Essential Streamer Guide

Top Techniques, Strategy and Flies for Streamer Fly Fishing

There’s nothing quite like catching big fish on big flies.  Streamer fishing creates some of the most exciting, aggressive takes on your fly that you’ll ever experience.  In addition, there are days where streamer fishing is all the fish want to eat, making it an essential part to any serious anglers presentation arsenal.

In this guide, we’re going to teach you the basics of streamer fishing, cover the gear you will need, focus a lot on different techniques and presentations for streamers and then go over streamer patterns and what you need and what you don’t to catch fish.  This is a full guide on streamer fishing that will equip you to get out on the river and try streamers for the first time or give you an arsenal of information to catch more fish on streamers at any skill level.

Starting Strategy & Gear Guide

Learn why streamer fishing works and the gear you’ll want to use

Quick Introduction to Streamer Fishing

If you’re completely new at this streamer fishing thing, let us fill you in on it so you’re up to speed.  Streamer fishing on a fly rod is using a large fly pattern that typically resembles baitfish or large prey for trout.  This can be other small trout, crayfish, leeches, sculplin or any other type of baitfish found in local waters that trout eat.  The fly pattern is often (but not always) cast and retrieved with motion as opposed to throwing a dry fly which is meant to stay still (dead drift) on the rivers surface.  Streamers are sub-surface (below the water) and trout will often chase and eat the flies quite aggressively.  

Since larger flies are used, it’s often recommended to have a larger rod (bigger wt number) such as a 6wt, 7wt or 8wt fly rod.  This helps you cast the larger flies with more ease.  A longer rod (9ft to 10ft) rod can also help with this depending on the action.  A medium-fast to fast action rod is also the common rod to use as again, it helps with the ease of casting.  

Let’s get into the gear with a bit more detail now.

The Gear You Need for Streamer Fly Fishing

There’s a lot of specialized gear out there for streamer fly fishing, and it all has value for the most part.  However, there are only a few things you really need in order to have success streamer fishing.  We’re going to first, outline the essential gear you’ll need, and then we’ll cover the other great gear to have that you may consider.  

Keep in mind here the gear you need is minimal if you already have the basics for other styles of fly fishing.  

The Essentials

As mentioned above, as long as you have a rod, line, reel and some streamers, you don’t have to specialize the gear.  However, as in anything, getting the specialized gear does add value, so depending on how much and how often you throw meat at those trout, will depend on your gear.  

Assuming you have  the basics for fly fishing, here’s all the necessary gear you’ll need for streamer fishing:

0x – 3x Leader or Line

Good news about streamers is leader and tippet are not difficult.  All you need is some strong tippet or leader to get it done.  Our 1x Leaders are a great option, but you can also just use some 0x tippet or any 15lb monofilament line from any retailer you find for the best price.  Doesn’t have to be top quality here, just strong and durable is the key.  

Don’t go throwing #6 articulated streamers on 6x tippet.   It’s a good way to lose that $8 streamer you just bought at the fly shop in a hurry.  Trout don’t get bothered by the leader size at all with streamers.  

Streamers of Course

I mean, you had to see that coming, but of course you need a few streamer flies.  While we’ll get into this in deeper detail later, the point I want to make is that you don’t need a ton of streamers to start.  A few olive and a few black wooly buggers in a couple different sizes and weights is fine to start.  As you progress, you’ll add some to your arsenal that work for your area and will definitely improve your success, but the essentials are a couple olive and couple black streamers of your choice.  That will cover a good amount for you.  When in doubt get streamers with more weight than less weight.  Often you’ll want more weight every time.

A 4wt Rod or Higher (Preferrably 6wt, 7wt or 8wt)

If you’re new and just wanna try it out, any rod will work, but not all rods will make your day easy.  I used my 4wt TFO professsional series rod to throw streamers for a while cause I could cast it well, but as I got into heavier and bigger streamers, you could tell you were trying to cast with a wet noodle.  The rod just won’t load properly with that much weight unless you have the right rod.  

Any 6wt, 7wt or 8wt will make a huge difference in your ability to throw streamers with better accuracy and ease.  You’ll be less worn out with a rod that loads streamers well so it’s a good idea to have if you are going to fish them anymore than 25% of your fishing time each year.  

