The Other Way to Fish Streamers
Michael Alberghini / Sportsmen’s Compass Team Member
The first time most anglers fish a streamer in a river they are usually swinging the fly. Whether you’re casting perpendicular to the current and stripping back or a full-on quartering downstream swing, you’re letting the current do a lot of the work for you. There is no denying that swinging is an effective method of fishing streamers, but it isn’t the only way. And if you ask me, in most popular trout streams it’s not nearly as effective as casting upstream and retrieving back towards you.
Now before I enrage the swingers out there, let me get a little more specific. I believe that fishing streamers upstream in rivers with relatively high fish populations and high angling pressure is where this technique really shines. The more pressure the better. In fact the most successful days I’ve had fishing upstream were in the wade section of the Madison River in Montana which is surely one of the most heavily fished sections of river in the world. Also, given their nature, this mostly applies to large, lazy brown trout.
Where to Cast?
The bank. I’m casting as close to the bank as possible. I will hit behind boulders and other eye catching water as I make my way upstream but focus on the shallow, oftentimes nondescript water adjacent to the bank. if there’s enough water to swim a streamer, even just a few inches, its worth fishing. You never know where a trout can be sitting or where a fish is looking. Cast as straight upstream as possible as well. Why? because that’s often where the larger browns will sit. That section of the river you normally stand in. Brown trout get smart quickly, they learn that the bank is the cats pajamas as far as spots to hold in. The current is slow, the food is just off to the side in the main current, it’s often overgrown with grass that provides protection as well as another food source. Most importantly, in pressured rivers they can feel the vibrations of your anxious wader boots trudging along. The bank is skipped by so many anglers as they want to blast out into the pool to fish the deep water. This is a critical mistake on a pressured system. Look upstream at the bank as you walk up a pressured stream and you will probably spook a fish or two. You probably spooked another couple you didn’t see. The bank is also usually shallow, meaning that if there is a fish there, and you pull a streamer through that section, there’s basically no chance that fish doesn’t see it. This scenario also increases the likelihood of a reactionary strike. The trout can’t really get out of the way. It can’t swim above or below the streamer. It can only more in one direction, away from the bank and towards deeper water. if you haven’t spooked that fish yet from getting close to it you can get a lot of strikes this way. Fishing upstream along the bank in a pressured system is a highly effective way to target large intelligent browns.
How to Retrieve?
Let’s move on to how I go about casting and retrieving the fly. Since I’m fishing shallow I want to start stripping as soon as the fly hits the water to avoid snagging the bottom and to keep the fly moving. While swinging, the fly gently flutters with the current, but when you are casting directly above you and stripping back you are imparting a lot more erratic action into the fly. Much of this technique is capitalizing on a brown trout’s tendency to attack streamers out aggression rather than the need to eat. The reason why this works so well is because you are retrieving straight down stream towards a fish’s face. On a swing the fish may see the fly for a long time coming across the pool and has a lot of time to react. Throwing upstream and ripping the streamer right back down is frantic. A trout has no time to think. They can either eat it or move out of the way. It’s also worth considering that most often a fleeing fish will instinctively run downstream. I believe this method of retrieving a streamer is on of the most consistent ways to elicit a reactionary strike from brown trout.
What Streamer to Fish?
Well designed articulated streamers are important in this style of fishing. You need the front section of the streamer to resist moving forward while the rear section rockets ahead. this will give you the side-to-side action that provokes reactionary strikes from fish. If what I’m describing doesn’t make sense to you go and look at Kelly Galloup’s creations and you will see this formula in effect. Galloup was the godfather of this style of articulated streamer design and in my opinion his flies really haven’t ever been topped. You don’t want flies with huge lead eyes that rocket to the bottom, its unnatural and makes is harder for the fish to successfully get the fly into their mouths in shallow water. A more neutral weighted fly will keep the same plane in the water like a real fish and keep the fly from dragging along the bottom in the shallow water along the bank.
In the interest of not spooking the fish I suggest you cast as far as you can while still remaining in control of the streamer. For me this usually taps out at 30 feet and is often much shorter. The longer your cast becomes the better the chance that you won’t be able to impart good action and you will miss more fish due to slack. Shorter casts also mean more casts in a given time period allowing you to cover a lot of water. Fish though every inch of available bank. Behind every little rock, log, anything that could possibly be an ambush spot. Don’t skip an inch of bank water. Another thing to keep in mind is to change your colors often if you’re not moving fish. White or black is good on bright days and on cloudy days try more natural colors like olive, tan and so on. I fish floating lines because there’s no need to get deep, sinking lines will just get in the way. I also try to use as long a leader as possible to keep the smarter fish from seeing the fly line or it slapping on the water.