Feb 22, 2013

Trout Streamer Tactics: Slow and Low

One of the nicest brown trout I ever hooked on the Madison River in Montana came while I was trying to untangle my line from around my feet. We were drifting down a stretch of water that I had fished numerous times over the years upstream from the town of Ennis. I was casting out the back of the boat when I realized my line was coiled around my legs and somehow hooked on damn near everything else. It was a real birds nest back there so it took a long time to pull myself back together and bring my attention back to the sculpin that had been lazily trolling along behind the stern. Feeling a snag, I thought, Dang that figures, I hooked a rock. Serves me right.

We were still drifting downstream but the line seemed to be leaving the reel faster than the rate that we were moving. In fact, a lot faster. I’ll never forget that fish, but perhaps the reason for that is not the fish, but because I learned a monumental lesson that day. The irony is strong here, for as I was struggling to get back to fishing how I thought I should be fishing, the fly was fishing exactly how it should have been fishing. Looking back, I don’t think I could have found a brighter silver lining tangled up in that web of frustration.

Have you ever watched a sculpin move in the water? They sort of skitter or flutter along the river bottom cobble, often in a downstream manner, so as to use the current to aid their escape. That’s just what they tend to do. So why had I been fishing for years with aggressive, shallow, upriver retrieves while fishing sculpin patterns? Well, I had caught a few fish like this, even a few big ones. And, through observation, this is how I learned to fish streamers, in general. Down and across cast, quick mend for sink and then a mixed (but often quick) retrieve. Yes, there is something so fun about the action of streamer fishing and perhaps the mere act of giving that fly such a vibrant personality is what is most entertaining. So maybe I was hooked on the action, and like a fidgety little kid, I couldn’t help but succumb to the spice of motion.

But I have learned to tone this down a little since that fateful, Madison River afternoon. And every time I hook a fatty trout – a wise old trout (that’s better than saying senile) – it only reinforces patience and the desire to fish streamers more in tune to the situation.

Who came up with the whole verbiage that fish aren’t smart anyways? I don’t think this is fair to say. Fish are more than likely born with a good set of instincts, but over time, they learn what to eat and what not to eat. How does one not become smarter during the process of learning? Because they don’t have thumbs? I give them the benefit of the doubt in this regard. The fat ones get fat for a reason after all, and although I don’t tend to discriminate, I do enjoy catching fish in the obese category now and then.

So let’s ponder the character of SMART fish and what type of streamer presentations are likely to pass their IQ test. Well, the flies should look like food. You’ve all seen the patterns and yes, they look good. Fly bins the world over are full of leeches, sculpins and wide arrays of little fish patterns.

But what about presentation? Well the fly needs to act like food. Think about for a moment how a small bait fish or a sculpin reacts when trying to flee danger. They turn downstream with the current. So yes, more times than not, I am presenting my fly with a downstream belly. Now if that big old brown is really hungry, it may follow no matter the speed with which the fly is moving. But let’s say the fish is a bit more indifferent or seasoned, rather. Why then, would it waste a ton of energy chasing a fly that is playing hard to get, when it has learned that this is not necessary? I’m talking about speed of retrieve here. Yes, there are times when a quick retrieve wakes them up, pisses them off and we should certainly try this from time to time. However, the alternative – fishing that streamer lazily – should also be an option at the front of the mind, especially if you want to hook the fatty.

What about depth? Well, the closer we get the fly to the fish, the more likely that fish will want it. Now you can find big trout at all levels of depth, even quite shallow. For instance, large browns will come up into the soft shallows during the afternoon, especially during early spring and late fall, because the water is warmer. Not only that, trout of all types will migrate out of their deep holds into the shallows to feed on hatching insects. There is also great shallow water structure, like stream banks and rocks that provide cover for large fish. Working off surprise, rapid retrieves in these areas can be deadly; however, the big fish have learned to embrace the deep. They are safer there; the current moves at a more pleasant pace; they can hang out, conserve energy and pick off food when needed without speeding up the heart rate too much. These are the fish we bypass when we fish shallow and rapid retrieves with our streamers. The Leviathans.

What I am working up to is this: Fish Deep and Slow. You will find bigger fish this way.

To put it further into perspective, let’s talk about the nature of dogs for a moment. When they are young, they are drawn to action. They’ll chase you around for hours. If you hold up a bone from 100 yards away, they’ll be there in no time. They have little understanding of conservation and the relationship between effort versus payoff. But give them time. My 11 year old dog needs far more finesse to call her into action. She doesn’t move like she once did, and she chooses her battles carefully. In other words, her 11-year education has dutifully taught her the art of skepticism.

In my mind, the same holds true for fish. It’s really no wonder that river beasts come on dead-drifted, deeply fished streamers. It’s the equivalent of dropping a steak on the very bed where your dog is sleeping. Sure, those young, rambunctious fish are enticed by action. Curiosity – or better yet – lack of seasoned intelligence may spark an attack that demands long, laborious follows, but not for the big one. He’s smarter than that.

Presentations that mimic dead or injured patterns are often the best. A dead sculpin or a baitfish will slowly amble along with the current. If it is injured, it might have a few fits or short strips of motion, but again, it should mostly be at the mercy of the current. What about leeches? In general, leeches are horrible swimmers, so why the over-the-top, strip retrieves while fishing one?

I know, it’s tough to drop our rate down to match the mood of these fish. It’s so much fun to cast strip cast strip cast strip, the day away. I suffer from this all the time. I always want to cast to a little pocket somewhere and make that fly swim like an Olympian. But when I think of the big one lurking in the depths - not even giving my fly a second glance - adaptation comes easier. Sometimes you need a heavy tip, a heavy streamer and the patience to let it sink down onto their beds. Chances are you will be well rested and ready for such a formidable battle.

Have a good time,
Duffy & The Gorge Fly Shop


  1. Great piece! Sounds like a fine solution to nail the big'uns. I have also found that light levels are critical when going after Mr. Big in the river. In the lake I like Big heavy patterns at Dusk and first light stripped really fast...but thats another story. Thanks for the info Mike. PD

  2. Great photo...I remember that fish!


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