What are Fly Fishing Streamers? Everything You Should Know

I have been fly fishing for many years and one of the most common questions is what is the difference between dry flies and streamer flies.

Fly fishing streamers are bigger flies that you fish underwater and not on top of it like dries. These flies are made to resemble crayfish, baitfish, leeches, and other large aquatic insects like hellgrammites. Streamers are the fly-fishing equivalent of regular fishing lures and plugs.

Because the fly is usually moving, the strikes can be explosive. Streamers are a good way to cover a lot of water and are the best flies to use. When you don’t know what the fish are eating, or if you are fishing unfamiliar water.

Streamers are for the impatient angler because you move the fly a lot and don’t stay in one place very long. And streamers are typically the best flies to use if you want to catch big fish!

Streamers are a great technique for anglers because it’s an effective way to find aggressive trout and other species. Streamers are especially appealing to fly fishers trying to catch big fish.

The bigger trout eat big prey, and streamers imitate these larger, calorie-laden prey like baitfish, leeches, and crayfish. There are few things as exciting as a huge trout exploding on a streamer.

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fly fisherman in brown jacket standing on river with fly rod

Why I Love Fishing Streamers

I love fishing streamers¬†because the strike is often explosive and visible. Streamers will often take fish in high, dirty water when you can’t catch fish on any other kind of fly. When you approach any given piece of water unless the fish are rising, it’s usually a toss-up as to what fly to use.

Streamers can be a good choice, especially when the water is stained or muddy. Streamers are some excellent searching patterns to find active fish. When you don’t know the water and what the fish are eating, a streamer could be your best bet.

You can cover a lot of water with a streamer because streamers are usually fished with an active retrieve on a tight line. That way you don’t have to worry as much about drag and getting a natural drift or reading the water. Just toss your streamer in every place that looks like it might have fish.

Streamers vs Baitfish

Streamers are often thought of as baitfish imitations, and we think that’s why fish take them most of the time. There are other creatures that live in trout waters like crayfish, leeches, and even large aquatic insect larvae like giant stoneflies and hellgrammites.

Trout probably mistake streamers for these creatures as well. Perhaps trout just take streamers out of reflex because they look like a big juicy meal trying to get away. Streamers are effective on trout for the same reasons that they take spinning lures.

It’s also possible that trout eat streamers because of territoriality or during the spawning season. It might be because streamers look like something that might try to eat their eggs.

Whatever the reason, streamers are just fun to fish and the most active method of trout fishing. This is also the closest thing to using lures with conventional tackle.

angler fly fishing in river

Traditional Streamers

Traditional feathered streamers are still used as are older style bucktails. Some of the more modern streamers are variations of the deadly wooly bugger, a very simple but effective fly.

There are literally hundreds of wooly bugger variations. Other streamers imitate sculpins, a baitfish that lives in riffles and pools and in cold and clear trout streams.

These are a favorite food of trout everywhere, especially the big ones. There are just as many types of sculpin flies as there are woolly bugger variations.

Still, other flies try to imitate leeches and crayfish more precisely, but you don’t have to be critical picking streamers.

You don’t even really need to match the food forms exactly. A trout that’s on the prowl for a big meal will often take the first streamer thrown at it.

Trout Fly Rods For Streamers

If you fish streamers a lot, you will probably want to invest in a six or a seven-weight rod. This is because these line sizes will throw bigger flies better than light trout rods.

You can get away with casting smaller streamers with a four-weight or a five-weight rod. But then sometimes you just have to work too hard to get the fly out there. In smaller rivers and shallower water, a floating line will work alright.

Fishing with streamers in fast, deep water, a sinking tip line will allow you to fish where the big fish hide. The streamers stripper line is perfectly suited for this.

It has a short, fast sinking head with a floating line behind, which makes it easy to mend and manipulate your fly.

You don’t want to go too light on your tippet when you fish streamers. Remember that you’re pulling one way, and trout will pull the other, sometimes violently when they strike.

Your tippet needs to be at least 3X. Then if you go with bigger flies you might find the need to go to 2X or even 1X. Nine-foot leaders are good to use with a floating line.

But you should go to a shorter six-foot leader with sinking tip lines to keep your fly running deeper.

fly fisherman wearing wading boots and jacket fishing trouts in river

Fly Fishing Streamers and Drift Boats

Streamers and drift boats make a natural combination you can cover several miles of water in a drift boat. Try casting to each likely spot as your guide, or buddy keeps the boat moving at the right speed.

