Big Streamers on Rivers

Mickey makes the case for trout fishing with really big wet flies.  

When I turned 21, I had basically one goal in life: go to the Madison River in Montana and catch a big brown trout on Kelly Galloup’s huge streamer, the Sex Dungeon. Naturally when I finished Uni that year, I went to Montana and I did exactly that. I walked into the Slide-Inn on the banks of the mighty Madison, bought a Dungeon (or three), went down to the river, and on about my fifth cast, caught my first-ever trout on a big articulated streamer. From that point on, it’s been one of my favourite ways to fish.

Streamers Today

Catching trout on streamers is some of the most fun you have while freshwater flyfishing. However for some reason, in this particular aspect of the sport, we are lagging behind our American buddies. This could be for a few reasons. To begin with, in most cases, Australian and Kiwi flyfishers simply don’t know much about really big streamers: they don’t know when, where, or how to fish them properly. It could also be that we just don’t want to believe (or admit!) they can work in ‘our’ conditions. Additionally, there isn’t much information out there on using big streamers in the Southern Hemisphere.

Turns out Antipodean trout eat big streamers, just like they do in the Northern Hemisphere.

Well, if you’re reading this, my aim is to let you know what you’ve been missing out on and get you hurling big streamers more often.

I’ve mentioned big streamers a lot already, but what am I talking about when I say, ‘big streamer’? The best quick definition would be that if you walked up to me with a size 6 Woolly Bugger and called it a big streamer, I’d say, “That’s not a streamer… this is a streamer!” and pull out a 6 inch articulated beast.

Most ‘classic’ streamers are comparatively small marabou, bucktail or rabbit fur flies, that are swung, and/or stripped. There’s not too much difference between that definition and the modern streamers. They may well use the same natural materials; however the modern versions are more likely to also have some synthetic materials built in. Additionally, modern streamers are probably going to be larger than traditional streamers: they don’t have to be articulated but they are generally bigger.

The best way to assess modern streamers is to have a look at the book of the same name by Kelly Galloup. Through the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s, Galloup and his mates redefined what people thought you could do with these flies. Bigger sizes, profiles and specific actions defined most of Galloup’s streamers. Using these streamers, you’re generally looking for the largest ambush trout in any system. Today, streamers vary from Junkyard Dogs to Game Changers, tied by a multitude of anglers, for many salmonid species and styles of fishing.

A row of freshly-tied streamers, almost ready for work!

 Streamer Styles

There are a few key flies, or styles of fly, that you want to have in your box to cover most streamer situations. While there are no hard and fast rules and streamers can sometimes blend across styles, you could say you’re looking at jiggers, swimmers, sliders and head-bangers. These categories all have different sizes, profiles and actions.

Jig-style flies are generally tied with heavy heads, on single hooks and fish well on a floating line or sink tip. They ‘jig’ through the water column and are excellent crayfish or yabby representations. The next group are the swimmers, usually tied articulated, with weighted or unweighted heads. They swim through the water and are particularly effective when imitating medium to large baitfish, such as junior trout. Included in this category is the mighty Sex Dungeon mentioned earlier and all its relatives. If you have only one big streamer in your box, make it a standard-sized Dungeon in every colour you can afford or tie. Throwing the Dungeon is really the essence of modern streamer fishing. Casting this fly is how I often fish for trout on a rare day off from guiding. It’s just spectacular fun! (More about this later.)

Finally, you have the sliders and head-bangers. Flies in these two groups can vary wildly in action, profile and size; but overall these are streamers which have crazy actions, odd articulations, and innovations.

Big Streamer Starters

A useful fly to start with is the Dungeon, then you can add The Best Fly Ever or BFE, Sparkle Minnows, Belly Scratchers, Sculpins with heavy heads… and a few more Dungeons! If you have a good mix of sizes, profiles and actions, you’ll be well covered for any trouty situation. One thing when considering fly selection, is that about 4 to 6 inches is an excellent size range. Don’t get caught up with massive 12 inch flies too early in the game!

Where and When?

Now down to business, when, where and how should you use these flies? The first two questions are easily answered: anywhere there are trout and anytime you like. There are a lot of myths surrounding big streamers in Australia and New Zealand. A common notion among trout fishers I talk to, is that big streamers aren’t suited to ‘our’ conditions and ‘our’ fish.

