American Fly Fishing

Streamer Scripture: The Good, the Bad, the Big, and the Ugly

By Don Roberts

Streamer Scripture


Fflooof … fflooof. That’s the sound of a big-mutha streamer going past your head on the back- and fore-casts. It’s a sound not unlike that of a madly hurled whiffle ball or a shotgunned quail hurtling earthward. It’s also the sound of success.

The story starts on a more sedate note, at the turn of the last century. Though baitfish and fry imitations originated in merry old England in the mid-1800s, streamers really came to the fore in popularity during the early 1900s in the northeastern United States. Indeed, the Orvis Company of Vermont marketed a selection of bucktail trolling flies as far back as the early 1890s.

Seizing upon the availability of long-shank hooks and a growing awareness of trout and salmon fry in their streams, fly tiers in Maine and New York—including Theodore Gordon (the father of dry-fly fishing in America), Joe Stickney, Carrie Stevens, and others—set about designing streamers suited to the rivers they frequented. While today’s popular streamers tend to be bulky and layered (double bacon cheeseburgers come to mind), the streamers of yore were typically thin and sparse, mere carrot sticks. These relic patterns often featured vivid, if not whimsical, colors, and comprised primarily two styles: bucktails and married-wing patterns (referring to sections of dyed swan, goose, or turkey plumes “zipped” together with the same technique used prominently in full-dress Atlantic salmon flies). Partly due to the limitations imposed by all-natural tying materials, classic streamers of that time stayed within the bounds of the roughly impressionistic.

Dave Mihalik demonstrates perfect casting technique for heaving big streamers at small targets. PHOTO BY JEREMY ALLAN

So, along with that scuffed leather wallet lined with lamb’s fleece, gone are the days of the Gray Ghost, Black Nosed Dace, Mickey Finn, and Bumblepuppy. Having said that, I’ll hedge: as always in the realm of fly fishing—a culture that cleaves to sentiment and tradition—there are holdouts who continue to extol the virtues of Maine’s iconic Rangeley-style streamers and still effectively fish them.

The impressionistic approach to tying streamers changed with Don Gapen’s highly revered Muddler Minnow, developed in the 1930s on the Nipigon River in northern Ontario. Increasingly more true-to-life patterns, tied to imitate sculpins, shiners, juvenile trout, and leeches, soon followed. In my view, Ed Shenk’s Old Ugly sculpin, tied with trimmed deer hair, marabou, and rabbit fur, represents one of the true breakthroughs in streamer fishing. Not only because it was one of the first streamers tied fully in the round, but also because the anatomical features and behavior of the creature it was meant to imitate clearly dictated the method of presentation.

Trout like this rainbow don’t pack on this kind of weight without eating big bites of protein, so it follows that meaty flies attract beefy fish. PHOTO BY BRIAN OKEEFE

Lacking a swim bladder, sculpins eke out a living among the rocks and move—scoot as much as swim—in 2- to 3-inch skips, interrupted by nearly comatose hiding spells. Sculpins blend in so well with the bottom that predators, including trout, must wait for a sudden increase in water levels or a current surge to buffet or dislodge sculpins from their rock-strewn sanctums. The upshot being that the Old Ugly is a streamer that the angler actually must fish—using artful rod-tip and line manipulation— not just robotically cast and strip.

Some angling historians maintain that the golden age of streamer design occurred in the years between the World Wars. Though they have a point, it could be argued that the socalled golden age in streamer development is happening right now. Yes, the advent of Muddler-style flies and marabou leeches and bunny-fur baitfish greatly expanded the thinking behind streamer design, pushing the idea of lifelike movement front and center. But thanks in part to next-gen materials, such as spun poly dubbing, holographic tinsels, UV resins, and spookily lifelike molded eyes, many of the young (and some not so young) tiers today are producing patterns of astonishing breadth and realism. Want a coaster-size wounded bluegill? You got it. Want a slithery, 9-inch-long, bottom-hugging
lamprey? No problem.

Streamer patterns come in countless styles, and sometimes changing from one extreme to the other—big for little or dark for light or articulated for traditional—can make all the difference. Carry a wide range of styles, sizes, weights, and colors. PHOTO BY SEAN VISINTAINER

It’s one thing to offer fish an elaborate streamer pattern that imitates the particular sculpin, chub, shiner, or leech that dwells in the water you plan to fish. It’s quite another to make the sale. When it comes to casting and presenting streamers, mechanics take center stage. To begin with, you must reconcile yourself to different expectations in regard to aesthetics. Launching a canary-size streamer rarely translates into a display of elegant casting. No matter how tight the wedge you usually throw, big streamers are bound to lag and waffle behind. The upshot: don’t worry about pretty; just make sure that the lazy arc the fly takes doesn’t land it in the rhubarb, aka overhanging willows. To avoid said mishap, and the attendant foul language, it helps to become proficient at both the check cast (stopping line and/or pulling back at just the right moment) and a consistent low-to-the-water, sidearm cast.

