Spring streamer fishing requires adjustments, but the rewards are worth it

By Pat Straub Explore Big Sky Fishing Columnist

Streamer junkies, bugger bandits, Zonker zombies – nicknames for streamer anglers are as clever as the people fishing them. Even the fly names are bodacious: the Wooly Bugger, Home Invader, and Sculpzilla, among others. But the angler dedicated to using streamers and baitfish imitations is committed to one thing – finding big trout.

Because spring hatches are sporadic and consist of smaller insects, anglers seeking larger fish must commit to fishing for larger fish. This requires dedication to some new tactics.

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 rather 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. Trout rarely become trophies by eating size 18 mayfly nymphs.

Show your colors. This debate rages on, and the more beer fishing guides drink, the more theories are created. My thoughts on color: if something is working, stick with it and remember the conditions in which it worked. I’ll fish a streamer pattern for about 30 minutes with no action before I consider changing colors. Generally, on a sunny day use a brightly colored pattern and one of my standbys is: the dirtier the water, the darker the streamer.

Adjust the fly on the fly. Back when Michael Jordan started winning NBA titles, a friend and I were floating the Blackfoot River anticipating the salmon fly hatch. The river was high and muddy, and the few large trout we caught all ate six-inch-long yellow streamers. But this was 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 – when a fish bites the tail of the fly – 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 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 metabolism low so they’re unlikely to chase food. It’s essential to keep these big flies at the depth of the fish 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 that’s a few paces slower than the current. Some 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 and 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 that the fly is pulled from the run and not so slow that the fly snags.

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 streamer.

Like getting angry on the hook-set, successful streamer fishing requires a special mindset. The first adjustment is redefining success, or better yet, delaying gratification until a two-foot trout comes to net. And two-foot trout are rarely gifted to an angler; they are earned. Springtime is ideal for fishing that gets your hands dirty – anticipation is high and summer crowds are a long way out.

Pat Straub is the author of six books, including The Frugal Fly Fisher, Montana On The Fly, and the forthcoming Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Fly Fishing* *but were afraid to ask. He and his wife own Gallatin River Guides in Big Sky.