As streamer fly fishing has risen in popularity, streamer designs have taken off like never before.
If you haven't noticed, there are a lot of designs out there. One thing I've noticed about the plethora of new streamer patterns is that many of them (other than a few highly specialized designs) are designed basically around one thing: catching trout in fast-moving water.
So when I grabbed a handful of cleverly crafted baitfish patterns and headed out to my local warm-water bass lake, I found them highly lacking in some important qualities. They didn’t catch very many fish. I quickly realized that something designed for moving water didn’t automatically fit the bill when things became more static.
My answer was to just develop my own streamer patterns and fish away, but if you don't tie your own or have countless hours to experiment and design your own stuff, I realized that the already established cold-water patterns can be just as effective for warm-water species — they just need some adjustment in rigging and common sense when it comes to fishing techniques.
Here are some tricks I’ve used to adapt some commercial fly patterns to be as effective on your local warm-water lake as they are in the famous rivers they were intended for.
First thing, when you move from moving waters to still, your approach should change dramatically. In fast-moving waters, the idea is fast and hard streaking bait movements, mostly in hope of enticing a purely reactionary response from a predator.
In still waters you're still looking for that predatory response, but in most situations, a slower and more deliberate approach is needed to make it work. Here the retrieves are greatly slowed with many pauses. A good deal of strikes come on a completely stationary fly. In these situations, a good pattern ideally will look and act realistic when it's not moving.
To simplify this approach, these giant behemoth flies can be sorted into categories based solely on head design and fished accordingly. Sticking with a warm-water bass theme, I’ve sorted them out by water depth (as usual) from top to bottom.
1. Flies For Shallow Water
These are patterns that have a somewhat buoyant head, quickly spotted by an oversized deer hair head usually with a corresponding collar but sometimes they use a foam head of some sort. Prime examples are Gallop’s Zoo Cougar along with Dally’s Lap Dancer, Andersen’s Sid, and the D & D. The infamous Dalberg Diver also falls into this category along with the variety of hair-headed sculpin patterns.
Because of the buoyant tendencies of these types, I generally restrict these patterns to relatively shallow water situations. However they are also ideal for crawling above submerged weed beds, adjacent to weed lines, docks or parallel to big structures. They also produce well on long shallow flats mostly trying to imitate frogs, mice, ducks, or anything that is on or near the surface that might take a short dive, or any of the many sunfish that abound in shallow waters. A really nicely packed Dahlberg Diver head will float back to the surface as well as a foam head variety, whereas the loosely packed deer hair heads will usually soak enough water and suspend on the pause.
These pattern types should be fished on floating lines or sink tips. A fast sink tip line will allow the fly to be fished deeper or as deep as needed. The key is the buoyancy of the head so these flies tend to suspend or slowly travel back to the surface. I fish short to moderate leaders to keep the fly at the same level, usually in the 4- to 5-foot range. The key here is to let the line bring the fly to the depth needed.
In still water these patterns generally have a side to side wobble on the strip and produce a great swimming action on the retrieve. On the pause they remain very stable and can entice a mauling while being static. This style is great for pausing and suspending above or along weed beds, walls, or above shallow flats because the bait can be slowly fished at a consistent depth.
2. Flies For Mid-Depth and Open Water
Patterns that fall into this category usually incorporate a thick dubbing or wool head and are by far the most popular today in new designs. Big “water-pushing” faces smashed flat and glued with giant realistic eyes stuck to the sides, or taken to the next level with a Fish-Skull Fish-Mask and Living Eyes, are a signature of these types.
Larger patterns will have lots of bucktail, marabou, hackles and flash in the rear sections. In moving water, these are usually articulated, the idea being the large oversized heads move water in a complicated flow pattern as to impact the tail end, giving the fake baitfish that ever desired ”S” movement that is ever so deceiving. Patterns like Brammer’s Mega Jerk, Galloup’s Laser Legal, Mike Schmidt’s JunkYard Dog, the Cheech Leech, Game Changers and the like are included in this group.
These patterns I consider to be the most versatile and also my favorite style. They can be fished from just below the surface to about any depth your line can plummet them to. Again, this is determined by the line selection and setup. They are great for open water retrieves, casting parallel to shorelines, steep walls, alongside docks and weed lines, adjacent to rocky ledges or fishing just above submerged weed beds or sunken structure.
