The benefits of streamer fishing.......on a Euro nymphing leader

Before I get started with this post let me make a quick announcement since it’s official now. In June I am leaving my day job and taking on Tactical Fly Fisher as a full time commitment. We will be relocating to Utah and I will be starting an attached guide service and taking a few trips a week for anglers looking to elevate their approach to the water. I hope this will give me more time to keep up blog content, write my book due early next year, fish, and spend time with my family. I will have more details coming in future posts but for now let’s get to what most of you likely want to read about.

I’ve had a lot of questions from readers over the last few months on how I fish streamers. After lots of playing around the last few years I pretty much fish them one of two ways at this point. They are:

  1. On a Euro nymphing leader
  2. On a sink tip line from the boat or a full sinking line while wading.

The sink tip/full sinking line is the best way to cover large swaths of water quickly so I will often use this method to cover a large glide or run; especially at the end of a session with a few minutes left and a lot of water to cover. It can also be a way to find fish to come back and target later. However, the majority of streamer fishing I do these days is with a European nymphing leader.

The benefits to using the European nymphing leader are numerous, as Domenick over at troutbitten.com talked about in a recent post. Instead of the typical streamer approach of covering lots of water to find aggressive fish that are willing to chase, I can slow down my approach and pick every last seam, pocket, and undercut with a presentation that keeps the streamer in close proximity to fish for extended periods. This is an approach my Fly Fishing Team USA mate Pat Weiss is especially adept at and he often catches trout from under obstructions that most people would never target. Occasionally trout are so aggressive that ripping a streamer back at warp speed is the best way to get them to take. However, most of the time that isn’t the case as explained below.

In ecology,optimal foraging theory is a widely accepted explanation for how animals react to potential food gathering events. In its essence, optimal foraging theory is very simple and logical. Basically, animals want to get the best energetic return on the energetic investment they make in attempting to capture food. Most of the time, fish are more willing to attempt to eat a potential food item (i.e. your fly) if they have to expend less energy to eat it. While the average streamer presents a larger target and thereby more artificially imitated calories than a size 22 midge, trout will still be more likely to eat it if it gets close to them and attempts to escape in a feeble manner that suggests the trout will not have to put forth more energy to capture it than is profitable. Fishing streamers on a European nymphing leader is the perfect approach to capitalizing on the real life affirmation of this ecological theory.

Bull trout.....on a Euro leader.

Let me provide an example from a recent competition. A few weeks back I was fishing in the Casting for Hope benefit tournament in NC. (BTW they are a great organization benefitting women with gynecological cancers and are worthy of your support) In my fourth session, I drew a difficult beat on the upper North Toe River that had produced low numbers of fish for previous competitors. The top of my beat had the only water with any broken currents and the bedrock shelves there provided little in the way of friction to slow down the water near the substrate and create holding water. I quickly caught 5 fish in this upper area by drifting and twitching two small flashy buggers on jig hooks. I then went through the area with nymph and dry dropper rigs and got no further fish.

I was an hour in at this point and wondering what to do. I assumed the bedrock shelf was the area where previous competitors would have spent most or all of their time and so I went looking for other potential water. The bottom 2/3 of my beat was essentially a featureless crotch deep canal with no obvious locations that would hold or shelter fish. I decided to fish the streamer rod I had rigged with a sinking line to cover water and try and find a few fish that might be willing. I started pounding the far bank casting under the overhanging branches. About halfway down the bank I had my first take but missed it. A few casts later I caught my first fish in the area. Over the next 40 feet of bank I landed four more but missed at least as many, a common problem with stripped streamers. It was clear there was a pod of fish in the area but I knew I needed to change pace to make the most of them.

A stunning bull trout Gilbert Rowley caught while fishing a streamer on Euro nymphing leader in a pocket barely big enough to hide this fish.

I decided to switch techniques and grabbed the rod rigged with two streamers on my Thin European Nymphing Leader. Because I was casting under brush and the water was very slow and not very deep, I cut the streamer off of my dropper tag to fish with just a single fly on the point. This allowed me pinpoint accuracy underneath branches using a sidearm cast and slowed my sink rate so I could work the fly back at a slower pace. I began by casting as close to the bank as possible and let my fly sink for 5-10 seconds before beginning the drift. I first fished a typical high stick dead drift and added a 6-10 inch jigging motion with the rod tip 2-3 times throughout the drift. The fish often took with a subtle eat when the jig streamer was dropping after the jigging motion. Due to the slow current, I usually only saw a minor tightening or angle change on the sighter as an indication of a take.

