Below is an article based on the one that I published in Trout & Salmon magazine in November 2016. People regularly ask me for it so I have reproduced it here with some small edits and some nice pictures. It is all still relevant.
Much of the writing and long tradition in fly fishing is based on fishing small flies for insect feeding trout. I often feel that the fly fisher forgets the simple fact that trout and salmon are predators. Streamer fishing is growing in popularity in America, but is much less popular in Ireland & the UK.
I regularly hear anglers dismiss streamer fishing as a technique lacking finesse and skill or remarking that it is no different to spinning or traditional wet fly fishing. Personally, I would argue that unless you have poked a perfect loop with a big fly attached at high speed across the river, dropped it within an inch of the bank and stirred the predatory instinct of a large trout that tries to kill the fly, you haven’t really lived. I’m completely addicted to the technique. It is a method that rewards a high degree of casting skill and accuracy and requires the angler to think for himself in order to tune in to how predatory fish behave, and where we are likely to find them. It can be a highly effective and very rewarding tactic, particularly when the river is high and nobody else is fishing.
Streamer techniques apply to both brown trout and Atlantic salmon as both species respond in a similarly aggressive way to this approach.
Streamer techniques apply to both brown trout and Atlantic salmon as both species respond in a similarly aggressive way to this approach. I hope that it will inspire you to have the confidence to go out and try it for yourself. Exploring streamer fishing will certainly will give you a deeper appreciation of the predatory nature of our wild trout and salmon, and as an added bonus you may get a surprise to see much bigger fish that you ever knew were in your river. With practice and patience, sooner or later you are sure to meet the fish of a lifetime.
In 2003 went backpacking in New Zealand and South America with my then girlfriend and now wife Jane. I had a few days to fish while Jane took the bus to Buenos Aires to meet her friends. I took off to Junin de los Andes and fortunately, the guide turned out to be a streamer aficionado. We fished the famous Chimehuin and Malleo rivers, and some beautiful lakes which due to their incredible clarity allowed casting streamers to sighted fish. The key to the river fishing was a Teeny T200 sinking line and large single streamers such as the Mickey Finn, Woolly Buggers and Matukas tied on 3x long shank streamer hooks. The tactic in Argentina was simple: “put the fly on the bank” according to my guide who was a big spirited but unforgiving guy and unless the fly hit the undercut bank and dropped in on the fish they didn’t pull and I would get the phrase repeated to me. My biggest fish was a superb hen rainbow trout hitting the magic 10 lb mark, along with a number of brown trout in the 3 to 5 lb range.
When I returned to Ireland having had a taste of some really incredible trout fishing, I considered some of the techniques I had learned. One of my first trips after coming home was to a small spate river in the west of Ireland. The fishery manager greeted me with a confidence killing “too high for the fly” as the river was in a bank high dirty flood. I took out the single-handed trout rod, Teeny T200, tied on a size 2 Woolly Bugger and had an exceptional day with many grilse chasing and attacking the fly. There was one other angler fishing a Flying-C, when he told me that he had caught one fish I realised that there was definitely a future in this method. The following morning when the water started to clear and as the flood was dropping other anglers started to appear in numbers. By that stage the fish were not as aggressive.
I thought about the T200 line and tried it for trout fishing with almost instant success. For the subsequent two seasons I fished nothing but Woolly Bugger type streamers and some large Matuka style patterns. It took time to become confident with them as at that time very few people had tried streamers for wild fish in Ireland and the patterns were more associated with stocked rainbow trout or pike. Just around the same time I became good friends with Mick Doyle, a very clever angler from Wexford. We spent many outings on the Liffey and Boyne and other smaller limestone rivers figuring out how the fish responded to these flies. Through experiment we also discovered the effectiveness of flashy streamers.
Many anglers use Flash very sparingly in streamer patterns but I have found that flies made of nothing but flash to be excellent.
Many anglers use Flash very sparingly in streamer patterns but I have found that flies made of nothing but flash to be excellent. One of my favourite flies is one I have christened the McGenius. I don’t claim any originality for this fly as it is a combination of patterns but the key ingredient is silver wing’n’ flash. To give you some idea as to how good this material is I have bought 50 packets of it, just in case it becomes unavailable. The McGenius has accounted for many Salmon in the 10 to 20 lb range on the rivers Nore, Suir, Slaney and Boyne, and trout from 3 to over 9 lb in the rivers Suir and Boyne, grilse in Kylemore, Owenmore and Corrib, sea-trout of 3 to 4 lb in Kerry and Mayo and so it turned out that this type of streamer fishing works just as well for our native wild Irish fish as it does everywhere else.
