Do you know what your fly is doing? (Streamer Edition)

Do you know what your streamer is doing? I mean, do you really know how deep it is, how fast it’s sinking, how fast (or slow) it’s moving, and in which direction(s)? I think many anglers don’t. It’s a trap I’ve fallen into more than once, but there’s a clear way out of it.

Many years ago I tied up a streamer called the Hi-Liter. Part of its raison d’être was to be easily seen (its colors are hot pink and chartreuse) not just by the fish, but by me. I used the Hi-Liter to get a better visual handle on where the streamer actually was. A few years later I was interviewing George Daniel, and I was pleased to discover that he was doing the same thing. I’ll let George pick up the story:

“Take your favorite streamer, tie it in a bright, obnoxious color and fish it. You’ll be amazed to see what level and direction your fly is moving. You’ll learn a lot by changing the leader length, retrieve, and type of fly line — and that will allow you to really dial in your presentations.”

I spent a good chunk of time yesterday on the Housatonic, perched above the water on a rock, doing just that. The water was low and exceptionally clear, with none of the normal tea tinge that river usually displays. Not only did I get to observe and experiment with presentation, I also got to witness how smallmouth attack a streamer.

I used a white tungsten cone head Woolly Bugger for my experiments. The closing and attack speed of smallmouth is astonishing. One moment, your streamer is in isolation. In the blink of an eye, a shadow materializes at lightning speed out of nowhere. Smallmouth are classic ambush predators, attacking from below, behind, from an oblique blind side — or any combination thereof. You cannot strip a fly faster than they can swim, although they do not always want to chase and eat. I had several tremendous hits after I performed a combination of rapid long strips, then let the streamer begin to settle. WHACK! Where you cast is also important, as I had a good half dozen takes moments after the streamer hit the water.

12 comments on “Do you know what your fly is doing? (Streamer Edition)

  1. Brian P Labowsky says:

    Nice article with good information. As always. Keep ’em coming.

  2. john pavao says:

    how did you do at the Hous yesterday? did you fish “our” pools?

  3. James Joseph Berry says:

    on the Farmington, would it be productive to fish streamers at this low water lever?
    Or do you have to fish the pockets?

    • Steve Culton says:

      At this level, I would expect to find fish in faster water, pockets, and deep holes. So if I were going to streamer fish, I’d probably do it in low light and I’d focus on the deeper pools. You might get some prowlers in the shallows in low light. Hope that helps!

  4. I noticed several of your key points this summer while fishing for smallies. I often got instantaneous hits as soon as the fly hit the water, hits on the rise of the fly at the end of the swing, and hits after a pause and dangle subsequent to a few strips of retrieval.But I noticed that many of those hits on the dangle were fairly subtle…more like an inhalation than a “grab and go”.

    • Steve Culton says:

      It may be that you’re not feeling the whack because of slack in the line, or as you say, it’s more of a grab than a smack. Somewhat related to this discussion, I’ve been fishing Gurglers in a far more passive way this summer: Cast…plop! Then let it sit until the landing rings disappear. Pop! Then wait for those rings to disappear. I’ve taken some good fish on those post-pop moments, as well as after first landing with it just sitting there. Works for stripers on a flat, too!

  5. Dan Tobin says:

    Steve how far out can you still see a fly in that situation…..and is that mostly in the top foot depth wise?

    • Steve Culton says:

      Hi Dan. What a great question. I was making casts up to 60-70 feet and could see my bug down to 3-4 feet. But note: there are a legion of variables at play. What’s the water clarity? What’s the ambient light? How’s your visual acuity? Are you wearing polarized lenses? What’s the size of your bug? What’s the color? What’s your viewing point? Etc. So in this situation, I’m standing on a rock (my eyes are 6 feet above the water, which is huge), I have great light, polarized lenses, a 4″ long white bugger, crystal clear water. Hope that helps!

  6. Christian Boutwell says:

    Hi Steve – I’m just getting started fly fishing for freshwater bass. Does your preference for floating line carry over from your striped bass tactics? Do you count more on fly weight for changing depths? I’m accumulating materials to tie up some of the flies you’ve shared and know that more nuanced tactics will come with experience (or a guided trip with you!) but would appreciate any basic info (leaders, lines, etc) useful for someone just getting started targeting large/smallmouths

    • Steve Culton says:

      Hi Christian, yes it does! Noteworthy: I’m only fishing in rivers and the target depth is usually 0-4 feet. I do carry a full sink tip section for deeper areas and/or neutral buoyancy flies. As you mentioned, there are any number of weighted fly options to help get your fly deep. My current setup is a 10′ five-weight paired with an eight-weight Sci Anglers Anadro line which helps to carry bigger bugs. A straight shot of mono or a 0x-1x tapered leader works. If you’re fishing a bulky fly like a Gurgler you’ll need a leader that won’t twist on you. I use a two fly team for fishing wets. And of course bass eat flies on the surface or nymphs along the bottom. A good general reference place to start is my Field & Stream article “Hot Bronze” which you find by doing a web search. Good luck!

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