Only a few fish in a pool will chase a streamer, usually the biggest ones, you can hit the better water and drift through the mediocre water.

Most fly fishers throw their streamers to the bank, within inches of it, and then strip back to the boat.

You should try different retrieves and angles because you never really know what will turn the fish on.

Try a fast, steady strip, then change to strips with long pauses in between, or slow steady strips.

If the water is as high and cold as it was here around the Yellowstone River, you might try a streamer fish dead drift under an indicator.

How to Use Fly Fishing Streamers?

Now, that you’re all geared up and ready to go streamer fishing. How should you present the fly?

The basic streamer retrieve is to cast the streamer perpendicular to the bank of the river. Then you should strip it towards you in six-inch strips.

This method works pretty well and imitates prey that has been flushed from its hideout and is trying to get away. But there are so many other ways that you can fish a streamer.

The first thing to try is to change your retrieve. Try a slow, and steady retrieve, and a couple of strips followed by a long pause. The retrieve, with a pause, is often effective in water temperatures below 50 degrees. Another way to fish a streamer is to just cast it like a wet fly or a steelhead fly.

Casting Streamers

Cast a streamer across and downstream, then you should make upstream mend in your line. Then you can just let the line go tight in the current without any added action to the fly.

You can also fish a streamer with a dead drift like a nymph. It might also pay you to change the angle you cast your streamer in relation to the current.

Casting upstream sometimes gets your fly deeper, and on the retrieve, the streamer flutters and pauses as you strip. Some baitfish, like sculpins, bolt downstream when frightened, so this is a realistic retrieve.

In shallow water, you can try quartering downstream with your streamer. This presents your fly to the fish before they see the line or leader, it’s often effective on spooky fish.

Whatever retrieve and angle you use, once your streamer is hanging directly downstream of you, make sure you retrieve it a few feet before making another cast.

Sometimes, a fish will follow a streamer all the way across the river, and the trout may still be following your fly.

When Should You Use Streamers?

A streamer is effective when the water is high and dirty that you can’t use any other kind of fly. Fish can’t see your fly from very far away.

So look for protected places along banks, behind rocks, and at the seam on the inside bend in the river. In dirty water, put some action to your streamer to distinguish it from twigs, leaves, and the junk that’s floating by.

Remember to keep your retrieve slow so a trout will have a chance to catch it in the dirty water. In dirty water, fish will use their lateral line sense, which picks up vibrations in the water from prey items.

So, use a fly with a deer hair head, like a muddler minnow, or something with lots of hackle like a woolly bugger. The rougher the fly looks, the more vibrations it will give off in the water.

fly fishing rod reel combo and flies

About Streamer Colors

The colors don’t seem to be that important as the streamer selection, but in some places fly fishers favor one color over another.

Check with your local fly shops or fishing guides to see what streamer patterns and colors are the most productive. But don’t be afraid to experiment with different colors and patterns.

You can try, the rule of Atlantic salmon fishing, bright day bright fly, dark day dark fly, seems to work. So remember, if the day is dull and rainy, try a black fly. If it’s a bluebird day, you should try a white-colored fly.

The Best Times to Use Streamers

Streamers are often considered as the best fly to use when no insects are hatching. But there are a lot of times that they work better than others.

One very good time to fish a streamer is when a sudden rainstorm raises the water level. In the increased water flow predator fish, like trout, have an advantage over the more maneuverable baitfish.

This happens because the baitfish get pushed out of their shallow-water havens. Of course, streamers work well when you see trout darting at the baitfish in the shallows.

Look for an eruption with tiny fish showering out of the disturbance and strip a streamer through the boils.

One thing to remember about streamers: they work for species other than trout. Pike, muskie, and bass love to eat baitfish, which is why streamers work equally well with them.

Streamers are just plain fun to fish. Presentation methods are less complicated than with other types of flies, and the fish are usually bigger, and sometimes the fouls and strikes are totally visible, which really gets your blood pumping.

Bob Hoffmann

The author of this post is Bob Hoffmann. Bob has spend most of his childhood fishing with his father and now share all his knowledge with other anglers. Feel free to leave a comment below.

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