Spring streamer fishing requires adjustments, but the rewards can be worth it
Streamer junkies, bugger bandits, Zonker zombies…the nicknames are as clever as the personalities of the anglers fishing them. Even the names of the flies are bodacious: the Wooly Bugger, Home Invader, Sculpzilla, and more.
But the angler dedicated to using streamers and baitfish imitations is committed to one thing—finding big trout. Even though we’ve got another month of ski season left here in Big Sky, our angling psyche melts more towards spring and summer pursuits than freshies and untracked lines. We can still do both, but in the coming weeks you’ll find those with big-fish on their brain on the water fishing big flies.
The term “fishing streamers” or “streamer fishing” are the common terms used to describe the act of fishing a baitfish imitation. Because hatches in spring are sporadic and consist of smaller insects, anglers looking for larger fish must commit to fishing for larger fish. This requires dedication to some new tactics. Fortunately, I was able to get some of our local guides to open-up a bit.
Length matters. As a kid prospecting our local rivers, any fly larger than a size 6 was big. Today, streamer junkies measure their flies in inches more than hook size. A general rule to follow: the smaller the water you’re fishing the smaller the streamer. Flies four inches and longer are now the norm, especially on larger rivers like the Yellowstone and Missouri. Trophy trout rarely become trophies by eating size 18 mayfly nymphs.
Show your colors. This debate rages-on. And the more beer fishing guides drink, more theories are created. My thoughts on color: if something is working, stick with it and remember the conditions in which it worked. I will fish a streamer pattern for about thirty minutes with no action before I consider changing colors. Many thoughts exist as to what color to use, for example on a sunny day use a bright-colored pattern. One of my standbys is the dirtier the water the darker the color.
Adjust the fly on the fly. Trailer hooks, cut hair, etc. Back when Michael Jordan started winning NBA titles, a friend and I were floating the Blackfoot River in anticipation of the salmon fly hatch. The river was high, muddy, and the few large trout we caught all ate 6-inch long yellow streamers only after we took some butt material and tied “stinger” hooks off the bend of the single hook. Before that, we were getting a lot of chases and short-strikes, and adding a second hook solved the problem. If tying a stinger hook is not an option, trim the fly so the fish gets hook sooner instead of fur.
Slow-and-deep. This time of year most big trout are in deep, slow water. However the water temp is cold enough to keep their metabolisim slow so they are unlikely to chase food. It is essential to get these big flies to the fish and to keep the flies in at their depth as long as possible. Use heavily weighted flies, sinking leaders, sink-tip or sinking lines and allow the fly to drop as deep as possible before you begin your retrieve. When fishing from a boat, cast perpendicular to the boat’s line of drift or slightly behind. Retrieve the fly back to boat in a rhythm a few paces slower than the current. A handful of veteran Yellowstone River guides call this the “Bow-and-Go” technique.
Up-and-at-em. Upstream cast and retrieve. When wade fishing, utilize the same principle of the Bow-and-Go, however you have to position yourself at the bottom of a run. Cast upstream as far as you can. Let the fly sink as deep as possible before beginning your retrieve. Match the retrieve to the speed of the current—not so fast the fly is pulled from the run and not so slow the fly snags or too much belly builds in your fly line.
Drive it home. When a fish hits your streamer with a heart-pounding whack, set the hook with authority—get angry for a second. The fly is big and if the trout is a dandy, its mouth will be tough and bony. The time to be delicate is when releasing the fish, not when it hits your six-inch long Sex Dungeon.
Like getting angry on the hook-set, success when streamer fishing requires a special mindset. The first mental adjust is redefining success, or better yet, consciously delaying gratification until a two-foot trout comes to net, and two-foot trout are rarely gifted to an angler. They are earned. Spring season is ideal for fishing that gets your hands dirty—anticipation is high, summer crowds are a long ways-out, and like a dog that hears the word “walk,” and streamer anglers-in-the-know react similarly.