Increasingly confronted with the challenges of casting flies that vary in size and weight from badminton birdies to bullets, the streamer community made plaintive noises. Fly-line manufacturers listened—and responded with ever more sophisticated and specialized lines. They’re not cheap, but they can save you the cost of constantly resupplying your medicine cabinet with Extra Strength Tylenol.

Many anglers associate streamers with autumn fishing for prespawn brown trout, but this beauty took a beefy streamer during spring. Streamers are effective year-round and for all species of trout. PHOTO BY JEREMY ALLAN

Scientific Anglers (SA) is one of the companies that went full-tilt boogie introducing a range of lines expressly suited to the demands of streamer fishing in both rivers and lakes. SA’s Sonar series offers everything from Parabolic Sink to Emerger Tip line, but perhaps the most intriguing line of the bunch is the Sonar Seamless Density. Seamless triple-density technology transitions along the length of the line from one sink rate to the next, eliminating hinge—the single most aggravating bugaboo in streamer casting—while providing a straight-line, stayin- contact connection to the fly. And if you’re a go-bigor- go-home kind of angler, hankering to blast streamers across the Potomac, it’s hard to go wrong with the Sonar Titan. The almost radical power-tapered head on this line can transform turnover from an energy-sucking embarrassment into something more like a waltz. Whether it comes down to one of SA’s specialized streamer lines or another manufacturer’s—ask for advice from your local fly shop, or, better yet, request a back-lot test drive—with a little experimentation or futzing around you may well find a streamer-pitching tool with your name on it.

Michigan guide Russ Maddin (www.hawkinsoutfitters. com), who has been described as the “river hippie on the Manistee,” imbues his streamer concoctions with a considerable degree of eccentric flair. Iconic patterns like the Circus Peanut and Flash Monkey can’t help but induce a smile. That said, Maddin’s streamers are stone-cold deadly, and when it comes to putting his flies (or, for that matter, anyone else’s streamers) to work, he’s all business. Maddin touts a basic set of guidelines and principles to help anyone become a proficient streamer angler. First, he says, “Going to the river with only a one-action fly sets you up for failure. Make sure to bring a decent selection of streamers that exhibit a variety of movement in the water.”

Jake Smith works a streamer through a deep run on a small stream in Wyoming. This kind of water, where shallow cobblestone riffles dump into deep, shaded pools, is ideal for targeting bruiser trout with streamer patterns. PHOTO BY JEREMY ALLAN

Second, he says, “Practice until casting and animating the fly become second nature,” which means learning how to shoot line with a minimum of false-casting. Pick up. Put down. Pick up. Put down. When you can deftly hit the mark cast after cast, Maddin recommends trying different retrieves, including the “two-handed burn retrieve,” until you find the one that works that day—the strip du jour. Third, he advises, after the casting and animating phase, “the biggest thing to do is look around your fly and keep looking.” Watch for the slightest wake, or a bulge, or nervous water, or a dim flash, like lightning in a cloud.

And finally, Maddin concludes, “It’s about keeping your act together the entire time,” which refers to both casting and concentration. No looking at your hands (one of Maddin’s pet peeves) and no lollygagging. Diverting your eyes long enough to be enthralled by mergansers taking off, their wings spanking the water, could cost you a fish.

Whether you approach the water by boat or by boot, streamer fishing remains stubbornly conditional. River flow, weather, and light intensity ultimately determine the practicality of plying a streamer, and there’s no doubt that meat-eating monsters haunt the twilight- There’s something deeply satisfying about getting out on a river or lake before there are any other stirrings of life: before birds chatter, dogs bark, or cattle bawl. During the predawn you can hear the water whisper its secrets. But more to the point, early rising is almost mandatory because, during periods of low light, big trout are far more likely to chance leaving the concealment of their lairs to hunt down forage species, and because these normally reticent fish haven’t yet been hassled, they’ll often sidle into remarkably shallow water in order to corner prey—the riverine version of curbside pickup.


Of course, the counterpart of the dawn patrol is pitching streamers at dusk. Fishing at dusk, however, can prove considerably less attractive owing to the likelihood that a day’s worth of traffic may have jaded the fish, plus the fact that night has this annoying habit of closing in. No angler wants to heed the call of game over on account of darkness. Speaking of which, fast-stripping streamers at night (a topic that deserves a separate article) presents anglers with this conundrum: boats don’t mix well with pitch black—and neither do boots.

Gloom is good. Heck, gloom is hallelujah good. Nothing blows the trumpet call to arms, and a 9-foot 6-weight, louder than snotty weather with low, scudding clouds and unremitting drizzle. Miserable. Beautiful. Miserably beautiful. Perfect conditions for breaking out the streamer box. Which helps explain why springtime in the Rockies, and everywhere else, sets the stage for covering a lot of water via drift boat or, conversely, not covering much water at all, and instead wading into a single run to sneakily pick pockets—in Germanic parlance, übergriffig (translation: to reach into places that aren’t really yours).

