By: Matt Grajewski
I am frequently asked what my thought process is when tying a streamer. Especially when it comes to larger flies. My brain works in a scattered fashion, so I imagine I often cause more confusion than clarity. When helping a friend figure out the basics for teaching a streamer tying class, I decided to break it down. Its a combination of what goes through my head, and common missteps I see. It all begins with what your intended target will be. That will steamroll into more questions. For example, here are some common questions that go through my head. What species of fish? Am I targeting any fish or the larger fish? What am I trying to imitate? Am I looking to imitate something specific, or looking more for a specific action? What water conditions do I want to fish this fly in? What motion do I want the fly to have? How will it cast? How will it retrieve How durable do the flies need to be based on the fish I’m targeting? What hooks and why? I will try to break down the answers to these questions and why it matters.
Keep in mind I primarily fish freshwater species in the upper Midwest. So this is the experience I will be drawing from. It may not apply to other regions.
What species of fish? This is pretty basic. Knowing what type of fish I am targeting will narrow down a number of things. I will know what type of water it lives in, what its main forage is, what colors it may prefer, if the fly needs to withstand sharp teeth, how strong the hooks need to be, how sharp the hooks need to be, how large the fly should be, etc.
Am I targeting any fish of that specific species, or the largest of that species? This is a common question for me as I often try to target the largest fish of that particular species. For example, I can tie a 4″ trout streamer to catch just about any size fish in the river. Or I can tie 8″ streamers to target the largest fish. Large trout will certainly eat small streamers, but I want to fish a large enough meal that it will deter small trout from eating it. Those is often the misunderstood part of “big fly, big fish”. For me, “its big fly, hopefully no small fish”.
What am I trying to imitate? This is pretty straight forward. If I am imitating a sculpin, I know the shape, color, and size I’m trying to achieve. If I am imitating a bluegill, I want to tie a fly that will hold a tall profile for its size. And so on.
Am I looking to imitate something specific, or looking more for a specific action? I am often not trying to imitate a specific prey. I fish for a lot of predator fish, and I like to tie flies that impart a specific action that will spark their predatory instincts. There are times when not “matching the hatch” can be beneficial. Having your fly standout in a sea of baitfish can help a fish key in on your fly. There are also times/fisheries when matching the hatch is beneficial. So, a lot will depend on a specific fishery. Just know that not matching the hatch can have its benefits as well.
What water conditions do I want to fish this fly in? River and lake conditions can vary drastically. Having fly colors and size appropriate for clear water, stained water, and every thing in between will help. In clear water, natural colors often work well. In stained water, dark flies or dark flies with bright/contrasting colors often produce best.
What motion do I want the fly to have? This plays a big roll in how the streamer is built, and what materials are used. If I want a jigging motion, I’ll know I want a fly that has some weight near the front. If I want a fast drop, I’ll use materials that are not very buoyant. If I want a slow drop, I’ll want some buoyancy built into the fly. If I want the fly to have a very erratic motion (which is what I most commonly use), I’ll incorporate weight into the rear of the fly.
How will it cast? The larger the fly, the more I’m concerned with how it will cast. Using materials that don’t hold a lot of water, yet still maintain a good profile is key. Also, using materials that will help hold the profile, while using less material overall, is very important in making a large fly that is easy to cast.
How will it retrieve? This is a commonly overlooked part of tying/fishing large streamers. It has a couple of important aspects. First, you are retrieving the fly more often throughout the day than you are casting it. If the fly has a lot of resistance in the water, it will take more energy to strip it. Too much resistance will also absorb a lot of the energy you imparted into the fly with each strip. For smaller flies, this is likely a non issue. When you tie/fish flies 8″, 9″, 10″, 11″, 12″ and so on, it becomes more noticeable the larger you go. The harder a fly is to retrieve, the more it can wear you down over a day of fishing. People often talked about the casting as tiring, but the retrieving can be just as or more tiring.
The second part deals with the fly action. The more energy the fly eats up, the harder it can be to get a specific action. For most of my fishing, I prefer a fly that moves side-to-side or erratically. I need the energy to make it to the weighted portion in the rear of the fly, and have that momentum push the front after I’ve stopped moving the line. This will give me the desired action I want. If the front of the fly is absorbing most of the energy, the fly will now swim how I want.
How durable do the flies need to be based on the fish I’m targeting? This one is also pretty straight forward. If I’m targeting a fish with no or small teeth, I can use any material I wish. If I’m targeting toothy fish, I’ll want to use materials that aren’t easy to destroy or pull out when removing the fly.
What hook(s) to use and why? Your hook(s) should be based on your target species and how they attack a fly/prey. If the target species typically inhales the fly, like a bass, then one hook should be fine. If the fish likes to slash at the fly, like a trout, it can be good to have a front and rear hook.
The gauge and weight of the hooks should also be factored in. The gauge needs to be heavy enough to withstand harder pulling fish, but not too thick that it makes it difficult to bury in a boney fish’s mouth. Finding that magic balance between the two is ideal. Also, the weight of the hook factors into how the fly swims. So if everything seems to be right in the design, but the fly does not swim how to you like, consider a heavier or lighter hook.
I hope this sheds some light on the basics of tying large streamers. Nothing beats trial and error. So tie some up, get them wet, and go back to the drawing board. Its part of the fun!