The concept of streamer fishing is not a new one but sometimes an idea comes along that captures the imagination. In 1999 Kelly Galloup and Bob Linsenman wrote the book “Modern Streamers for Trophy Trout” This book is based on their theories about the behaviour of large trout, using large flies and an aggressive hands-on approach to target them. Galloup and Linsenman’s book really inspired me. No more passively swinging flies “down and across”. We were now aggressively slapping down, stripping, working and pulsing the fly to get the desired response.
When a trout gets to a certain size it can no longer sustain itself on small insects and invertebrates so it turns to larger more nutritious food and trout will eat any protein available in order to survive. As a fly angler we can use this in order to prey on these fish. Having spent over 14 seasons fishing streamers at this stage much to the neglect of my dry fly fishing. I feel that as a result of this I now have a much more realistic understanding of my quarry than the fish I read about in books. Trout and Salmon are predators and anglers should appreciate that key aspect of their nature.
Trout and Salmon are predators and anglers should appreciate that key aspect of their nature.
The materials used and techniques for tying the streamers are significant. I use mainly marabou and synthetic flash along with dumbbell eyes, fish skulls, muddler heads and cones to give the correct action to the fly. The articulation of the flies is also really important. The fly should pulsate in the water almost without even moving it. Profile is also important and generally flies should be thicker at the head tapering to the tail, I have also learnt the hard way that the sharpest hooks you can possibly get your hands on are essential.
Hooks are really important as it can be difficult to get good hook penetration on larger fish. Articulated streamers allow for extra lifelike motion with an up-down and side to side action in the fly that can’t be created with a single hook fly. The best way to get started is to buy a couple of different patterns from an experienced streamer tyer. I have flies available on the shop in this site.
I really believe that a good streamer pattern fished correctly can be more effective in triggering a response from the fish than many lures cast with spinning tackle. I have caught a number of large trout in salmon pools that were regularly fished with Flying Cs. There are a number of ways of tying them to create different actions. For example a wound marabou hackle for the tail will give a slow pulsing action.
Whereas creating the tail using the tips of a marabou blood feather will give a faster flickering action. Both attributes are desirable but sometimes one will look better in the water than the other. The head of the fly determines the overall action in the water. I really like a large muddler type head along with dumbell eyes. the deer hair creates a lot of water displacement and the fish can feel this in their lateral lines.
Colour is interesting: black, white, green or olive and tan would be my most productive colours followed by brown, yellow can be exceptional too as well as pink. Nothing alive looks like these fly patterns but it is certain that some colours work better depending on light conditions and water clarity. I believe this is related to the silhouette that is produced in contrast with the background which is often the sky. The biggest trout I hooked in 2014 was over 7 lb and took a black and green streamer on a cloudless, clear blue sunny day. He came out of the water like a shark taking a seal. Some of the larger salmon I have caught were on a white fly with a dark sky. These are only general suggestions and it is important to experiment with colour if you aren’t getting any interest.
I generally use a 10 ft 6 or 7 wt rod with a fast action. The 7 wt is necessary to carry the heavier flies, rather than being related to the size of fish. Depending on water height I will either use a line that sinks at 6 to 9 inches per second, or in clearer water a clear intermediate line. Airflo make a streamer specific line that works very well.
The leader is generally short between 2 to 3 ft and I like to use at least 12 to 15 lb breaking strain with a heavier butt piece of around 1 ft in length. Most people make a mistake and use too long a leader. The fish are not spooked by the line or leader. The heavier tippet allows you to tug back a fly that has been snagged as they are expensive and time consuming to tie. I attach the fly using a Rapala loop knot as this allows the fly to move more freely.
Not every day is a streamer day. Cold water temperatures can make it difficult to entice fish to move. There can be no doubt that a good flood is where the streamer really shines. There are some days when every fish in the river, regardless of size, will eat the biggest fly you can cast to them. As with most types of fishing if the water is lower, then an overcast day is of benefit.
