Mike Pawalawski
January 11, 2023

Modern trout streamers are designed to catch larger fish. Aggressive trout will hammer large flies.

Most fly fishermen either love fly fishing streamers or they don't. It probably comes from their experience the first couple of times using them. But anglers that know how to fish streamer patterns catch bigger fish, period.

I've been Fly fishing for four decades. I had the opportunity to use streamers on any number of occasions in my younger years. But I never had a lot of success. Then I started saltwater fishing and learned how to trigger the predatory instinct in fish. That’s when my entire outlook on fly fishing with streamers changed!

I want to show you how to catch more and bigger trout on streamers.

Big Flies Catch Big Fish!

As a former pro football player, I used to see this theory play out every single day at training table (what we called meals). Wide receivers, quarterbacks, and kickers would have normal human-size plates. But lineman would have two plates loaded up with mashed potatoes, steaks, and everything else they could get their hands on. It takes a lot to keep those big bodies fueled up.

It’s no different for large fish. The bigger they are the higher caloric needs they have.

Recently I fished the East Walker River in the Eastern Sierras and watched this theory play out. It was a beautiful summer day. The kind you can only experience on the banks of a high mountain stream. The sky was a piercing blue, and the sun was warm and comforting. The sound of the river rumbled steadily as we approached the banks. The river was running high with slightly dirty water (keep this in mind because we’ll talk about it later). I was shooting an episode of my fly fishing show, Familiar Waters. These waters were exceptionally familiar because I grew up fishing the lakes and streams of the Eastern Sierras.

My guide for the day was Brad McFall. Together we decided to target the high mountain monster trout of the East Walker with streamers first. To see if we could get the big grab from one of the trophy Brown Trout that the East Walker is famous for.

The biggest fish find soft pockets. Good streamer anglers target aggressive fish on the edges.

I stepped to the stream, anticipation running high. I was throwing a 9-foot five weight fast action rod loaded with a floating line that I tipped with a ridiculously large articulated streamer called the Door Kicker, one of my best streamers for trout. You can see how to tie it here.

As I stepped into the river the frigid water shocked my calves. We chose a beautiful run to start the day with fast water running down the center channel and a sweet soft pocket on the far bank. About 30 yards downstream there was a natural current break that stacked water up. This was the perfect holding spot for a high mountain predator fish.

As I stripped out my fly line, I dialed in on the spot I wanted to land my fly. The soft seam on the far edge led to a sweet pillow about 80 feet away. This cast was going to have to be perfect. I began my stroke with a roll cast and then a full backcast. The weight of the streamer gave a nice tug as the loop unrolled and added rhythm that allowed me to sense the apex of the moment. One false cast to the front where I shot about 15 more feet of line and then a brisk hall on my backcast, the weight of the large streamer reassuring me I had the rhythm just right.

I made my final stroke toward what I hoped would be a toothy encounter, tugging on the line for my final haul, I sent my streamer on its way. My loop was tight and tracking the exact path that I was looking for. The satisfying sound of my fly line slapping the rod told me I’d gotten the timing right. In the final moment before the fly touched the water, I performed an aerial mend in preparation to stack some line on the stream to sink my fly.

My fly line suspending about 2 feet off the water, physics took over and centrifugal force slingshot my streamer downstream from the tip of my fly line. My fly hit the water about 8 inches from the edge of the willow-lined bank. I heard Brad say “perfect” as I immediately began to stack mend line. I needed to sink this streamer down in to deep water where experience has taught me the larger fish lurk.

Deep pools under bridges on the edge of shallow water is a great place to catch trout on streamer flies.

The heaviest water in this run was running straight down the center. As it began to put a belly in my line I lifted my rod tip to clear it from the influence of the river. With one more stack mend to get me tight to my fly line, I lowered my rod tip and executed a 12-inch strip with my left hand. Then I released the line while keeping control by making a circle with my pointer finger and thumb (like the O.K. sign) to let the fly tumble freely downstream. And then I did it again. I was using a twitch-fall retrieve to signal the denizens of the deep that my streamer was a dead fish walking.

