How to Fly Fish a Streamer

If you are looking to catch some big fish this season, read on! Fly Fishing Expert Joseph Smith details everything you'll need to know about streamer fishing.

A man holding a trout near a river.

Photo by Rick Wallace

Somewhere you might have read that big fish eat small fish, and that is a true statement. Great streamer flies are the fly fisher’s imitation of these small baitfish. Tied with a variety of materials, they can be referred to as bucktails when tied with hair. Modern materials, however, have expanded how streamers are made and how they behave in the water.

Streamers can be fished in a variety of styles and used for just about any fish species an angler would target with a fly rod. Large trout, steelhead, salmon, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, pike, and most saltwater species will attack streamers. So pick up some quality flies, and I’ll present some ways to fish them for those hungry lunkers.

Stripping the Fly Technique

A man on a boat holding a snook in front of a fishing rod.

Snook on a clouser minnow. Photo by Joseph Smith

This is the most common way to fish a streamer. Simply put, cast the fly out and then work it back through the suspected target area using strips and jerks of the fly line. Keep your rod tip down and pointed at the fly. When a strike occurs, set the hook, and then land the fish. Of course, the actual technique is a little more involved.

Depending on the weight of the fly and the current speed, different retrieval speeds will affect the depth of the fly in the water column. As such, to truly cover a section of water, varied retrieval speeds should be used. Likewise, depending on the depth of the water, different fly lines may be used. Sinking tip lines or sinking lines are great at getting the fly down fast to fish near the bottom of the water column. Often, fluorocarbon tippet is used as it sinks better than monofilament and is nearly invisible underwater.

To allow the streamer to have more action from the water current making it swim more lively, consider using a non-slip mono knot to attach the streamer to your tippet. An active retrieve, though, is the key to making the fly move to make those huge trout move from their holds and eat your fly. To strip the line, a figure eight strip is great for slow, steady stripping motions; a strip jerk motion, though, produces a far more erratic retrieve that will often trigger strikes.

Remember, for most predatory fish, the strike is intuitive, and bait fish typically do not hang out in front of predators. The key is to get the speed right: Too fast, and the fish will not exert the energy to chase after it. Too slow, and the fish will have too much time to analyze it and possibly reject it. Just the right speed and you will trigger that strike reflex and hopefully connect with a large fish. This method works for both moving water and still water and is a great way to fish lakes and ponds. In fact, stripping a mouse pattern across a bass pond at twilight will often result in some adrenaline action that will keep you coming back for more.

Swing Method

A largemouth bass on a bluegill imitation fly.

Largemouth bass on bluegill imitation streamer. Photo by Joseph Smith

This method is ideal for moving streams with a current. Wading anglers can do it easily to work through pools of water, and if using a drift boat, this technique can cover a large amount of water efficiently. To do this, make a cast across the stream.

Throw a mend or two into the line to let the fly sink to the level in the water column being fished and get the streamer out in front of the tailing fly line. When the fly has reached the target area, keep the rod tip and line upstream of the fly, and follow the fly through the target area. Once drag on the fly line has caught up to the fly and a belly has formed in the line, the fly will be typically downstream from you. This is a spot where many strikes will come.

Before stripping the fly back to you, let it flutter in the current. The current will often make it sink and rise, imitating a wounded baitfish. Then using different retrieval speeds, bring the fly back to you so you can pick it up and cast it again.

Dead Drift Technique

A hand holding up a crayfish streamer fly with a smallmouth bass attached.

Smallmouth bass on a crayfish streamer. Photo by Joseph Smith

Although the dead drift technique is used primarily with nymph or dry flies, it will also work with streamers. Here, you are imitating a dead or severely wounded baitfish that is easy pickings for a hungry predator.

This technique is all about eliminating drag. The key is to get the fly down quickly. A tuck cast often works well to allow the fly extra time to sink in the water column before line drag pulls it up. Fishing under an indicator can also help judge how the fly is behaving in the water and to help detect strikes. Similar to the swing cast, begin this with casting across the stream. Mend the fly line to eliminate as much of the drag as possible and keep the fly working in just one water seam. Once the fly is below you, again, let it flutter in the water to entice a strike, and then strip the fly back to you for a repeat cast.

Finesse Technique

This technique is a true hybrid of the above methods. Visibility is key. Here, the idea is to make short casts where you can observe the fly.

Cast into the target area across the stream and keep the line tight and under slight tension. Let the streamer dangle out there and, using subtle pulls or jerks, intentionally swim the fly into harm's way. Of all the methods listed, the finesse is probably the most visual and produces some of the most heart-stopping action while fishing. This method is great for putting streamers through undercut banks, deep pocket pools, and over-submerged structures.

Trolling Technique

Two bluegill imitation streamers lying on a wood counter.

Bluegill imitation streamers. Photo by Joseph Smith

Although this technique is not quite the trolling you would imagine using a motorboat complete with downriggers and planers, it is effective for anglers, fishing ponds, and small lakes from a kayak or canoe.

Here, you will likely want to use a heavy streamer, and although this can be done with a floating line, a sinking line makes it easier. The use of tungsten beads or a cone head on the fly will assist with getting the fly down as well as impart a jig motion of the fly on pauses. Cast out the fly and then canoe or kayak across the water. The speed of the paddling will help determine the depth of the fly. This technique is popular in the Adirondacks where trolling streamers behind canoes often yields large brook trout.

Final Thoughts

A rainbow trout in a net.

Rainbow trout on a streamer. Photography by Joseph Smith

Streamer fishing is a great way to fish for larger fish. Be it on a small stream with an ultralight setup or throwing streamers to large tarpon in the Florida Keys on a fast-action fly rod, it is a productive way to fish.

Although it may lack the traditional appeal of dry fly fishing, this style of fishing can produce some thrilling moments that adrenaline junkies will love. Next time you are out fishing, give it a try. You might catch some large fish that otherwise you would have missed. Who knows, perhaps you may become addicted to streamer fishing and purchase yourself a streamer-dedicated fly rod with an action suited for casting large flies and a grip with a fighting butt designed to battle large fish.

If you have any questions or need help selecting your gear for your next adventure, be sure to reach out to me or a fellow Fly Fishing Expert at Curated. We would love to help you out and make your next trip an adventure you will remember. Tight Lines!

Fly Fishing Expert Joseph Smith
Joseph Smith
Fly Fishing Expert
Joseph here! How can I help?
Like this article?
Share it with your network

Written By
I am an avid fly fisherman. Luckily, I have a pond in my backyard exactly two minutes from my fly tying bench. If there is open water, I will fish just about every day. Although I grew up fishing the fabled streams of Pennsylvania, I love to travel and fly fish for diverse species both fresh and sa...

Curated experts can help

Have a question about the article you just read or want personal recommendations? Connect with a Curated expert and get free recommendations for whatever you’re looking for!

Read Next

New and Noteworthy