As an Older Fly Fishing Guide and Fly Tyer, I Am Always Interested in a “Better Way To Build a Mouse Trap."
Sometimes I make small changes to fly patterns I have used for years, sometimes I go for the start-from-scratch model and create something unlike anything I have seen before.
Fly tyers tend to have a unique way of looking at fly construction, and it is often a merger of the past and present that gives us exciting next-generation patterns and techniques for using them. These innovations keep things interesting and often result in a new pattern or technique that performs better on the water.
Here are a few thoughts that might spur you to try something just a little different to improve your fly designs.
1. Innovate to Make an Effective Streamer Pattern Great
Growing up in Maine during the 1970s was an interesting time. Good dry fly anglers were limited as were the feathers and hooks to tie them. There were none of the great floating lines and leaders we have available today. Nymph anglers were virtually nonexistent. Most anglers would still swing wet flies, which remain an effective tool for trout and landlocked salmon anglers, but by far streamers were and had been the most popular method for fly anglers targeting trout and landlocked salmon.
Gray Ghosts, Black Ghosts, Nine-Three Streamers, and Muddler minnows were all popular and were easy to purchase at fly shops, hardware stores, or even a local drug store. It was also easy to get the materials to tie feather wing streamers for an average angler. While still effective, we have much better choices today in materials and equipment that allow anglers to use streamers more successfully than ever before.
Early in my guiding career I was exposed to a new pattern that gave a lot of lifelike movement in the water. The Gartside Soft Hackle has three materials: a Flashabou tail, palmered marabou body, and a collar of mallard flank that allows the fly to keep a minnow profile in the water. It was a great pattern but was limited because it contained very little weight to sink the fly. Anglers had to live with this limitation by changing fly lines often if water depth varied by more than a couple feet. Guiding out of a drift boat on a big river meant that I might be okay with a rig for a while but would soon be in water that was too deep for the streamer and line sink rate to be fished effectively.
A change came about with the advent of brass and tungsten coneheads. The fly, when tied with a conehead, had a better sink rate and added a jigging up and down motion when clients fished it. The change made the fly much more effective for both cold water and warm water species. It still had a flaw though: The fly had to have dubbing against the rear of the cone to hide the wraps at the rear of the cone. The cone also eliminated effectively placing eyes on the streamer. Eyes are extremely important for me when tying my streamers. Eyes are a target for a predator and trout often slam a minnow’s head to disable it, then turn to finish the job.
Upon the advent of the innovative Fish-Skull Baitfish Head, I incorporated the Baitfish Head into many of my streamers. The Baitfish Head is keel weighted to ensure my streamer stays upright and the included Living Eyes add that additional lifelike touch for my streamer patterns.
The Baitfish Head / Living Eyes combo allowed all the problems of the coneheads to go away and made an effective, attractive fly that is simple to tie. Made with different color schemes, this single pattern is my go-to streamer when with clients on the river. We have caught everything from large browns. landlocked salmon, rainbow trout, brook trout, smallmouth bass, and striped bass.
While we have landed loads of big fish on this fly, strangely some of the smallest trout and bass I have netted while guiding over the past 26 years have eaten this fly; at times the fish was smaller than the fly itself. I always wonder what such a small fish is thinking whet it attacks a fly that is bigger than itself.
2. Explore New Ways to Fish Streamer Fly Patterns
One of my favorite streamer fishing tactics I use often is one I bumbled onto a few years ago when fishing with my son Michael and my good friend Dean. While sitting in the boat anchored, both Michael and Dean were getting follows on almost every cast by brown trout and landlocked salmon. The fish would rarely take the fly but were extremely interested in it! I put a dropper tied to the bend of Michael’s streamer on about 24 inches of 5X tippet and attached a #20 shop vac nymph (a small #20 Pheasant Tail Nymph with a Nymph-Head Evolution Mayfly Swimme & Burrower head works well). We had a fantastic day with those two flies with each angler netting around 30 fish. It might be counterintuitive to us for a predator to eat a nymph that is swimming quickly behind a streamer, but it is often very productive here in the late fall.
We have all had a good fish that we missed because we did not have control of our fly line. Occasionally a big fish will pounce on the streamer almost as soon as it touches the water. I like to be prepared for that by making an extra stripping guide with my thumb and forefinger on my line hand. This method allows an angler to have the fly line in hand, fully in control to always allow for a quick hookset. This practice can also allow the caster to make an abrupt change to a cast when fishing the bank by suddenly stopping the cast before it lands in a bush, simply by closing your fingers. It is often a small detail such as this that can pay big dividends for an angler.
It's a lot of fun to experiment with different techniques while fishing with streamers, so get out and give it a try but remember to use all your senses to keep track of what's going on. It's not unusual for a fish to take your streamer fly without you feeling it. A flash or strange line movement can alert you to strike. This is especially common with smallmouth bass. Their takes, even on streamers, can be quite subtle.
If your fly is in the water, always be alert to everything happening around your fly. You might be surprised at the growth in your fly fishing game!
3. Think Like Prey for Better Streamer Fly Fishing
I get clients of all skill levels when guiding for trout and salmon here in Maine. Some of them do not have much experience fly fishing or fish mostly ponds for trout and bass. When fishing a streamer fly in the river, I like to tell anglers to think like a “crippled” minnow. That means changing you retrieve pattern often to give the fly a chance to sink deeply and jump up unexpectedly, much like a wounded fish might do.
A Fish-Skull Baitfish Head incorporated in my streamers make giving a fly the action of a wounded minnow easy. Simple rod tip movements and changing the speed of retrieve help an angler make their fly swim like the real thing.
I often have anglers mend their lines, which can help slow their fly in the strong river currents, allowing it to settle deep in a hole. The opposite holds true when banging a bank or fishing the steamer in shallow riffle water. In this case, you need to retrieve your fly quickly or it will be hung on the bottom. With a quick retrieve you can often incite a reaction strike from a predator. The fish must react immediately and eat your fly or it will quickly lose out on that meal. That same effect can be accomplished by tucking the rod under one arm and stripping with both hands as fast as you can. Remember, no matter how quickly you think you are stripping your fly line, predatory fish can easily swim much faster.
For me, one of the biggest improvements for streamer fishing came with the advent of fluorocarbon leaders. When fluorocarbon first came out there were problems with tying secure knots and the cost for a spool of tippet was high. After numerous trips to different parts of the country on spring creeks fishing for trout, I quickly became aware of its value when fishing subsurface patterns. Fluorocarbon allows the use of strong tippet that is abrasion resistant, low stretch, and nearly invisible under the water surface, which really helps you convince a predator that your fly is something that needs to be eaten. I believe it accounts for a high number of additional hookups above using regular nylon leader material.
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About Sean McCormick:
Sean lives almost two hundred yards from the place he grew up in central Maine on the banks of the Sheepscot river which is a Maine Atlantic salmon river. He started fly fishing in sixth grade when a science teacher sent him home with a universal vise, a few hooks, and tools and three or for different colored bucktail pieces to try for the evening and it has been an incredible journey ever since. For the last 26 years, Sean has rowed a drift-boat on the Kennebec River guiding anglers from all over the U.S. for trout, salmon, and occasionally smallmouth bass. In the winter he can be found at his tying desk getting the boxes all filled back up for next season and even working to find the next great thing in flies! If you're wanting to fly fish in Maine, be sure to check out Sean's guide service, Blue Heron Fly Fishing.