I stripped one more time and then gave the line back to let my bug free fall at the whims of the current. As my left hand reached to execute the twitch-fall one more time the water exploded 6 feet from the end of my fly line. I registered, more than recognized, the head and left side of a monster brown trout. The characteristic gold shine and the aggressive grab told me he had just massacred my streamer.

Brad let out a whoop as I reared back and strip-set with my left hand while keeping my rod tip low. I came tight to the apex predator in this stream.

Fly fishers catch larger fish with streamer patterns than with smaller flies.

The saying goes “the tug is the drug”. When it comes to streamer fishing it’s absolutely true. Fishing for monster trout on streamers is as close as you can get to being an adrenaline junkie when it comes to fly fishing.

This brings me to my point. I hear people all the time say there is no “wrong way” to fish a streamer. And while that may be true. There’s also a saying that points out, “Even a blind squirrel gets the nut sometimes.” The truth is, though there may be no “wrong way” some tactics for fishing streamers are way more effective than others. I want to show you how you can dial in and catch more fish with the most effective streamer tactics that I’ve learned over the past 40 years.

Modern trout streamers are awesome, some of the best flies combine deer hair and rabbit fur or marabou tails

Focus up

There is no technique as likely to hone your focus and keep you “in the moment” as fly fishing streamers. We should be dialed in and fully attentive on every cast. But the beauty surrounding us, and all the sensory input can make the mind wander. Not when you’re streamer fishing though. A big fly on the end of your leader and the potential encounter with Troutzilla tends to keep you focused on the job at hand. So, let’s get this kicked off and help you improve your contact rate.

The fly fishing game has changed when it comes to catching trout on streamer flies

How to Fly fish with Streamers- Mindset

1. Be A Hunter of Fish-Think Like a Predator

When You’re Flyfishing With Streamers

I came to saltwater flyfishing when I was a rookie quarterback with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In my off-season, I would hit the waters of Tampa Bay in search of tarpon, snook, and redfish. Those species don’t eat nymphs or dry flies so honing my tactics and stripping streamers was paramount.

The beauty of saltwater fishing is when you’re doing it right you always have a target. You’re not blind casting to open water hoping some random fish will swim by and see your streamer. You learn to fish to fish. Meaning you’re always casting at potential targets.

The same mindset needs to apply when your fly fishing with streamers for trout. I’m not suggesting that you only cast to fish that you see. But read the water in front of you. Know exactly where the holding lies are for the apex predators. Then fish those spots like you know he’s there.

A cheetah can’t go out on the hunt with a bad attitude.  No apex predator ever thought,” If I don’t get anything today so what”. Failure is not an option. If the cheetah doesn’t get a wildebeest, he goes home hungry. That gets him dialed in and focused on his job. It also makes him a much more successful predator in the process.

You need to be the same when you’re fly fishing with streamers. Visualize the fish and the holding spot. Where will he lie? How will he react? In your mind’s eye, picture the fish watching and trailing your streamer from the moment your cast hits the water. It’ll help you be much more effective working your streamer.

How to Fly fish with Streamers- Setup

The best streamers for trout consistently produce large trout.

2. Get Connected To Your Streamer

The key to fly fishing streamers effectively is to be fully connected to your bug. By that, I mean in full control of the fly. When you’re streamer fishing you’re going for reaction strikes. You should focus on putting your streamer exactly where you want it and making the streamer do exactly what you want it to do. When you’re fly fishing with streamers don’t be concerned about trout seeing your leader.

If you fish with the sink tip a 3-foot leader tied with straight 2x tippet is plenty.

If you’re on a floating line A 5-7 foot leader that ends in 2X or 3X tippet is as long as you will ever need to go. You don’t have to worry about tapered leaders. Unlike dry flies, streamers are heavy. The weight of your bug will finish your cast. No delicate presentations are needed. Get connected to your flies and watch your strike ratio go up.

3. This one is quick but essential. Always remember to use a loop knot to get the most action out of your streamer.  When you tie directly to your fly with a standard knot you lose some of the action in your streamer.  The little wiggle that a loop knot allows may be just the ticket to entice a trophy trout. See my favorite loop knots here.

