Successful Fly Fishing with Streamers: Wading & Floating Tactics

Box full of streamer flies
A box of appropriate flies to entice the big one.

Fishing with streamers is perhaps the best way to connect with an oversize fish. However, this is one of the least utilized means of fly fishing. Even when anglers do use streamers they often go about it wrong. This article will explore the best ways to fish for trout with streamers from a drift boat as well as wading.

Fishing Streamers From a Drift Boat
Use of a drift boat will provide a wealth of opportunities for the streamer fisherman. First of all it allows access to lies that are often inaccessible to the wading angler. These spots are often in deep, swift water. Second, floating gives an angler quick access to a number of good spots.

Specialized tackle will increase the odds for success when streamer fishing from a boat. We always recommend a six or seven weight fly rod that’s relatively stiff. This should be coupled with a sink tip or full sink fly line. We prefer sink tips with a rapid sink rate. These lines a little easier to manage than a full sink line. Leaders should be short and stout. Six feet is plenty long and they should taper down to no finer than 2X. A leader that tapers to 0X should not be considered too heavy. It’s important to have a heavy tippet if you hook that brown trout of a life time. In a more practical sense, the short, heavy leader helps turn over bulky flies that draw the most strikes. We consider a #6 streamer fly to be small and focus our attention on flies that are #2, sometimes larger. These flies need to be heavy to get down in the strike zone quickly. Rabbit hair strips, rubber legs, and flashy tinsel add visibility, action, and the illusion of life to these flies.

Watch for three things when casting streamers from a boat: structure, structure, and structure. Big trout use a number of features for cover and a place to stage an ambush on unsuspecting prey. Watch for undercut banks, logs in the river, big rocks, cracks or ledges, and even shadows. All of these have potential to hold a large trout.

Fly fishing with a streamer from a drift boat.
Cast your fly to cover then make an action packed retrieve.

Cast the fly upstream of the target so it sinks and the fish has a chance to see it. Do your best to get the fly on target, but don’t obsess about absolute precision. Big fish will often travel to take the fly so if you’re within two feet of the target you’re close enough. Casting a large fly and sinking line is hard enough without doing it two or three times for every lie. We often see anglers drop the fly, pick it up, then drop it within a foot of the original cast, then begin the retrieve. The first cast was just fine, and over the course of the day the angler has made more tiring casts.

Once the fly is in the water the retrieve is of paramount importance. In fact, the retrieve is the key element to success. A perfect cast with a poor retrieve is far less likely to entice a strike than a mediocre cast with a perfect retrieve. The most important thing to do is to keep you rod tip low, even in the water. This keeps the angler tight to the fly and every twitch you make translates directly into action on the fly.

If you’re in the bow of the boat swing the rod across the nose to get tension on the line. This position will also make it easier to use the tip of the rod to enhance the action of the fly with a “jerk strip”. Hook sets are easier in this position as well. An angler in the back of the boat should swing the rod tip toward the rear of the boat for the same reasons.

Charity Rutter with Madison River brown trout
Charity used a big fly and an aggressive retrieve to fool this nice one on the Madison.

An aggressive retrieve usually works better than a slow retrieve. You can experiment with long strips or short strips, but they should always be fast. If you see a fish following the fly you should never slow the retrieve, but speed it up a little bit. Never stop the retrieve when a fish shows interest. Think about real world predator and prey relationships. Prey will try to run away when pursued. Speeding up your retrieve will excite the fish and reinforce the idea that the fly is prey. You’ve probably heard of “playing possum”, or “playing dead”. This is a successful tactic used by some animals that aren’t fast enough to run away from predators. Stopping your retrieve is the equivalent of playing dead and will turn off a predator’s instinct to attack.

Streamer fishing from a drift boat is fast paced and requires team work between the rower and angler. The angler needs to communicate to the angler how he needs the boat positioned. By the same token, the rower needs to keep one eye on the current situation while keeping an eye on water that’s coming up and advising the angler of opportunities on the horizon.

Ian Rutter with Madison River brown trout
These tactics work wherever there are trout; East or West.

Fly Fishing with Streamers - Advice from the Guides

Fishing Streamers While Wading
Fishing streamers while wading a river or stream isn’t as specialized an endeavor as fishing from a boat, but an angler should watch for the appropriate situation for streamers. The size of the water will dictate the size of the rod. A five weight will suffice on smaller streams and rivers, but a six weight is more appropriate for larger waters with larger trout. The size of the flies and the distance of the casts are the primary considerations.

Flies used on small to medium size waters should be a little smaller than those used on big rivers. The main reason is that there are fewer fish capable of eating a huge fly and a smaller size will get more action.

Streamers seem to perform best on streams when water conditions are high or off color. As a result, this type of fishing might be effective when conditions are blown out for dry fly and nymph fishing. Tight line nymphing skills will certainly help though.

Many anglers tend to cast across the river and let the fly swing before or during the retrieve. This is fine in big holes and long runs, but becomes less effective in broken water. Be sure to look at the water under your feet. Some of our best success has come from flipping a streamer just off the bank, letting it sink, and hopping on a tight line as it drifts downstream. This is usually accomplished with only a few inches of fly line out of the rod tip.

Unlike fishing from a boat you are certainly grounded so you can spend as much or as little time as needed on each spot. After a few retrieves you should change where you’re casting or move on. If you see a fish flash the fly wait a minute before casting back to the same spot. Chances are good the fish will take another swipe if it didn’t get the hook on the first attempt. Keep the fly in the strike zone as long as possible by casting downstream and holding the fly in the current. Give the fly action with the rod tip, letting it fall with some slack, then twitching it back to life. Repeat the process several times before pulling the fly out of the water.

Open, meadow streams often provide the most opportunities for streamers. A fly fisher can proceed quietly along the stream bank and fish both sides of the creek without getting in the water. Again, be sure to give plenty attention to the water under you feet.

Brown trout caught on a streamer fly.
This brown tackled a streamer from a weed bed less than ten feet from where I stood on the bank.

The size of the streamer fly you choose will depend on your goals. Pick a smaller size like #8-10 if you want more action. However, the average size trout will be in line with the river’s average size. Pick a larger size if you’re willing to trade action for quality. Most average size trout won’t respond to a larger #2 streamer but a larger fly will often stir larger fish.


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