Over the last 20 years of streamer fishing I've encountered many different situations.
I've fished fast Western rivers, Southern tailwaters with variations of speed based on dam flows, and slow Midwestern streams and lakes.
One of the most important factors I have found to maximize fly action is having the correct weight for each situation.
Flies swim differently depending on the amount of weight added and the materials used to counteract that weight.
I frequently tie a fly pattern in a variety of weights.
The general rule is the less the speed of current, the less weight is needed on your fly.
Slow, still water = unweighted flies.
Select a fly with no weight, or little weight, on lakes and in slow sections of river.
Make long casts and use the fly line, not the fly, to get depth.
Most of the pools on Western rivers fall into this category, and the majority of Midwestern rivers have sections of very slow water.
Typical patterns I use in still/slow water situations are Willen’s Mini Double Nickle, Super Zoo Cougars, CJ’s Sluggo, Great Lakes Fly Double Deceivers, and Modern Deceivers.
The style of fly Blane Chocklett ties by reverse tying, or using his signature Body Tubing, with deer hair or bucktail on shanks is phenomenal in this speed of water.
Unweighted flies have more side-to-side action and hover on the pause. When weight is added, the fly falls on the pause, which can be a trigger, but so can a pause where the fly suspends. Trout tend to favor the fly with a fall in colder water situations, and it will typically outproduce unweighted flies in water temps under 45 degrees Fahrenheit.
Using a two hand strip, or “burning”, the fly in slower water can have tremendous results. The typical problem I've had with fish in slow water is they follow but don’t eat frequently. By speeding up the retrieve, the fish have a tendency to attack instead of follow.
A general rule I use concerning speed of retrieve is a slow retrieve in fast water and a fast retrieve in slow water.
Fast, shallow water = medium weight flies.
Lovechild Sculpins. The larger fly on the left (tied with a small Fish-Skull Sculpin Helmet) will get much quicker depth penetration but in slower currents will lose much of its action. The smaller fly on the right (tied with a mini Fish-Skull Sculpin Helmet) will have more side-to-side action in its fall. In fast currents most of the side-to-side action will be muted.
In faster water that isn’t deep, some weight is needed to get the fly down, but too much and it’ll be on the bottom.
Some examples of these type flies are Sex Dungeon, Conrad’s Sculpin and Schmidt’s Viking Midge.
When these lighter weights are used and the weight is in balance they'll cast with ease and also have some side to side movement on the fly during the fall.
The speed of fall is controlled by using materials that drag or are buoyant. By adding a deer hair head or wrapping one of the many Enrico Puglisi brushes directly behind the weight you can maximize the action.
Another advantage to the lighter weight is that casting is much easier with a little less weight than a true “heavy” fly. Success in streamer fishing has a lot to do how many casts you can put out per day.
With a little less weight it is much easier on your arm and shoulder so you will last longer. It's also much safer.
I guide around 180 days a year and not everyone I take fishing is an expert, which is why I started to tie with less weight. Most anglers can cast a well-balanced fly but the moment the weight overrides the fly’s material it becomes a very difficult cast, which is more of a lob than a cast. Rods will break and I’ve seen a baseball cap stapled to a fisherman’s head with a heavy fly.
Fast, deep water = weighted and traditional jig-type flies.
Most of the time, in fast water, fish are pinned to the banks.
Maddin’s Circus Peanut, CJ’s Sculpin, and a list of Galloup’s patterns (Nancy P’s, Barely Legals, etc.).
In these situations your fly needs achieve depth next to the bank.
Other than just the amount of weight, you should consider the materials you're using.
When tying for maximum depth, use materials that'll give you profile without bulk. I like my flies to carry a large profile, but want them to also be able to fall quickly in the water column.
Many of the flies I tie are with bucktail and schlappen feathers. These materials, when used sparsely, will create a large profile.
Rabbit and marabou will give you good action in the water but they soak up so much water they become harder to cast.
Bucktail and feathers will stay light in the water and out, and cast like a bullet.
Putting it all together.
Every streamer box should cover all of these categories. No one fly or one weight will cover all situations.
When I fish, I usually have multiple rods rigged for the different situations.
Usually I have a Sage Method with an InTouch OutBound 37’ sink tip and an unweighted fly and a Sage SALT with an InTouch Striper sink tip on the other with a weighted fly which is selected depending on the river or flows for the day.
I run this system because the Method is the best distance casting rod I have fished and I use long casts with unweighted flies to cover slower sections of river.
In close, the Method isn’t as accurate as the SALT so I switch over to the shorter sink tip and weighted fly to pick the structure in the faster water.
I know anglers will benefit from switching flies from section to section; I see it all the time in the winter on White River in Arkansas. Flows vary from 1,500 to 18,000 cfs and every day is different.
If you go out with one fly every day you will succeed some days and fail on others.
By switching your approach when conditions change you will catch more fish than ever because you will be effectively fishing all the water you float or wade through.
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About Alex Lafkas:
Alex, a member of the Flymen guide program, is a fly fishing guide at the Old AuSable Fly Shop in Grayling, Michigan and Dally's Ozark Fly Fisher in Cotter, Arkansas. He's passionate about fly fishing, guiding, and fly tying and has been since his first introduction to it. He's been a fly fishing guide in Northern Michigan since 2000, and has been fly fishing the Au Sable and Manistee Rivers for over 20 years. As an instructor, he's patient and willing to share his vast knowledge of trout and the rivers they live in with clients. His college years took him to Montana where he spent days and nights fishing the Yellowstone, Beaverhead, Madison, and many other great rivers. Years ago he began heading to Arkansas from January through March to fish and guide on the White and Norfork Rivers for the winter months. He introduced the guides and fishermen on the White River to the big streamer game, a technique which is now considered one of the most effective to target large browns on the Southern Tailwaters.