4. Get Connected To Your Streamer Part Two

One of the biggest mistakes that I see anglers make when it comes to fishing streamers is the position of their rod tip. When your bug is in the water, and you are actively working your retrieve you need to point your rod down your fly line. A lot of anglers will keep their rod tip a couple of feet off the water surface. In that scenario when they strip it creates a smooth arcing motion on their streamer. We want to create erratic retrieves and make the streamer dart and dance. We have the most control over the action of the streamer when we have a direct connection to it. I like to think of it as pulling directly on the line like a tug-of-war. The straighter my fly line is the better control I have on my streamer. (Click here for a video where I explain this technique)

This also puts you in the perfect position to execute a quick effective strip-set if your streamer gets whacked.

5. Get Down and Dirty When You’re Fly fishing With Streamers.

Big trout live in deep dark places. They choose the best holding lies where they can ambush their prey. This is not near the water’s surface. The higher in the water column a fish sits the harder it has to work. Your goal when flyfishing streamers is to get your offering down to their level. Sink tip lines come in handy here if that’s the way you choose to fish them. As you make your cast remember that your fly needs some time to sink through the water column so plan accordingly. Cast far enough above your target to get the fly down on their level.

Because I fish a lot of small waters with streamers I personally love fishing floating lines. Visually it gives me a better queue to where my streamer is swimming. So I use barbell eyes on a lot of my streamers. Choosing the right amount of weight on your streamer depends on the conditions that you’re fishing and comes with experience. A general rule of thumb is the faster the water the heavier the fly should be. You also want enough weight to sink the fly but not so much that it makes it seem unnatural. Lead eyes can also give your streamer a bit of a jigging action when you retrieve. You can use that to your advantage in some of the techniques I’ll show you below.

The same rule for casting goes with a floating line as it does for a sinking line. I want to pick a spot far enough above my target fish so that my fly can sink through the water column and be in pole position when it’s time to work the retrieve. When casting downstream and across I usually put a couple of stack mends into the line as well to allow my fly to sink. You’re not likely to catch a lot of big trout by skating your streamer across the surface. So get down and dirty and hit them where they live.

Timing Is Everything

Understanding your prey is a huge factor in your success when you’re streamer fishing for trout. There are different reasons that trout massacre streamers. I’ll cover that in a bit. Just understand that different seasons and environmental factors trigger different behaviors in trout and steelhead. Here are a couple of major ones.

Spring Streamer Fishing

If you live in a location where rivers and lakes freeze in the winter, early spring can be a glorious time for streamer fishing for trout. Fish are looking for a way to fatten up after a long cold winter. As the ice melts you get murky water and the aquatic ecosystem kicks back into action. Small minnows, chubs, sculpins and even crawdads (fishing crawdad pattern streamers can create explosive grabs) get more active. Making them available as forage for hungry trout. An easy snack on a tasty minnow is just the ticket for packing on protein in a trout’s diet.

Late Fall Streamer Fishing

Winter makes savages of us all. I live in California where it doesn’t really get that cold but somehow, I always seem to pack on weight as winter approaches. It’s a biological process for all species to fatten up and prepare for hard times. If you live in an area where winter finds your lakes and streams dormant then you can be sure that the fish that live in those waters are trying to fatten up as winter approaches. That’s why streamer fishing in the fall can be amazing.

Wooly buggers and muddler minnows have been classic fly patterns for fall trout fishing.

Getting Ready To Make Baby Trout

Any cycle where fish are getting prepared to go without eating for a while will be preceded by a feeding frenzy. Pre-spawn is a great time to fly fish with streamers. Trout and Steelhead hens need extra protein to finish their egg production and prepare for the upstream migration. Bucks are getting ready for the battle that ensues to become the dominant male and to stand guard over the nest. Both sexes are looking to pack on protein to compete in the cycle of life.

Pre-spawn is also a great time to trigger reaction strikes which I’ll discuss below. Gnarly, kype-jawed bucks are in full competition mode and ready to defend their turf which makes them suckers for a well-presented streamer.

