The Versatile Streamer

     For the past seven or eight years I’ve been a tremendous devotee of fly fishing with streamers. When I first took up the fly rod I was subjected to the archaic rhetoric that dry fly fishing is the apex of the sport and fishing on the surface should be done whenever even remotely possible. The odd part was the guy who taught me to fly fish was from the west coast and primarily fished nymphs. But even he felt that if there was a chance the fish might rise, it was worth trying a dry fly.
    I tried to apply this doctrine for a while and sometimes it worked quite well. I remember spending mornings in May drifting Royal Wulffs and Cahills over a deep run and enjoying rises of such frequency that I had to change flies several times due to irreparable damage. But other times casting a dry seemed to be a completely waisted effort. Fish would be rising steadily but no mater what pattern or size fly I offerd to them they would refuse and go right on eating naturals.
     I had other gripes with dry flies, mostly related to tying them. I always hated to spend money on something I could (or at least felt I should) make myself. Fly tying was a great way to save money and keep my fly box stocked and I tied plenty of nymphs and a fair number of streamers. But I found dries to be difficult. I could tie a decent elk hair caddis but beyond that my attempts were usually relegated to the panfish box. So I bought dry flies when and only when I needed them and spent most of my time drifting nymphs. And when I wanted a real change of pace I tried fishing streamers. I loved tying them (still do). Hooks and materials are big enough to easily hang on to and the creative possibilities are endless. I even caught fish on them from time to time.
     But a rare fish for my efforts wasn’t how I wanted things to work. I wouldn’t have minded only an occasional fish if they were exceptional, but I was catching regular, stream-size fish. After reading up on the subject I came to the revelation that if I was going to get serious about streamers I needed to set my floating line aside and get a sinking line rigged up. So I bought a class III line for my 6 weight,and a spare spool. It made all the difference. I was suddenly catching trout in places I had thrown dozens of streamers before without getting so much as a glance. Most of the fish were not big but they were still fish and I had opened up a host of new spots to try. Most of these covers were ones I had attempted to fish before but they were just too difficult with nymphs and dries. But a streamer dredged through the bottom of a deep pool or dangled under over hanging brush could reach fish better than any thing else. That was all I needed to be a full blown convert.

This trio of browns fell victim to the same fly,
 a #6 natural zonker fished on a sinking line.

     Over the years I have learned some things about streamers that overturn much of the conventional logic. For example, streamers are not just for big fish. Although the biggest stream trout I have caught have all been on streamers, average size fish (and even little fish) love them too. I spent one evening at the base of a water fall fishing a matuka in the swirling current. Every third to fifth cast produced a trout of approximately 10 inches. And this was on a #6 fly with a 3x long shank. This helps keep streamer fishing interesting, which goes a long way to preserve one’s patience. Second, regarding pattern options and fish selectivity, streamers are a lot lot like other flies: there are generic attractor patterns and there are local favorites that mimic local food. But the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Some localy hot patterns also serve as good attractor patterns. One of my favorites is a Zonker tied with pearl body and natural rabbit fur. This is an outstanding fly on one high profile Northeast river but also works well on other streams that are a significant distance away and are of a distinctly different nature. Streamers also offer more versatility regarding how they are fished than any other fly. Drag them through a deep, slow pool where the trout have all the time to the world to inspect and critique dryflies. Or swing them downstream and across current in the old-school style when nymphs aren’t producing. If you want to reach way under a bank or hold a fly 20 yards downstream in a spot too dangerous and inaccessible to wade, simply let the fly hang in the current. Bounce the rod tip or strip line in and then let it slide back through the guides. You can adjust depth by putting the rod tip under water. The deeper the tip is submerged, the deeper your line will stay. You can even drift them on top dry fly style. I once had a trout launch itself halway out of the water while making a grab for a streamer that was floating on the surface. Judging from the front half of this fish it was probably 20 inches, maybe more.
     Maybe the best things about streamers is that they are so different from other flies. When everyone else is chucking insect nymphs, duns, spinners, etc. you can tie on a streamer of your own creation and show the fishies something they can really get excited about. Insect hatches happen all the time and with a high degree of regularity and predictability. But when a trout sees something big and different (and maybe tasty) come swimming along, it needs to make a decision: make a grab for it or pass up what may be a once in a lifetime opportunity.

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