I’d personally recommend a 7wt fast action rod for streamers at it will be a good all-around streamer rod and will also work to throw big dry flies on windy days (salmonflies, hoppers etc) so you get some multi use.  With that said, the streamer rod I really like (based on the fact I don’t often throw ultra-large streamers) is a TFO proffesional series 9′ 6” 5 wt.  I fished this rod in Alaska with the outfitter I was with and fell in love with it.  With all rods, I find when your stroke (cast style) matches with the rod, you’ll know it.  Just like meeting the woman of your dreams, when you know it, you know it.  Hold on and don’t let go.  For me, the TFO professional series rods are so good with my casting stroke it just makes sense for me to continue it.  It’s not for everyone, and that’s the point,find one that works for you and stick with it. a 4wt 8′ 6” was not a good fit for a streamer rod for me, but when I added 12 inches and went up a weight it made a big difference. 

Fly line

What you have on your rod will work, but I find you can adjust here a bit and have huge improvements in your options for distance, accuracy and presentation when you choose a specialized fly line.  A Tapered WF floating line is just fine in most situations, but it can really help to go up one weight (over-weight) your fly line.  I use a 6wt WF floating fly line on my 5wt and it really helps me get more distance.  Every rod and fly line has to be balanced to your cast and comfort, but as a general rule, going up one weight is a great opportunity to improve your distance and accuracy.  You lose some gentleness in how your streamers land, but fortunately that doesn’t matter with streamers very often because that streamer smacking the water is plenty loud anyway. 

Another addition is sink tip line.  This really, REALLY helps the wade angler.  Sink tip line is all you need if fishing rivers (not full sinking line, just the first 20-30ft or so), and you may consider full sinking line for lakes (more on this later).  It’s a fairly complicated subject choosing fly line for streamer fishing, but generally speaking, having a sink tip line really helps you get your streamer down deep when fishing with a downstream approach (against the current).  For sink tip line, I’d use the same wt as your rod is because sink tip line is already heavier in composition and you’ll have no problem casting further with the added weight.  

In summary, you can use the line you have and get by.  When you decide to diversify a bit, get either some overweighted WF floating line (one weight above your rod weight) or some sink tip line (same wt as your rod). 

Spare Spools

If you’re going to have more than one line, this is essential.  This way you don’t have to switch the line out on the spool if you’re using the same rod. Instead, you can change easily on the river.  You just reel in fully, don’t break the rod down, and detach spool from the reel seat and swap in the new reel spool with the other line you want to use.  It takes less than 5 minutes on the river and when going from shallow runs where a floating line makes more sense to a deep slow hole that just has you dreaming of the monster trout chilling at the bottom of it, but you can’t get deep enough, well the sink tip line is worth the quick swap.

I really like the deal that Lamson has here on their 3 pack liquid reels – https://www.waterworks-lamson.com/product/liquid-3-pack/  you get a reel and 2 extra spools.  So you can put your overweighted line and sink tip on the spare spools and simply trade them out when you’re gonna streamer fish.  Most reels you buy have an option to by a spare spool.  Buy the one to fit your line as needed and you’ve got a good set up for multiple places on the river that will really help  you expand your technique options, which we’ll go over below.

Basic Streamer Strategy, Tips and Approach

Streamer fishing, in my experience is often on or off, with not a lot of in between successes. For this reason, it’s important to figure out as quickly as possible if it’s going to be a “streamer day” or something else. This is the first step to good fly fishing and streamer fishing – a strategic approach:

We’ll focus more on techniques and flies to use in other sections, but for now, let’s go over some basic strategic approaches to streamer fishing. Taking a strategic approach to fly fishing means you are making a plan ahead of time on how you hope to have success. Then, based off the information you acquire, make changes until you reach that success. We cover this “strategic approach” in more detail on our Most Important Fly Fishing Article You’ll Ever Read, but in general, focus on a strategy around these elements and how they change/effect the streamer fishing.

Elements of Streamer Fishing

  • Water level and water clarity
  • Time of year/Seasonality/Spawning periods
  • Notceable fish behavior (fish breaking the water, chasing bait, etc)
  • Any baitfish or streamer-imitated food source around
  • Where fish are holding in the river (banks, deep, runs, etc)

These kinds of elements are things you should consider when shaping your strategy and decision on fishing streamers. As you shape your strategy, you’ll get more information as you fish and have success/failures. Add that info into your strategy and adjust it until you decide to stop fishing streamers due to lack of success or you start catching. It takes a little time to practice and be observant, but with some effort, you’ll be able to know pretty quickly in a day if streamers are going to work and why.

Three Useful Streamer Tips

We thought we’d add a few streamer tips in general up front that are just good to keep in mind as you fish.  