High Water

Tailwater trout fishermen know that damn releases drastically affect a river system. At first, it may put fish off. But once the change settles in everything in the river reshuffles to figure out the most effective strategy to thrive. Small baitfish have new opportunities to forage and creepy crawlies like crawdads are looking for new spots to hide. Alpha predators know this, and it keys them into the hunt.

The best trout streamers for high water include the clauser minnow, muddler minnow and wooly bugger.

Outflows from reservoirs can also introduce new food into the system in the form of lake-dwelling species. Oftentimes small baitfish get sucked through the dam and end up disoriented and panicked in the new river environment. That makes them a perfect target of opportunity for hungry trout below.

How to Fly Fish with Streamers- Understand your Prey

There are a lot of different triggers that make trout attack streamers. For the sake of efficiency, I classify them into two categories. The eaters and the bullies. Let’s talk about how we trigger a strike for both situations.

Fish Are Food Not Friends-

The Eaters

Contrary to what Disney and finding Nemo were trying to teach our kids by portraying sharks as vegetarians, you can’t fool Mother Nature. Aquatic environments are teaming with predators. Here’s how you make them eat.

Large streamers take advantage of the fact that big trout eat smaller fish.

Stimulating Trout To Eat Your Streamer - Mindset

Let’s swim a mile in a trout’s fins for a second. Imagine yourself walking to the stream bank and seeing a massive trout actively hammering sculpins. You would immediately focus on that fish for your streamer fishing. Your first thought as a predator would be “If I get my streamer in front of that fish… he’s gonna smoke it!” That’s your predatory instinct kicking in. The opportunity for an easy mark gets you dialed in and focused on the hunt to the exclusion of everything else. If you ever watched a dog chase a ball or a cat chase a string you’ve witnessed the predatory instinct.

A streamer is a big meal for a trout. When they are actively hunting you want to present a target of opportunity that they can’t refuse. These three techniques are ideal for triggering the predatory response.

6. Dead Fish Swimming

I love this retrieve. It’s perfect when trout are keyed in on injured or disoriented baitfish.

Saltwater captains use live bait for chum to get schools of fish below fired up and feeding. Rather than just throwing live bait overboard they whack the bottom of the net or bounce the bait off the gunwale to disorient or stun it before it hits the water. When these baitfish hit their new environment, they swim in erratic herky-jerky patterns. They’ll twitch and flutter then dart and drift. If that doesn’t scream meal ticket, I don’t know what does. That’s the behavior you’re trying to imitate with your streamer.

To execute the dead fish swimming make a cast dead across or quartering down and across the stream with enough lead-time to get your fly in the strike zone. Immediately mend your line or throw a couple of stack mends to get your fly down into the strike zone. Once your streamer has thoroughly sunk come tight to your line and give it a quick strip. This can be anywhere from 6 inches to a full arm’s length. As soon as you finish your strip form a circle with your pointer finger and your thumb around the line (like the O.K. sign) and let the line run back out. River tension should pull the fly downstream in a dead drift. Then grab the line and give it a quick strip again. Follow this up with another dead drift. Your rhythm should go something like twitch drift… twitch, twitch, drift. Picture your streamer as it moves through the water and try to visualize the erratic swimming motion of a disoriented and dying minnow. You can vary this retrieve and vary the length of the strip until you find the right combination of twitch and drift to create the grab.

Heavy streamers are great for the "Dead Fish Swimming" streamer technique.

Dead fish swimming is one of my favorite retrieves because it creates explosive eats.

In this case, you want to “match the hatch.” Use a pattern that impersonates forage fish local trout are likely to encounter.

7. Paint The Edges

Certain holding lies are feeding positions for trout. When they’re in these spots they’re looking to eat. That’s a great time to present a meal-size morsel. I love using this technique to fish inside pockets where the current is pushed to one side of the river and there’s a soft pillow of water on the inside. This is the “A” position for an alpha predator in the stream to wait for food coming his way.

A marabou tail adds life to articulated flies making for effective streamer patterns.