The key to being successful with these patterns is long slow retrieves at specific depths, intermingled with twitches and long pauses. The pattern should have a neutral buoyancy characteristic or slowly sink on the pause.
The typical setups I use are slower sinking lines and intermediate sink tips. In more open water or blind fishing situations, the idea is to make long casts and slow retrieves with lots of pauses, letting the suspending properties do the work. A baitfish that hangs in the water column, seemingly wounded, is asking for it and I’ve caught a ton of bass over deep water by just letting the fly sit for long periods of time.
The use of Fish-Skull Fish-Masks of appropriate sizes are ideal in these situations for keeping your creations perfectly stable on the pause. Their built in buoyancy also allows for the use for bigger, and thus heavier, shanked hooks that tend to add extra weight and sink smaller patterns.
Intermediate lines with 4- to 6-foot level leaders are ideal to keep the pattern at the desired depth. The rule is the faster the line speed the faster the retrieve. A long pause with a fast full sinking line will belly out eventually and you’ll lose control of the action and not be able to detect the strike. Same with leaders that are too long. 6 feet is the max, 3 to 4 feet is better. Long retrieves take patience but you can be rewarded by eats that are purely violent.
The jerk action or walk-the-dog movement is without a doubt the most productive retrieve I know. It's killer on largemouth and smallmouth bass alike, and these pattern types are ideal for this. Here's how to do it: make several strips in succession, then twitch the rod tip to one side and pause, letting a bit of slack in the line. This allows that huge head design to turn the fly to one side of the other, showing the full bait silhouette to any predators that might be following. It takes some practice but it is deadly once you get it down.
The most vicious attacks come from below and from behind. This is the technique and pattern style I use most of the time, especially if there is no active feed or bite pattern to follow.
3. Deep Water Flies and Bottom Bouncing Patterns
In this category I generally lump any streamer that doesn’t float up or have neutral buoyancy on the pause. This includes any pattern that takes a nose dive when it sits still. Obviously these can be easily identified as any pattern with a heavy cone head, Baitfish Head, Sculpin Helmet, or large lead eyes that sink naturally when static.
In big rivers, these patterns are usually used to fish holes or deep pockets of slow moving water because they sink fast and get down to depth effectively. They're generally twitched a few times, drifted a few feet, and then pulled up and fired to the next spot as the boat speeds down the river.
I put patterns such as Galloup’s Dungeon, Fly Fish Food’s Slider, Strolis’s Juggernaut, the Barely Legal, and any of the various heavy Sculpin Helmet patterns in this category.
For bass fishing in still waters, these patterns become more versatile than you may realize. They are especially good at bottom bouncing around structure, which is THE all-purpose bass technique, but are also useful for getting deep quickly and stripping through zones, or retrieving fast to the edge of a rock or drop-off, pausing, and then letting the fly fall off the edge into the bass’s ambush point.
I always incorporate heavy heads such as Sculpin Helmets into these designs. They are ideal for bottom work as the wedge head shape stays out to the rocks better than barbell eyes and allow for a hook-point-up design to further prevent hangups. These are critical factors and, with a variety of Sculpin Helmet sizes, finding the perfect weight is simple. They are also ideal for bed fishing during the spawning periods, (if you're into that kind of horror).
These front-heavy pattern types not only effective for fishing deep water, but also for bouncing the bottoms of shallow flats, down sloping banks, and in and out of various structure.
Another often overlooked technique is “punching grass." Using conventional gear, the idea is to throw a humungous weighted piece of overpriced rubber onto the top of floating weed mats, hoping the weight “punches” through the mat and into the bass’s living room below. Bass hanging out in the shade during the day clobber anything as it falls past their face. Well, thats the idea anyway.
