Summer hatches are a distant memory, and the weather is turning colder. As the water cools, the sun gets lower in the sky, and the hours of daylight shorten, brown trout and brook trout put on their brilliant spawning colors and get aggressive as they build their spawning redds and begin the spawning ritual.
Watching over their redds turns them into protective predators who will eat anything that gets too close. Throwing streamers and stripping or swinging them across the river becomes the preferred tactic to fool some of the largest fish of the year.
Here are some tactics that may help you make your Fall streamer fishing more productive. First, since today’s modern streamers are often large, articulated, and usually very wind-resistant, the recommended line weights increase from the typical trout weight of 5 weight, to 6 weight, 7 weight, and even 8 weight rods and lines. This makes picking up submerged leaders and lines, carrying large water-logged flies through the air, and turning them over much easier. My preferred outfit is a 9 foot 6 weight that has a saltwater handle with a large full wells grip. The larger grip takes considerable pressure off of my forearm while making hundreds of casts. This helps prevent fatigue or even tendinitis in my forearm and elbow. I use a large arbor reel that will pick up line quickly when a big fish runs right back at me. And, I fish a Class V sink-tip line to sink quickly and stay down while I strip my fly across the stream. In water that is only 2-3 feet deep, a floating line will suffice with a long leader. However, when the water is deeper than 3 feet, a 7-15 foot Class V tip with a short 3-4 foot leader will keep the fly down on the bottom for more strips and thus in front of the fish. Normally, I fish a sink-tip line when I intend to fish streamers for an entire day. Larger rivers are best fished with longer sinking sections such as 20-30 foot tips. They are more difficult to dredge up from below the surface to make the next cast, but they get deeper and cover more water at a greater depth for larger rivers. The most common is the Orvis Depth Charge in a 200 grain for a 6wt., 250 grain for a 7wt., or a 300 grain for an 8 weight rod.
Covering the river with a streamer means fishing downstream. Make a cast to one side of the river as close to the bank as possible and as the line draws tight and begins to drag, bring it across the river with short, intermittent strips. Vary the length and timing of the strips. After stripping in to within 20 feet, take a few steps downstream, pick up the line, and cast again to the bank. Outside banks are deepest, so stay on the inside of the turns and cast to the outside, deepest sections, and keep moving downstream. Keep your rod tip close to the water so you can set the hook quickly, and keep moving downstream covering as much water as you can.
As Winter weather sets in and the cold weather takes over, fish and their metabolisms slow down. They become far less aggressive and will expend little energy to chase a streamer moving fast through the water. A good strategy when the water temps fall to near freezing is to slow down the retrieve, or swing the fly (letting the current drag the fly without any added strips) and get the fly deeper in front of the fish. Flies that move with little effort that use soft hackles, and marabou are especially effective.
In the store, the most common streamer question I get is, “What streamer should I use?” The answer I give the customer is this, “Have white, yellow, olive, and black streamers with you and change color every 15 minutes until you get a take. Then stay with it for at least 30 minutes.” Sunlight and water clarity make flies more or less visible and certain colors will show up better and more attractive than others given the conditions. That’s why low light early mornings and late evenings are so effective. In my opinion, color is more important than pattern. As my tennis coach taught me, always change a losing game and never change a winning game. Successful streamer fishing uses the same logic.
Casting large, wind resistant, heavy, water-logged flies also requires a little preparation. Throwing tight loops is not the best method of casting these flies. Gravity makes these heavy flies drop quickly and tight loops can cause them to collide with the rod. So, open your loop and slow your stroke down to allow enough time for the fly to travel through the air and lay out fully before moving your rod tip in the opposite direction. If you’re making long casts, remember to aim high to your target and add a slow, deliberate, smooth single haul on the delivery cast.
There you go. It’s streamer time. The air is cooling, daylight is dwindling, and fish are going to gravel. Grab your big stick, pick some big flies, and head to the river.
Dave Leonhard is owner of Streamside Orvis, Orvis Michigan Flyfishing Schools, director of instruction of the Trout Unlimited Fly Fishing School, and a Master Casting Instructor for Fly Fishers International.