However, if you look at it holistically, we have trout that are exactly the same as trout that eat these flies everywhere else in the world, so the fish aren’t the problem. We also have big rivers – just like the ones these flies were invented for. However, they also work on smaller streams and any other water that has trout, from a puddle up.

A small stream cannibal which hunted down a big streamer.

As far as time of day goes, many people will insist big streamers mainly work at night, and that’s about it. Now it’s true there are peak times to fish streamers, particularly when big food is available to big trout, under ideal hunting conditions. Traditionally, these are known to be low light or high water conditions. However, I often fish big streamers with great success on in bright summer conditions, in shallow water, to trout you would expect to spook at the sight of such a large fly.

Yes, if you find a good trout rising to duns, perhaps don’t throw a streamer at it. Yet even during prime hopper time on the Tumut River for example, a big brown still won’t turn down a streamer. So realistically, the only limitations you can put on these flies are your own.

The ‘How’

As with any fishing, every situation is different. Even so, there are a few key presentations and gear choices when using big streamers. In my mind, no matter what type of fishing you are doing, presentation always trumps fly choice. I’d rather have one fly with which to try many different kinds of presentation, than have a bunch of different flies presented basically the same way.

My most frequently-used rig is a Dungeon, fished on a full sinking line (I like the compound taper sinking lines from Scientific Anglers) on a 7 weight rod. The leader is simply a 4ft section of level 15lb mono.

Fishing back a big streamer on a sinking line.

Next, you need to think about what you are representing. Thankfully, in most trout streams there are juvenile trout, and I’d say nine out of ten big fish are eating the streamer as if it was the unluckiest little trout in the river. An unhealthy and very edible baby trout doesn’t swim strongly back upstream; it struggles downstream on the edges, looking to escape the current it will inevitably be dragged into – until a massive brown eats it. Therefore, the best presentation is actually to cast up and across current, then strip quickly to pick up the slack and add twitching, jiggly swimming motions to the fly.

Small streams or slow water are fished a little differently. If you don’t have much flow, you’ll need to target structure, depth or both. You are looking for big ambush predators that want an easy meal, so get the fly as close to where they might be holding as you can, and then make your offering look appealing.

Why Big Streamers?

I often get asked why I love fishing big streamers so much? The main reason people are sceptical, is the common misconception that streamer fishing isn’t sight fishing. And after all, isn’t sight fishing the pinnacle of flyfishing?

Sighted right up to the slam!

Oddly enough, streamer fishing is actually one of the coolest forms of sight fishing. The visual aspect of watching your streamer swim, then seeing a big trout come out of its lair and totally engulf it, is so exciting, it needs to be seen to be believed. Plus, I can make a trout I would otherwise not see, commit to a highly visible chase and a savage eat.

Because I’m lucky enough to spend a lot of the season based on some excellent trout rivers, most evenings after guiding, I can head out streamer fishing myself. This is when I like to adopt the motto, “Fish fast or die.” Essentially, I retrieve the fly so quickly, it stays in the top two feet of water, so I get to watch big trout actively hunt then inhale the streamer. True, by fishing this way I may miss out on fish that might be holding a little deeper, so I don’t catch as many trout overall. But the trade-off is, I’m able to watch the whole thing!

Big Predators

One cool thing about drawing out predators to eat big streamers, is they’re usually big too! I’m not saying every trout you get on a big fly will be a monster, but you do have a better chance of catching the fish, as opposed to a fish. I’d rather fish all day, week or season for the fish, than a number of smaller fish. Once you see these trout eat, it becomes a very real addiction. To quote the Kelly Galloup again, “You see one 28 inch fish eat a streamer and your life will change… Because it’s the aggression of the eat, because [dry-fly] is cute, it’s nice, everybody likes that, it’s poetic… this is like WHAM! Right in your face, and I think it drives everybody.”

Big streamers also work in bright, clear conditions.

There’s something awesome about seeing things differently; coming to a new understanding of your world. As flyfishers, we’re lucky enough to interact with nature, and actually cause moments that are perspective-bending. So go out, grab some big flies, fish them hard on a big rod, and change your perspective.