfish cruising perpendicular through the current. To start, cast directly across the river as close to the bank as possible. Next, take several quick 6-12 inch retrieves—stopping momentarily before another sequence of retrieves.
When it reaches the middle of the river, let it drift down and swing across to your side of the stream. Pause again before taking a few short and quick retrieves up river.
- Single streamer by itself.
- With another streamer trailing.
- Small nymph tied behind the streamer.
With most of the streamer techniques, there will be some type of retrieve even when dead drifting. It’s important to try out different lengths and speeds of your retrieve if you’re not getting any action. As a general rule: use a long slow retrieve in colder water, while a fast and short retrieve in warmer water.
Another important factor when determining the retrieval speed is the current. In faster moving water you will have better luck retrieving slower. Likewise, in slower—more placid water, a faster retrieve will be more effective.
Long and slow
This style of retrieve is good to mimic wounded baitfish or leeches. Simply take slow strips about 18-24 inches in length, and allow a 1-3 second pause in between strips.
Quick and short
This is more useful when mimicking a spooked minnow, and can entice some very explosive strikes from fish. Take a few quick 4-5 inch consecutive strips followed by a slight pause. Many times the fish will attack right at the moment of the pause.
The twist retrieve works great when representing a wounded fish, small crayfish or leech on the bottom of the river or lake. To execute, start by holding the line between your thumb and index finger. Next, gently wrap your hand clockwise around the line. Continue this method until you’re ready to recast. It can also be productive to change the speed at which you twist the line, and allow slight pauses in between wraps.
This is an even slower version of the quick and short method. It involves very short 1-inch retrieves, with a short pause in between strips. This technique creates slight up and down movements of the streamer, and looks like a small wounded baitfish, along with a leech or crayfish bouncing off the bottom.
Exactly how this one sounds, you will use both hands to keep consistent and steady movement on the fly. It is best achieved by placing the rod under your arm and making hand over hand pulls on the line. The speed of this retrieve can be modified to fit the water you’re in, but will not allow for any pauses between strips. When a fish strikes you will strip the line to set the hook and then grab the rod with both hands to land the fish as you normally would.
Methodology – How to know which retrieve to use?
It is good to start with one technique to see how the fish are reacting.
For example: Start with a slow retrieve, if you’re not getting results, try a medium speed and then fast…
In other words, stick to one style and consciously change it up until you get the results you are looking for.
Tying Your Own Streamers—Some of Our Favorite Patterns
Tying streamers is fun and rewarding. It allows you to be certain of the weight and materials of your fly. Plus, the ability to create your own unique interpretations—based on other useful streamer patterns.
Streamer Fishing Tips (General)
- Try to keep your streamer flies deep. Use a sink-tip line or sinking leader for deeper pools or lakes. If unavailable add split shot.
- Shallow lakes or rivers usually don’t require a sinking tip line or sinking leader.
- Heavier rod/reel/line weights.
- Stronger Tippets/leaders – roughly 2X-4X.
- Sunny days = light colored streamers
- Cloudy days = dark colored streamers
- Faster current = slower retrieve.
- Slower current = faster retrieve.
- Change the speed and length of retrieves if not getting any strikes.
- High and turbid water are good conditions to tie on a streamer fly.
Overall, steamer fishing is a fantastic method for catching fish, and BIG fish. There can be a steep learning curve with streamer fishing, but we hope this article has provided you with helpful and important information.
Thanks for reading and feel free to leave a comment on what you thought, and maybe some of your favorite streamer flies and techniques.