How to Fly Fish The Best Trout Streamers

Angler holds catch over a net, caught using the best trout streamers for conditions on the stream.

The Best Trout Streamers are Effective and Versatile

I like to say the best time to fish is whenever we can. This often means that we have to make the best of existing fishing conditions. One effective technique for trout that works for a wide range of conditions is trout fishing with streamers. We often think of streamer fishing as a last resort when nothing else is working. But the opposite is true; the best trout streamers can be one of the most effective flies to use.  A good streamer fisherman can often light up the river.

Streamers Attract Fish of All Sizes

We tend to think of streamer fishing as a big fish game plan.  When it comes to big fish, they need to eat big. A big trout must get as much food value per bite as they can. Big trout will spend more energy feeding on a hatch than they would receive from the bugs that they eat.  However, even smaller than average size fish will still chase and eat streamers. Trout eat more than just bugs. A 12-inch fish can eat a four-inch minnow, crayfish or wherever else they find enticing.

Timing is Everything

There can be long periods of time between hatches and then a hatch can provide limited feeding opportunity. Some rivers and streams may experience a week or two between major hatches.  When this happens, trout of all sizes will start to forage on whatever is available, ranging from the obvious minnows and crayfish to the unusual such as tadpoles.  This may explain why some of our best trout streamer patterns are impressionistic. They look a lot like everything but not like any thing specific.  Let the trout decide what it wants it to be.

Water Level and Trout Fishing with Streamers

At times it seems that we are always waiting for the water flows to come down. One of the best attributes about streamer fishing is we can take advantage of adverse conditions and turn them into ideal conditions. The big trick of streamer fishing in high water is to fish the rise and then fish the fall of the water flow.  

Understanding Water Conditions

Rising water flows will often knock food loose and send it adrift.  This drift of food is not just made up of aquatic insects, the bulk of what is available to the fish. It also includes what I call big fish food like crayfish and large stone flies.  When the water flows get enough force the forage minnows like creek chubs will be pushed out of their hiding spots. 

Too Good for Large Trout to Resist

For big trout this is a feeding opportunity that they can not resist. I describe it as ringing the dinner bell.  Large trout, that are notoriously nocturnal feeders will come out of hiding and take up a feeding lane and feed very aggressively.  It’s a rare opportunity to catch the largest fish that live in the river during daylight hours.

Water Flow Creates Feeding Lanes for Trout

Big trout will move into pockets of soft water where they can easily intercept food as currents sweep it past.  These feeding lanes can be the traditional pockets behind big rocks or the inside of a band.  More often, most of the fish will be located along the banks where the current flows are soft.  As water flow increases, the trout are often pushed towards the river banks into the softer currents.

How to Fly Fish Streamers

You don’t have to be the best trout streamer to be sucessful, working a streamer is not complicated. However, there are a few tricks to make a fly look alive and easy for trout to catch.  This is where we take a lesson from the bass fishermen.  As we work our way through the river we will cast a fly into anything looks like it will hold a fish. Since we are dealing with currents, the fly is going to swing out and away from these potential holding spots. 

Trial and Error

This is where a little experimenting will need to take place.  We have to basically find out how the fish want the fly to be retrieved. On some rivers this can be as simple as striping the fly quickly through any potential fish holding water.  This type of a retrieve typically imitates a little fish trying to avoid being eaten. Another retrieve is to work the fly through the swing with a short sharp twitchy retrieve. This is a good presentation for rivers with a lot of crayfish.  These are two basic retrieves that I use and if they are not working then I have to get creative and start experimenting to figure out the best trout streamer pattern.

Gear for Trout Fishing With Streamers

Fly fisherman holding a big trout and fishing net, while fishing with streamers.

For me, the best fly rod for streamers is a medium weight trout rod and reel most of the time.  When trout fishing with streamers, a five weight rod is an ideal size for most of the trout streams that I fish.  A typical five weight fly rod has enough casting power to deliver the streamers that I like to fish.  This is the best fly rod for streamers because it is light enough to match up with the size of the trout that inhabit the streams that I’m fishing and also have enough backbone to handle an occasional monster.  

The Right Reel

The important thing is to have a quality reel with a good disk drag. Keep it simple with a matching weight-forward floating line.  If there’s a need to get the fly deeper than normal, I will add a sinking leader.  Otherwise, a standard leader is all that is needed for this set up. 

The Bigger the Water, the Bigger the Setup

I have found this to be an ideal set up for fishing small to medium-size trout streams. For bigger rivers where we are casting bigger flies and going after bigger fish in deeper water, the set up needs to be heavier, such as a seven weight rod.  There are several different types of fly lines made for both floating and sinking and are designed for casting streamers.  When I’m trout fishing with streamers in big rivers, such as the Delaware River in the Catskills, this is the rod that I use.

Know your Water

The old saying “the bigger the fly, the bigger the fish” is definitely true here.  There is a huge array of streamers, from old traditional to modern designs available. This is where knowing your water is going to help you determine which is the best trout streamer for conditions. When you are fishing with streamers, the best trout streamers are the ones that imitate what the big fish are eating at the time. 

Finding the Best Flies

Many anglers, like myself, prefer fishing flies that are impressionistic instead of a fly that looks like something specific. Instead of trying to precisely imitate what the fish are feeding on, I’ve found it more productive to use a fly that looks a little like everything, and let the fish decide what it wants it to be. 

This includes a class of flies such as woolly buggers and bunny leeches.  Flies like these also have a lot of movement built in to the design of the fly. When these flies are retrieved, they are easily made to look like they are alive.  Triggering that predatory response from a trout and allowing us to take advantage of abnormal fishing conditions is a great part of trout fishing with streamers.

Original Article By Jay Peck

About The Author

Jay Peck is a fly fishing guide for the Lake Ontario tributaries.  He fishes the Salmon River in fall for salmon, steelhead, and brown trout. From November through December he fishes Oak Orchard River, Lower Genesee River, and Sandy Creek in Monroe County for giant brown trout and steelhead. In the winter he fishes Oak Orchard and the Genesee for steelhead and returns to the Salmon River in April. Get in touch with Jay at lostriversfishing.com to learn more about him and his fishing guide services.