To execute this technique cast upstream to the point where the faster water meshes with the slower pillow. I want to get my streamer a couple of feet into the faster water on the cast. Drag between the two different water speeds will swing your fly downstream of your fly line and help it sink as it deposits into the feeding lane. This technique takes some fast stripping since your fly is coming at you. As I start stripping my goal is to keep my streamer just inside the seam that separates the fast water from slow water. This is where the trout are going to hang. Think of the tail of your streamer like a paintbrush. You’re trying to paint a line on the faster current as you swing your bug downstream. The fast retrieve on your streamer doesn’t give the trout much time to think. It’s a great imitation of fleeing prey. If they’re in a feeding position and they see your fly acting like a scared baitfish, there likely to react by trying to eat it.

Conflicting currents can play games with your line in this approach. Experiment with how far you need to cast into the faster water to let your fly sink to the right depth for holding trout. Make sure that you’re keeping tight to your bug. Keep your rod tip pointed at your line.

You may have to use the saltwater 2 hand strip or sweep your rod downstream while stripping with one hand to keep up with the rate of your streamer. Either technique will work. Remember to keep your rod tip low and stay connected to your streamer. When a trout grabs with this technique you’ll know it. You come tight in a hurry.

Every fly fisher knows to cast slightly upstream and make your fly look like fish food with a drag free drift.

8. The Dead Drift

It’s far less sexy than working a two-hand retrieve ripping your streamer down current but the dead drift can be really effective. As we discussed trout often see wounded, injured and even dead baitfish floating in the current. A feeder of opportunity may take a whack at your bug if they see a helpless morsel on a dead drift retrieve.

Smaller streamers that have their own action work effectively for this technique. Streamers like woolly buggers, leeches, and especially bunny leeches work well with this technique. Matching the hatch is also a great idea when you’re dead drifting a streamer.

Be aggressive- B-E AGGRESSIVE

The other reason that trout hit a streamer is out of aggression or defensiveness. In this case, you’re looking to pick a fight. Or at least annoy a monster trout enough that he wants to teach your streamer a lesson.

When my son was little, I loved taking him fly fishing for Father’s Day. For several years we shot Father’s Day shows for Familiar Waters together. On one of those occasions, we had the amazing opportunity to fish Hot Creek Ranch just outside of Mammoth California. It’s one of the most amazing pieces of water I’ve ever fished when it comes to production. That said the fishing is technical if you want to catch big fish. On this day I had my seven-year-old along, so we were just trying to catch fish.

He already landed a couple of small trout on the day when he hooked into a beautiful little high mountain rainbow that went about 10 inches. As we worked the fish and the cameras for the show all of a sudden out of a deep undercut bank a dark shadow emerged and went directly for my son’s trout. It was a 24-inch torpedo which is massive for this small mountain stream. He went right after my son’s fish and grabbed it in its mouth and traveled about 3 feet before spitting it out. After that encounter, there wasn’t much fight left in the little guy.

Expand your fly fishing world by adding some heavy flies to your fly box.

Everyone standing around watching was shocked. It was like our own little private high mountain shark week. The ferocity and speed of the strike were amazing. The big fish clearly wasn’t trying to eat the offending trout. He was just annoyed at this little fish making runs back in front of his hidey-hole and wanted it to stop. So he attacked him aggressively and left the tooth marks to prove a point. (You can see the video here “High Mountain Monster Trout Almost Inhales a 10” Rainbow!!!)

Here's How to Stimulate Aggressive or Defensive Strikes.

9. How to Fly fish with Streamers- Pick a Fight

Burn It – With a traditional downstream and across cast and swing you’re most likely to catch a fish in the first 10 feet of the swing as your line straightens out. That’s the point at which your fly is moving fastest. Trout don’t have time to think. Some people could argue that this is a feeding grab and I’ll never know for certain as I can’t get inside the brain of a trout. But I would bet that about 50% of these grabs are aggressive or defensive strikes. The bigger fish sees a small fish trying to run through their hole or invade their territory and he strikes out aggressively.

The trick here is to get your fly moving fast! You want to do it as obnoxiously as possible. Put your streamer in the big fish’s space and forced him to move it out for himself. Don’t give him time to think about it or he’ll just reposition and get back on his lie as soon as your fly runs through. You can use this technique on down and across casts or you can cast upstream and strip your streamer directly down into a big fish’s territory.