For me, casting a 1oz weighted something with a hook on it with a 7-weight probably isn't covered by my insurance, so this type of fishing can be tough to do effectively with a fly rod. Only the most heavily head weighted patterns will do. I’ve had some success with the heaviest of barbell eyes, but find they are not the easiest to slide thru the weed salad and get tangled easy. A better choice is the wedge shape of a Sculpin Helmet, and lately I’ve switched almost exclusively to the use of Baitfish Heads. They come in heavier weights than typical cones do and the sleek shapes allow for easier sliding through the junk. This coupled with a hook-point-up design and I find it the ideal weed-punching tool. Use an 8-weight rod, a helmet, and safety glasses to cast these things. It's difficult to actually punch through the thick vegetation mat like the gear guys do, so I use a floating line and a 4’ straight leader and aim for the holes in the weeds or any tiny patch of water and let it fall through. Put your trolling motor on low and use short casts and strong leaders.
For bottom bouncing aspect its best to use a moderate to slow sink tip to keep the line off the bottom. This is counter intuitive as you may think fast sinking lines make sense for deep water, but instead of letting your line sink your fly it's the other way around. Let the fly do the sinking and keep your line above the bottom the whole time. This gives you control over the retrieve and helps with strike detection. If your line sinks too fast and hits bottom, the fly will drag and hang up every single cast.
I only go to a fast full sinking line in very deep water situations with fast active retrieves. Again, the use of Sculpin Helmets or Baitfish Heads to keel your patterns hook point up is key to reduce your hook sets into rocks, sticks, logs, and other non-bass quarries.
Use a short leader to stay in contact for better control and strike detection. This can be difficult fishing in deep water or on steep banks. Just remember that once it gets down, keep it moving and don't let it sit too long.
4. A Word on Articulated Streamers in Still Waters
I first experimented with articulation techniques way back when the movie Ghostbusters was still in the theaters. I got the idea after I saw a damsel fly nymph pattern in a magazine that had an articulated tail made of marabou. It used a bare hook shank connected with some soft monofilament. Looked like a genius idea. My first attempt to copy that idea was to create something that mimicked a jointed Rapala. I was using really stiff mono at the time for the joint and couldn't make it swim right, plus with my early casting skills I decided I was just a good way to lose two hooks instead of one, so I gave up on the idea after a season or two.
Now, today’s new young fly tyers and innovators have it down to a science and articulation is showing up like never before. However, in my opinion, many of today’s articulated designs are designed to perform in one specific situation: fast retrieves in moving water.
The huge hydrophobic heads and whippy back end designs are perfect for creating that much sought-after “S” movement. However, to get that holy grail of actions it requires one important aspect: water flow. In the currents of a river, these things swim as soon as they hit the water. Obviously, when you move to still waters there is no water flow, and therefore no automatic swimming action. It's a different world.
That doesn’t mean these articulated designs have no place in the lake, you just have to change it up and develop new techniques of making these patterns effective. Specifically, you have create the water flow yourself. In my experience, articulated patterns in these situations work their best with fast retrieves, which only makes sense, and isn't hard to figure out.
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Because of this, I tend to use articulated versions early in the morning and late in the day when the fish are actively chasing or on an active feed. Faster retrieves with no or very brief pauses are the ticket to making these swim effectively in still waters.
Articulated patterns are my favorite go-to when I’m after a truly huge bass and am seeking to duplicate the ever-popular swim bait techniques. Use super long casts parallel to walls or steep banks around open water. Coupled with a slow but steady retrieve, this works to bring up the creatures from the depths. Again, these can be fished in the same situations as the other pattern types, just remember to fish them a bit faster and keep them moving.
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About Dave Parsons:
Dave grew up in the desert southwest and started tying flies at the age of 9. He owned his first fly rod at age 11. By the time he was out of high school he had abandoned all conventional fishing gear and hasn’t looked back. Almost entirely self taught, he began designing and developing his own fly patterns almost from the start. Using materials gathered from various farm animals and household pets, most of his designs were concentrated on the warm-water species of bass and bluegills with an occasional trip to the back country for trout and smallmouth.
As it happens so many times, a hobby turns in to a passion, and that passion accidentally becomes a business. Dave has been selling custom flies as a small private business for almost 20 years. He started out selling his own designs on the side but is now a signature tyer for Spirit Rivers, Inc. Most of his pattern development nowadays is concentrated towards warm water patterns but also ties trout patterns of all varieties. You can find his website and unique patterns at www.theeyeofthefly.com.
Dave now spends most of his time on his home waters near Phoenix but also travels every year through the Rocky Mountain states of Idaho, Utah, Montana and Colorado.