1 – Change Your Retrieve Every Three Casts

This is a great tip for any streamer fishermen.  How you retrieve the fly, fast vs slow strips, short jerky strips, or long constant strips, or combinations os them all seem to have an effect on your success and it’s anyones guess what the fish will like on any given day.  So for this reason, vary your retrieve (how you bring in the line) every 2-3 casts and make a mental note when you get a strike or catch a fish until a pattern develops.  Usually 3 fish caught or 6 strikes constitutes a “pattern” in my book to then make my primary method of retrieval.

2 – Set the Hook When You Feel the Fish’s Weight

Often, a trout will strike the streamer but not hook himself.  Instinctually and out of excitement we lift our rod tip and set the hook.  Don’t do that, you’ll get way to many hits like this all day and you’ll miss fish.  Wait until you feel the weight of the fish pulling (usually 1-2 seconds after the first take) and then set the hook.  This gives the fish the chance to eat the fly and for your set to register the hook into it’s mouth and actually hook up.  Another reason this is a good tip is because often a trout will strike the streamer and then come back to eat it.  I think they’re trying to stun the baitfish instead of work hard to chase and eat it. Being patient will pay off well in this manner.

3- Wear Protective Eyewear | Pinch Your Barbs

Listen to your motha’ if you’re not careful you’ll shoot your eye out with a missed hookset or bury a barbed hook in the back of your neck for a permanent ornament in your neck.  Polarized sunglasses are great for fishing regardless and protect your eyes from a variety of dangers and pinching your barbs is just better on the fish and much better on you if you get hooked.  Not pinching a size #20 hook is not nearly as dangerous as not pinching a size #2 hook.  Be smart, don’t get shanked by the streamer.

4 – Cover A lot of Water

2 or 3 casts by a nice looking rock will be all you need to discover if a fish is there and willing to eat your streamer.  Dry flies and nymphs can often take a dozen or so casts, but streamers are usually first couple casts in an area and then move on.  If you catch a fish, you can make maybe one more cast to the same spot, but often you only get one fish from behind a rock.  If it’s a big hole that holds multiple trout (or is likely to) then it can be worth a few additional casts, but usually it’s one fish and then move on to the next rock or structure worth targeting (there’s lots usually)  Just be sure to cover a lot of water on streamers, you’ll get way more success this way and it’s more fun.

 

Basic Approach to Streamer Fishing

If you’re just starting out on streamer fishing, these are good steps to keep in mind:

1 – Get Rigged Up

Get your gear all set up, rod and line put together and tie on a streamer (or two, if you’re into that kinda thing). Make sure you have all the gear you need for the day before getting out on the water.

Decide on a Direction

You can fish upstream or downstream with streamers letting the current work with or against you. They also work great from a raft or drift boat if you want. Go back to the strategy for the day based on what you do know about the season, the water, the river and make your best guess on what’s going to catch you more fish. Be intentional at this point about verbalizing WHY you are making a decision. As you practice the why, you’ll verbalize the strategy and be able to adjust it as you go and chase success vs just randomly trying new things and not catching as many fish as you wander aimlessly.

Methodically Work Through the Different Techniques

Don’t try everything at once, but work your way through several techniques. Let’s say you get to a nice hole that looks to hold fish. Go through several of the techniques you think will work in order, varying your retrieval speed and method as you go until you find some success. This might be casting to the far bank downstream and mending downstream so your streamer shoots across the current (standard technique) or it may be using the struggling streamer to spend a lot of time working the length of the hole more than the width. Work through every technique and variation BEFORE changing flies. 10 or 12 casts per technique, varying your retrieve 3-4 times during should cover your bases in 10 minutes or less. After that, you can either change flies (color, size etc) or you can try new water. Whichever you think is best for the current fishing adventure is good, just focus on refining that strategy.

Measure Success and Repeat It

if you find a pattern (catching 3 fish or 5+ strikes) within a short period of time (10-30 minutes) it’s likely you’re on the pattern for the day. If you don’t have this kind of success, keep refining until you get there, making the most out of the day. It may sound simple, but repeat what worked and you’ll catch more fish. I only mention this because I’ve seen dozens of people catch 2 or 3 fish in a hole and then change flies right after, or go and fish a different type of water in the river. Why not just repeat what just worked? You’ll spend your time doing more catching this way and will learn way more about fly fishing, which is both enjoyable and rewarding.


Those are the basic approaches I would keep in mind and do on your next streamer fishing adventure. Let’s dive in deeper now on the many different techniques that exist for streamer fishing.

Top Techniques for Streamer Fishing

It’s Not What You Cast, It’s How You Cast It

Go over 5 or so techniques here on streamer fishing and the benefits of each/when to use them.

Top Streamer Patterns

What You Need to Know About Streamer Patterns

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