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Streamer Flies for Big Trout

Jon Baiocchi author photo, myoutdoorbuddy.com

By Jon Baiocchi
01/18/16 -- It's a known fact that big flies catch big fish, but at the same time don't be surprised if a smaller fish attacks your 4 inch streamer. Not many fly anglers choose the path of swinging, and stripping meat flies, but in my opinion, it's a technique all anglers should have in their tool belt.

How many of you have caught trout and other species while spin fishing with lures? With fly fishing it’s the same concept, tempt your quarry with the cannibalistic behavior that big predators have. Winter is a great time to fish streamers when the water has some color to it and running high. Though the equipment needed is specialized, it’s worth the investment.

When it comes to choosing a single handed rod you’re going to want to use a 7 or 8 weight fast action model with plenty of back bone. With streamer fishing you’re going to be casting very large flies, and sometimes heavy sinking lines. A fighting butt is also a good choice as you can press it into your body for leverage and control while hooked up. For the length, a 9 or 10 foot gets the job done. There are 3 basic lines you’re going to need for streamer presentations. The first line is a weight forward floating line. This is primarily used when water levels are low and clear. The second is a 10 foot sink tip integrated into a floating line. The sink tip should sink at a rate of 4 inches per second. This allows your fly to be fished at deeper depths, or when the water is higher and off color. The last line you’ll need is like the previous mentioned above, but the tip is longer at 30 feet with a sink rate of 6 inches per second. This line allows the fly angler to probe the deeper pools and get to the bottom where the big boys live. All of these lines should be spooled on a 7/8 reel that matches the rod, and has a very good drag system. Trust me you’re going to need it.

Chris Maher of Mahers Guide Service with a streamer caught 30 inch truckee brown, photo by justin andereson
Chris Maher of Mahers Guide Service with a streamer caught 30 inch Truckee River brown. Photo by Justin Andereson.

7 foot tapered leaders are recommended as they turn over during the cast much more efficiently. When it comes to tippet, two standards apply. First, match the tippet to the size of the fly, the bigger the fly, the bigger the tippet. Strength of the tippet is even more important. At a minimum, 8 pound is to be used when targeting shy trout in pressured clear waters. For most of your streamer presentations, using 10 to 14 pound tippets is needed when dealing with extremely large fish. These predators are in no way spooked by the bigger tippet because the fly is usually so big that their attention is solely fixed on it only.

Big articulated streamer flies have exceptional movement qualities that makes them appear alive. Photo by Jon Baiocchi.
Big articulated streamer flies have exceptional movement qualities that makes them appear alive. Photo by Jon Baiocchi.

When it comes to fly selection the new rage is articulated models that have a trailer hook tied off the back of a single hook with heavy wire. This allows the fly extra movement that will make it look more realistic. Some of these flies include the Zoo Cougar, Bellyache Minnow, and the Circus Peanut. All these flies were created by Kelly Galloup, a master tier and streamer angler from Montana. Basic single hook streamers include Cone Head Wooly Buggers, Zonkers, and Matukas. Each river is different so you’ll need to investigate which patterns work best on where you plan to fish. Also slow down your strip during periods of cold water, and speed them up with warmer water conditions.

The green Zonker fly is a classic single hook design that gets results. Photo by Jon Baiocchi.

The green Zonker fly is a classic single hook design that gets results. Photo by Jon Baiocchi.

The different presentations I’m going to describe depend on water type, the depth, and the flow. The “swing and strip” is much like swinging standard fly patterns in a river. It is also the old school style of steelhead fishing. The angler casts a presentation at 45 degrees downstream and mends upstream to allow the weighted fly to sink. Keeping the rod level, the angler follows the fly with the rod tip through the swing until directly downstream of their position. At this time the angler then strips the fly upstream aggressively. A large percentage of the grabs are at the end of the swing, and while retrieving the fly upstream. The presentations start with a shorter distance at about 30 feet with each consecutive cast reaching further in 5 foot increments. When a section of water is thoroughly covered, the angler then takes 10 steps downstream and repeats the above procedures. This technique has been successful for me on the Madison River in Montana where I have hooked numerous trout in the 20 to 24” range and two large browns that went 28”, and 33”.

Guide Tayler Wells fooled this Smith River steelhead with an articulated leech pattern. Photo by Shelby Wells.
Guide Tayler Wells fooled this Smith River steelhead with an articulated leech pattern. Photo by Shelby Wells.

Another unorthodox method, which goes completely the opposite train of thought that all fly anglers have learned, is not to mend upstream, but downstream. By using the same presentation as described above, when the line lands on the water the angler uses short mends downstream repeatedly through the entire drift. What this does is gives the fly more action, like a real crippled baitfish or other food item. After the swing is done the fly is stripped back. It sounds weird, but it is very effective.

Brown and yellow streamers with copper flash are deadly on the Truckee River. Photo by Jon Baiocchi.
Brown and yellow streamers with copper flash are deadly on the Truckee River. Photo by Jon Baiocchi.

The “upstream strip” is copied from lure anglers using spinning rods and a technique rarely used. The angler casts upstream, lets the fly sink, and then aggressively strips the fly back to their fixed position. The presentations start with shorter casts and closer to the water’s edge with each presentation fanning out, and increasing in length. The angler must be aware of the depth of water as this technique does not rely on the current, and your fly will sink rather quickly. Therefore the strip has to be immediately implemented in shallow water to prevent from hanging up on the bottom and snagging up.

“High sticking” a streamer is executed with small sections of water like pockets or troughs within a river system. This presentation is best using shorter line, and at times is a fixed distance with the rod hand pinching off the line. The angler lobs the fly with a slow overhead arching cast that allows the fly to enter vertically into the water for an effective entry that allows the streamer to plummet to the desired depth. Once that depth is achieved the angler then lifts the rod and propels it through the strike zone using the rod with a tight line and zero slack. Twitching and pumping the rod tip adds more action to induce a strike. At the end of the presentation the fly can be retrieved back to the angler’s fixed position.

“Jigging and dabbing” a streamer is best presented with an undercut bank of a stream where big trout like to hide. The angler quietly walks up near the edge of the bank and simply drops the fly into the water next to the undercut. Allowing the fly to sink to the bottom, the angler then uses a fixed amount of line pinched off with their rod hand and jigs the fly up and down aggressively. This technique is about agitating a large trout that is defending its territory to induce a strike. Once the fish is hooked, the angler then charges to the edge of the bank, and controls the fish from going back into the undercut to prevent a break off on roots and other structure.

Streamer fishing is not boring. You’ll be busy casting, mending and stripping while waiting for the big tug. It’s a high paced style with plenty of action. Do yourself a favor and get involved, I’m sure you’ll agree its well worth it when you finally hold that fish of a lifetime for the camera.

Jon Baiocchi has been fly fishing and tying flies since 1972 and is a California licensed fly fishing guide, published author, educator, innovative tier and public speaker has given fly fishing presentations to clubs and expos around the state. Jon operates Baiocchi’s Troutfitters guide service in Northeastern California where he has a reputation as a hard working guide who has been trained by some of fly fishing’s best known master anglers. He can be reached at BaiocchisTroutfitters.com.

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