Because everyone needs to see more bull trout in their lives.

This style of drift was good for several fish along each few feet of bank. After the takes dried up fishing slow, before moving I would make several casts with quick horizontal retrieves laterally across the river. Instead of stripping my flies, which often results in missed fish in this situation, I tend to make my streamers move laterally with my rod tip when fishing a Euro leader; a technique shown to me by my former teammate Loren Williams several years ago. The rod tip can make your streamer move anywhere from a few inches to a couple of feet. If needed extra slack can be retrieved in between rod pulses but because you are continually making a lateral motion with your rod, you are always ready to set the hook. Since takes often come on the pause between strips, it is a common issue to have a fish take in between strips with a typical retrieve and the fly can be rejected before you are able to penetrate the hook with a strip set or rod sweep.

During the session, I usually tried several casts retrieving my streamer with the rod tip pointed downstream and several with it pointing at the opposite bank before moving a few steps down and repeating the slow dead/jigged drift followed by the lateral retrieve sequence. When the rod tip is pointed quartering downstream and moved toward straight downstream of you, the fly will move across the current and show a sideways profile to the fish. When the rod is pointed across to the opposite bank and the rod is moved upstream, the fly will move upstream and away from the fish. The fly can also be “fed” to the fish in this manner by retrieving away with the rod tip several times and then dropping the rod back downstream and allowing the current to bring the fly near the fish. By rotating through each of these retrieves during the session, I ended up getting 15 fish on streamers with the Euro rig from the pod of fish where I had previously gotten 5 while retrieving the same fly through them with a sinking line.

One other benefit to streamers on a Euro nymphing leader is the cleanup game. I first realized what I had been missing a few years back while living in Colorado. One of my favorite streams was a small tailwater that received plenty of pressure. Like most tailwaters the fish usually responded best to small nymphs in a dead drift fashion. However, given the densities of fish in the river, it was clear that while I caught good numbers of fish, I was leaving fish on the table especially in the better pools and runs where they could be worked over multiple times without spooking them. On one trip, I decided to swap my nymphs out for a blanksaver leech I had on my drying patch from a stillwater outing. I had already caught 8-10 trout out of the run I was fishing but it had gone dead. I only caught two more after the switch, but they were both 2-3 inches larger than any other fish I had caught that day and much larger than the average sized fish for that river. It was a bit of a “duh” moment that I have had to relearn multiple times since when I get in a lazy nymphing groove. In the intervening years I’ve learned that there are often a couple of larger fish left in a run or pool that are willing to take a dead drifted or twitched streamer even after ignoring a multitude of nymph drifts that other fish were willing to take.

A 14" rainbow that fell victim to the cleanup game in an Oregon river where a 12" fish is considered a nice one.

Here is a quick recap of the pros of fishing streamers on a Euro nymphing leader:

  • Streamers can be fished low and slow and in close proximity to the fish on a Euro nymphing leader, which presents a target fly that is more energetically favorable to the fish and leads to more committed takes.
  • Every pocket, seam, and rock can be covered in micro detail when “nymphing” a streamer until you are confident you have shown your fly to potential targets. This approach is deadly around tight obstructions where the oldest, wisest, and toughest trout often hang out.
  • Fishing with a tight connection and watching your sighter for takes brings the same increased strike detection of European nymphing to streamer fishing.
  • Moving the streamer with the rod tip ensures you are always ready to set the hook and you have the cushion of the rod to protect tippet while still driving the hook home. When using a traditional stripped retrieve, takes often come on the pause between strips and the streamer is rejected before the hook can be set with a strip strike or rod sweep. Strip strikes often bounce fish as there is less shock absorption than when using the rod to set the hook.
  • Areas that have been covered with a nymph presentation can be recovered with streamers using a quick change of tippet and flies at the tippet ring. Several more trout can often be caught using this cleanup technique