Filthy days of wind and rain can be super streamer days! This is really aparent when I look at the number of blurry photos of good trout I end up with due to rain on the camera lens! A falling barometer doesn’t necessarily put the fish off as we are trying to get a response from a fish that is often not feeding when we are fishing. The conditions that I favour the least are when the barometer is up and the air is humid and sticky. In those conditions I am sleepy and I presume the fish are too!
A basic technique to start with is to cast the fly slightly upstream and strip so that the fly comes across the river. It is a mistake to allow the fly to swing downstream and around with the current as more often than not it won’t elicit the same response,and if it does get a response it often tends to result in a thump on the fly from the fish and a failed hook-up. It is best to impart lots of life into the fly using the rod tip and line hand and to present the fly at the correct angle to the fish so that it appears that the streamer carelessly got in the way and is trying to escape.
Swimming a fly towards a trout using the current doesn’t always have the desired effect. I also like to cast almost directly upstream but I’m careful to present the fly along side where I think the fish is holding rather than cast the fly over the fish. If the fly is moving quickly from a retrieve the fish has a small window to decide to attack the fly and will react almost instantly. As you become more confident with streamers there are other minor techniques such as jigging, dead drifting and skating that can be applied to suit different conditions but they arent nearly as much fun as swimming a streamer near the surface and seeing the fish react.
When you get a fish to take, don’t strike a fish in the usual way by lifting the rod. Even if you manage to hook the fish he will come straight to the surface and shake where the fly will often pop out. I had this happen with a near double figure brown trout and I have never really recovered! Strip strike or side-strike so that the rod tip remains close to the water and the fish will not flap about at the surface. I also keep the rod tip down at the water when playing the fish for the same reason.
You must ignore the 12-16 inch trout rising in the feed lane. That fish is a snack for the one we are chasing!
Finding the Fish
The biggest trout are not necessarily in the deepest pools nor are they in the most difficult positions for an angler to get to. Often large trout are nocturnal feeders and during the day they will take up a position close to cover where they can rest comfortably. You must ignore the 12-16 inch trout rising in the feed lane. That fish is a snack for the one we are chasing!
Kelly Galloup talked alot about not finding a big fish in the same place twice but I must say that we have found the opposite to be true in Ireland. A big fish lie will remain a big fish lie. On a number of occasions myself and friends have caught the same fish from the same location. Find these locations and the rest is just putting the time in. Very often you will move big fish and not hook him, fear not, now you know where he lives!
Very often you will move big fish and not hook him, fear not, now you know where he lives!
Anglers often talk about using only open loops and perhaps Belgian style casts to cast big flies. In my opinion this is not necessary and is actually inefficient. It may work reasonably well from a boat but if you want to make a long cast from a river bank or near the bank the Belgian cast becomes a problem as there is greater potential for the fly to catch in grass/trees/scrub etc. A far better solution is to keep the plane of the casting stroke tilted to the side away from the angler then the angler is not in danger of getting a fly in the head, nor will the fly hit the rod (this is based on the assumption that the wind is not blowing onto your casting side). High line speed generated by double hauling is also essential to carry these flies.
If you were to make 1000 casts in a day and each one takes 15 seconds then your fly is spending over 4 hours in the air!
It sounds obvious but we need to keep the fly in the water as much as possible to maximise our chances. If you were to make 1000 casts in a day and each one takes 15 seconds then your fly is spending over 4 hours in the air! So false casting must be kept to an absolute minimum and this is achieved by slipping line into both forward and back casts so that the line is extended in the air very quickly. It is possible to use a combination of slipping line and drifting on the backcast to also minimise the awful bounce that put so many off casting larger flies.
With the help of a good instructor you can learn to cast an entire fly line with no false casting. Pelting and stripping big flies all day long is to be fair somewhat physically challenging. Efficient casting is paramount to success.
Many people look abroad for trout fishing, but we actually have it here in Ireland! Of course we have our problems with environmental damage and a growing population but there are actually relatively few places on the planet where you can go to catch large truly native wild brown trout. Our own little Island is one of those places!
You will suffer many blank hours and days in order to find out how and where to target these fish, but the rewards are there for those who persevere.
Feel free to drop me a line with any questions about streamer fishing. I would love to hear about your experiences with Streamer fishing in Ireland & the UK.
Please note that I have a selection of suitable streamers tied by me available from my shop here