Proving that big trout like big mouthfuls, this brown trout took on way too much, leading to its demise (above). Tying on a huge articulated streamer, Bre Campbell decides it’s time to go big or go home. As an articulated pattern, a fly this size can be tied with a small hook, making it easier to cast and less damaging to a trout than a big traditional streamer hook (left). PHOTO BY JEREMY ALLAN

One of the advantages of throwing streamers over other forms of fly fishing is that it’s not constrained by season. With modifications to tackle and technique, you can effectively work a streamer during spring, summer, and fall (and, in some regions, winter) in high or low water. Usually, the only limiting circumstance is glaring sun or harsh overhead light. Even then, workarounds are possible. For instance, during the dog days of summer, low oxygen levels often force trout into more aerated water. On such occasions, the enterprising angler may beat the odds by ignoring the customary areas where trout hold, opting instead to use a small streamer as a searching pattern in the fastest riffles and white water.

Seasons strongly influence the selection of streamer sizes and styles. As logic suggests, for higher, more turbid flows you should choose the bigmutha streamers, primarily dressed in colors that read well in roily water, especially black and purple patterns. When river conditions moderate, it makes sense to scale down in size and to choose more natural and imitative patterns, such as an olive sculpin, a rust-brown crayfish, or a beige-bellied chub.

Starting in late August and early September, when rivers typically get thin and bony, it often becomes necessary to fish not only smaller streamers, but also patterns with a lot of built-in wiggle and jiggle—what can be called the flirt factor. In low, clear, peek-a-boo water, trout may become especially skittish and dour, requiring action-oriented patterns in order to provoke strikes. For example, an archive pattern called the Super X, an odd assemblage of unrelated parts—muskrat fur rump, black and pink chenille body, white webby hackle, and protruding overlong rubber legs—resembles nothing on God’s green earth. Not a bug, baitfish, or beast of any type. Yet, when it is cast into boulder lies or against undercut banks, then lightly fluffed (mend, pause, mend), causing the fly to shimmy up and down in the water column like a spider doing pushups, trout occasionally come completely unglued. I’ve seen big browns lunge 6 feet or more to murder a Super X, particularly on the downbeat.

Obviously, colors matter. Case in point: baitfish and trout fry are almost always dark on their dorsal, often greenishbronze to bluish-black, and pale along the belly, typically silvery white to buttery beige. A convincing baitfish pattern should follow suit. Overall, however, movement probably subordinates color. Consequently, when tying or buying streamers, keep in mind that each type of material that goes into the making of a particular fly affects the action. For instance, palmered marabou and dubbing brushes pulse and breathe; rubber legs flutter and flex more or less nonstop; and different sizes and types of heads, from packed deer hair to metal Fish Skulls, push varying amounts of water, thus creating a compression wave that may signal distress—a dinner bell for large trout.

The well-prepared streamer angler should carry three types of action streamers: relatively small and squirmy, such as Woolly Buggers; larger swimmer flies, like Zonkers; and more voluminous, multi-action composites, incorporating synthetics and often surreal colors, such as the Flash Monkey. If you wish to closely imitate a specific small baitfish, you might need to forswear patterns with rubber legs. Otherwise, in my view, rubber legs are obligatory.

In many parts of the country and on certain river systems, streamer fishing has taken a turn back toward subtlety. The idea behind relatively petite streamers—like the Micro Slumpbuster, Gunnar Brammer’s Death Grip Mini (, and Colorado guide Landon Mayer’s Mini Leech (www.landonmayerflyfishing. com)—is to present the fly as an enticement rather than an intrusion. As Mayer elaborates, “One of my favorite techniques is to find large trout around structure. In the past, I used to deliver a streamer and retrieve it back. We noticed that a lot of fish would chase the streamer, but they wouldn’t commit. So, we started using nymph rigs and delivering leeches, whether with a dead drift or with twitches, around structure points or undercut banks. And because it has the same movements as a streamer, but doesn’t escape (flee) the [trout’s] comfort zone, more large trout were willing to come over and feed.”

This gorgeous Columbia Basin redband trout—a rainbow subspecies—couldn’t resist a big streamer. PHOTO BY SEAN VISINTAINER

Some among the growing breed of restless anglers out there have adopted fishing mini streamers using short-line Euro-nymphing techniques: long leaders, low-and-slow presentation, close proximity. Others have sought nirvana by dangling a mini streamer from the tall wisp of a tenkara rod. The upshot? Mini-streamer fishing is all about open loops and open minds.

All the glitzy new tackle and techniques and flies aside, streamer fishing is—and I don’t state this lightly—a state of mind. At the risk of sounding California Zen, or self-anointed swami, or something equally precious, I propose that you’ll hook more trout if you practice visualizing the interaction of the river, the fish, and the fly. Don’t just jump in and fire away.
Take a moment. And f-o-c-u-s.

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