Striptease: Fish streamers and buggers during runoff

By Patrick Straub
Explore Big Sky Fishing Columnist

Don’t let the dirty water of runoff get you down. Fishing during runoff can be as rewarding as it can be challenging, and learning to fish streamers and wooly buggers effectively will help tremendously. Here’s some advice:

Mind-altering fishing. Streamer fishing is a predator-prey thing. Big fish eat small fish, but small fish don’t just give up without an honest escape attempt. Target water that allows for a bigger fish to ambush its prey. A few places to focus: deeper water near shallow water; deeper water with structural variety such as underwater boulders; undercut banks; water underneath an overhanging branch, or near a submerged logjam. Be acutely aware of how and when you’re moving your fly, and where it is in the water column.

Refine your cast. Casting streamers can be awkward. Open up your casting stroke a little and use more power in your loading move, or stroke, than you would with lighter flies or double-nymph rigs. Longer casts work better provided you’re using the right power and timing. A well-timed, 40-foot cast is usually smoother and more accurate than a 20-foot cast.

Learn to double-haul. Now. Learning the double-haul cast is difficult and cannot be mastered in a short time. It takes practice and concentration to develop the right combination of power and timing. Begin by learning the general principal of the haul and the effect of the double-haul. Learn how rods load and unload and how that action can be exaggerated using your stripping hand. The next step is learning to single haul on the back cast. Then try the double-haul. This step is difficult to verbalize and most people understand it through a combination of instruction and demonstration – book a casting lesson at your local fly shop or search for Internet. Once you find the motion, practice, practice, practice.

Cast longer. Distance casting is helpful and brings us back to the double-haul, which makes casting longer much easier. Be careful to not cast too far, because you can lose contact with your fly and the ability to set the hook. If you can consistently cast 50-60 feet with confidence and accuracy, you’ll be fine. Part of the streamer game is covering water and places fish wait in ambush – eventually you’ll find a willing predator.

Fly selection is faith and presentation. Whether stripping slow, fast, or dead-drifting, I’m a firm believer that predatory trout are triggered to eat by more than fly selection – whether it’s a woolly bugger, Muddler, Scuplzilla, or a Sex Dungeon. Faith in selection is paramount – if you don’t believe your fly will catch fish, then don’t fish it.

Three favorite patterns. I keep my streamer selection simple and here are my three favorite, local patterns: wooly buggers with beadheads in black, brown, or olive; Sculpzillas have rabbit fur which provides great action in the water and the articulated design looks like a wounded baitfish; and the Zuddler, a cross between a Zonker and a Muddler. It has the best of both worlds, rabbit fur and a thick-spun, deer-hair head to push water to attract big fish. Zuddlers can either have a conehead or dumbbell eyes for added weight.

Get aggressive when a fish hits. While fishing streamers you’ll get lots of hits, which will result in many misses. Be in touch with your fly and you’ll increase your hook-ups. When you get a hit, use a simple, yet animated strip set. Violently strip the fly line and also yank the rod to one side or the other. The fish is attacking your fly and you need to attack back. It happens fast, but the most important thing is to strip that fly line more than moving the rod. I like to tell folks, “Get fired-up and grunt.”

Being conventional has never been my path. Tailwaters – or dam-controlled rivers – are certainly your safest bet right now. But for lifelong area anglers, we say take your hip and happening masses to the tailwaters, the rest of us will relish in dirty water that’s our own for a few more weeks.

Pat Straub is the author of six books, including “The Frugal Fly Fisher,” “Montana On The Fly,” and “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Fly Fishing.” He and his wife own Gallatin River Guides in Big Sky and co-owns a guide service on the Missouri River.