I love big articulated streamers for this technique. Something that pushes a lot of water and makes a presence. (See How to Tie “The Door Kicker”, a great streamer)

10. Don’t Knock Just Show Yourself In

INTRUDER ALERT! That’s what you want the big trout thinking as you invade his home. Trout are always competing for priority position that gives them access to food and shelter.  When an alpha fish finds a great location, they don’t want to share it.

With t technique you want to find those undercut banks and structured hiding spots where big trout will hold when they’re not actively feeding. Or even better when they are actively feeding. Casting from the same bank land your streamer just above a prime location with enough room to sink your fly to the proper depth. As your fly swings, it will swing directly into big trout territory under the bank. I used to use this technique to great success on the Owens River in my youth.

Your first swing is to the head of the holding spot. You don’t want to spook the trout out by hitting them with your leader. If you don’t get a grab on your first swing you can use the strip and twitch to work the fly back into the hole.  Remember to stay tight. The grabs with this technique can be more subtle. When a big trout eats your fly, you want to be ready to strip set.

11. The Annoying Teenager

This final technique works great from a drift boat or when you’re wading a river and you can see fish. This style is very similar to the intruder alert. You want to get your best streamers in position to hang in a midstream trout’s hole. You do this by casting far enough outside of his hole that you don’t spook him with a splash then letting your line and streamer swing directly into his neighborhood. If he doesn’t grab at first, you can mend your line from side to side like an annoying little fish sweeping back and forth right in front of his face. Twitch and drift it and make it dance generally annoying the trout and trying to get them to grab.

The best streamers for the "annoying teenager" are obnoxious, often incorporating rubber legs, bead chain eyes or other garish features.

I’ve seen guys do this for 10 to 15 minutes before they finally get a reaction strike from one fish. This technique can be entertaining as your fly dances in and out and you watch the trout’s reaction. You get so mesmerized sometimes that when the grab happens your wheels almost come off. I would use this as a last-ditch effort for fish that I can visually confirm that won’t grab any other technique. Once again big flies that push water are great for this approach.

Now you’re armed with a bunch of new streamer techniques. Fly fishing with streamers won’t produce the numbers that nymphing will but the sheer adrenaline of the grab and the excitement they create go a long way to make up the difference. Remember, the tug is the drug! On top of that, I never feel like I have the opportunity to catch trophies as much as I do when I’m fishing with streamers.

The flies give you the most confidence are your best streamers for trout.

Last Cast

My final thought is that most fishermen don’t get good fishing with streamers because they won’t commit to it. It takes determination to stick to a method that’s not getting hit very often. These techniques will definitely up your chances of provoking a strike. But you need some persistence if you want to get good at streamer fishing. Fishing in general and especially fly fishing with streamers is all about confidence. The more often you use these techniques the more confidence you’ll build. More confidence means you’ll catch more fish. So use these streamer tactics the next time you want to go fly fishing with streamers for trout.

About the Author

Mike Pawlawski is a former pro quarterback and world-class fly fisherman who has dedicated his life to sharing his passion for the great outdoors with others. After an 11 year playing career starting with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFL and ending with the San Francisco Demons of the XFL, Mike hosted his own fly fishing show, "Familiar Waters," for 15 years. The Show took viewers to some of the most iconic fly fishing destinations in the world, including the crystal-clear waters of the Caribbean, the rugged rivers of the Rocky Mountains, and the expansive beauty of the Pacific Northwest. Along the way, Mike shared his knowledge and expertise with viewers, offering tips and tricks for fly fishing success and enjoying the beauty of the great outdoors.

For fly fishermen and outdoor enthusiasts looking for guidance and inspiration, Mike Pawlawski is the perfect choice. With his vast experience and expertise, he is a trusted and respected voice in the world of fly fishing, and his passion for the great outdoors is contagious. Whether you're a seasoned pro or a beginner looking to learn the ropes, Mike is the perfect guide to help you experience the beauty and excitement of fly fishing.

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