Fly Fishing with Streamers on Smaller Creeks

Fly fishing with streamers is one of the most consistent ways to catch bigger fish. Trout that gobble up bait fish and larger aquatic insects like helgrammites get more bang for their caloric buck. More calories with less effort. A sure way to gain some heft. Pretty much how I would love to live my life, though I can’t because I’m a middle-aged guy with a slight paunch already. Some would say not so slight.

Steve, my podcast partner and I, recently fished streamers on two different-sized rivers in Montana. One day we each caught twenty browns and rainbows on a smaller stream called Willow Creek, ranging from 12 to 18 inches. Two days later, we each caught one big rainbow on the Missouri River just below Hauser Dam, after four hours of slinging.

Two days of fly fishing. Two completely different rivers. I realize this may be patently obvious, but it needs to be said: Fly fishing streamers in smaller trout streams is simply different than slinging a rig in larger waters like the Missouri. Here are three adjustments that fly fishers need to make when fly fishing with streamers on smaller creeks:

Cast Downstream

For starters, you tend to get only one or two shots at the pocket of water in a smaller stream, so your cast needs to be precise. Most likely you’re not going to rip out four or five fish from one small run.

On Willow Creek, with the stream as low as it was this year, more often than not I got above the run, cast downstream, and then made three or four strips. Sometimes, I crawled to the bank near the middle of the run and then cast downstream and then stripped back the streamer.

On the Mighty Mo (Missouri), I cast as far as I could sling the streamer, slightly upstream, with a nine foot, eight weight fly rod. I mended my line once after the cast and then let the streamer drift until it began to swing. Then I stripped back the line. There were three of us fly fishing, and we cycled through about a 200-yard stretch of river.

Big river, big open spaces, big casts.

Quicker Retrieves

In the smaller creek, of course, there isn’t a lot of time to retrieve the line. Casts are shorter, and the distance from the end of the swing back to your fly rod is short. Sometimes, shorter, one- to three-inch strips seem to work best. Other times, six-inch strips seem to work.

In tight spaces, you may get only three or four strips, and then it’s time to cast again. On the Missouri, stripping the line was less frenetic. I had lots of time to retrieve the streamer.

There’s a rule of thumb that I am not sure works all the time. It goes something like this: If you’re fishing slower water, then make your strips faster, and if the river is faster, make your strips slower.

The more precise rule of thumb is: Try several ways to retrieve your line, and go with one that works.

Weight Forward Works Well

Our day on Willow Creek, I used my nine foot, six weight fly rod with weight forward line. No sink tip line. The runs were not that deep, maybe mid-thigh at most. Occasionally deeper, especially in the beaver ponds. But the runs were short and shallow.

However, on the Might Mo, I switch to a nine foot, eight weight rod. With sink tip line. Later in the morning, after I had caught a fat rainbow, I switched to my six weight rod with weight forward line. I simply couldn’t get the streamer down fast enough and deep enough. I gave up trying to streamer fish without a sink tip line and switched to nymphs.

The point is that it’s okay to use a weight forward line on smaller creeks, but on the larger rivers, its essential to have a spare reel with sink tip line in your truck.

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3 thoughts on “Fly Fishing with Streamers on Smaller Creeks

  1. Fishing with streamers is awesome. It’s a lot of fun and you can catch some big slobs. All the big trout I’ve taken, have been caught on streamers.
    Streamers are so versatile, you can retrieve them slow, fast, with a twitch and jerk. You can jig with them and dead drift them. Very fun and effective. Have fun with them.

    • Always great to hear from you, Glen! I like your description of the varied ways you can retrieve or drift them. Our fall fishing this year really renewed our appreciation for streamers. I’ve used them successfully off and on during the years, but nymphs have always been my “go to” strategy. But you provided the exact reason why it’s best to make streamers your “go to” approach; big trout!