Big Fish Eat Little Fish

Posted September 1st, 2006

The fall is a great time of year to switch your angling tactics to streamers.

Streamer fishing has a long and storied past in the Northeast. Enigmatic characters like Col. Joe Bates and Carrie Stevens are legendary anglers, and they, amongst others, are credited with the development of fly patterns and tactics used to catch trout and salmon on the streamer fly, not only in the Northeast, but also throughout the country. In fact, many of the common streamer flies found in your local fly shop, including the Joe’s Smelt, Black Ghost, Grey Ghost, Magog Smelt, and Baby Brown patterns, originated in New England. One of my favorite fall tactics is to present a streamer to aggressive pre-spawn brown trout, landlocked salmon, and brook trout in the riffles and pools where they hold up.

There are two types of streamer flies: imitators and attractors. Imitators mimic bait fish, such as smelt, dace, shad, and shiners, and attract strikes from actively feeding fish. They work well in clear waters where there is an abundance of bait fish. A good way to ascertain which imitator pattern to use is to observe the swarms of local bait fish in the shallow waters of rivers and lakes of your favorite watershed. By estimating their size, shape, and color, you can narrow down which imitator streamer pattern will be best. The old Maine guides were reputed to put out minnow traps and then take detailed notes on the size, shape, and color of the minnows caught in them to base their fly patterns on.

Attractor patterns are typically brightly colored and attract a strike through a fish’s aggression or curiosity. Steven’s dressed feather-winged or bucktail streamers in color combinations of chartreuse/white, yellow/red, and purple/pink all can produce fish on the line, even in the middle of a sunny day or when rivers are in “spate condition,” fishing jargon for river conditions after heavy rains, resulting in high water and poor visibility. I like to fish these flies over and through good holding cover and am never surprised that they can charm a strike when nothing else seems to work.

For all the streamer flies I tie and/or purchase, the addition of eyes and gills are important. Predators often key in on their prey’s head. A streamer that has a well-defined eye, with a distinct iris and pupil, imitates the head of a fly and will out produce patterns without them. Predators may be attracted to a gill-like movement as well. A sparse red marabou gill that pulsates as the streamer moves in the water can be very effective. In addition to eyes and gills, I like to add a few long strands of crystal flash that extend beyond the fly dressing and bend of the hook. It gives the illusion of greater size and produces life-like action, which attracts lots of attention.

A.E. Wood’s greased-line presentation of streamers, which is very popular among salmon and steel head anglers, is a simple but effective method. It uses a floating line and consistently produces some of the largest streamer-caught trout of the year. On small- and medium-sized rivers, I start by making my first couple of casts a quarter of the way across the stream, fishing the water in front and just below me. The next series of casts are made to about halfway across the river, then three quarters, and finally to the other side. Break wider rivers into more sections and fish each one as if it is a small stream. Through the whole process, I let the fly swing downstream, following it with the rod tip and mending the floating line to keep it straight and slightly slack. Wood’s greased-line method presents the fly in a sideways profile to the target water, making it more visible to your quarry.

It is useful to give the streamer action when presenting the fly. This can be accomplished several ways. First, by tying the streamer on with the Homer Rhodes improved loop rather than the standard improved clinch knot, the fly will have greater freedom of motion on the leader proper. It also carries over nicely to streamer fishing for trout. One note of caution is that the Homer Rhodes improved loop is difficult to tie on thin tippet (4x and smaller), but it is worth the effort and I rarely fish streamers without it now. Second, giving short erratic strips of line as you retrieve the line back to you, either throughout the presentation or at the end of the swing, can further elicit strikes by imitating the jerky motion of a fleeing bait fish. Vary the length, tempo, and intensity of the line strips until you find a combination that is most natural to the local conditions and water structure.

The fall is a great time of year to switch your angling tactics to streamers. With winter fast approaching and spawning activity close at hand, trout and landlocked salmon feed aggressively. Fishing bait fish imitations and/or attractor patterns will put fish on the hook and many times they will be large ones. As the old saying goes, big fish eat little fish