Streamer fishing for Michigan steelhead – presentation styles

Fishing streamers for steelhead is a burning passion around here, so we put a lot of time and energy into trying new approaches and perfecting old ones. After covering gear, fly patterns, reading water, and conditions and patterns, it’s time to move onto styles of presentation. In this latest installment Kevin provides a discussion of some basic presentation styles and some tips and tricks to make streamer fishing more productive.

The Smooth Swing

Let’s start with the most widely used approach and probably the second easiest, the smooth swing. With the smooth swing your cast is usually made down and across at about a 45 degree angle. To increase depth, cast more directly across stream and mend. To decrease depth cast more downstream. After mending the appropriate amount to get the fly into the zone, allow your line to come tight and the fly to swing and swim through the area you’re targeting. Most people track the fly with their rod tip during the swing, but holding the rod tip still and letting the fly swing “off the tip” is worth trying if you’re looking for a slightly different angle of swing and a different location of hang down.

After the swing has ended but while the streamer is still in the strike zone, let it pause for a second or two. One way to ensure the fly is still in the zone is to stand right on the edge of the hole or run you’re fishing. This is important particularly in cold water when the steelhead are less likely to chase down a fly. If you’re standing too far away from the good water, your fly will be ripped out of the zone before hang down.

Once the fly has hung down for a couple seconds, twitch or slowly strip the streamer back upstream. When you are sure that you have given the fish every opportunity to grab that delicious streamer, make another cast.

The number one tip I can give for the steelhead angler fishing streamers on the swing is to NEVER ABSOLUTELY EVER pick up and recast immediately after your streamer ends its swing.

I apologize for the drama, but this point needs to be made. Steelhead often track a streamer and pounce only when the streamer ends its swing and hangs down or even after the streamer hangs and then twitches or moves forward. The fact that steelhead often grab at or soon after hang down is why we manage our line to create this effect while the streamer is still in the strike zone. Using the appropriate amount of sink tip, an appropriately weighted fly, sufficient mending, good rod position, and most critically, good angler position, right on the edge of the run, are all ways to manage where the fly is at hang down.

The Crazy Minnow

Pretty much the same as The Smooth Swing with the addition of angler added action. As the streamer is swinging through, add quick, short strips, though instead of continuing to gather line I let the inch or so of line from the strip get pulled back out. Steve adds action to his streamers by shaking his rod tip through the swing. Matt calls it the Martinez Waggle.

The Back Drop

The Back Drop is the most effective way to keep your fly in the strike zone at hang down and after. It is difficult while wading because it typically requires you to be over rather deep water. I use this method almost every day while fishing from my boat, anchoring or rowing to maintain position directly above the best runs and holes.

Make a downstream cast, then mend or simply move the rod tip from one side to the other, allowing the fly to swing and hang down, then mend or move the rod tip to the other side etc. Use a combination of twitching the streamer in place, retrieving it slowly upstream for a few feet and lowering the fly downstream by moving your position or letting more line out.

Don’t forget to allow the streamer to come to a stop and hang, do this often and in the most productive looking spots, again this is a simple but very effective trick for triggering strikes. This method works best on inactive steelhead, in cold water, or for new fly anglers. It’s definitely an old guide trick. It keeps the streamer in the strike zone and almost completely eliminates angler error.

The Cast and Strip

Likely the most widely used method in fly fishing, it is also the least used for targeting steelhead. This method works best when water conditions are on the warm side and the steelhead are in an aggressive mood. Early fall is a great time to try stripping streamers for steelhead.

Cast anywhere from straight across to angling downstream, strip retrieve and repeat. Vary the depth through pausing, retrieve speed, mending, and of course the use of sink-tips and weighted flies.

This method is rarely the most productive, but it is one of the most exhilarating. Our own Steve Martinez and Matt Dunn proved it to me this past fall: when conditions are right, it is magic. One day while I was having a good day with more traditional swung streamer methods, Steve and Matt were having a great day ripping bright streamers and watching chrome steelhead and coho’s flash and chase down their flies. There’s nothing quite like a 10lb chrome rocket exploding from the wood to inhale a flashy 5” pink steamer.

As with stripping steamers at any time, too much casting seems to be the general practice among us fly fisherman, and why not, fly casting is almost as much fun as catching fish. But the fact is your fly cannot get bit while it is in the air, though we seem to get a lot of ferocious tree limb strikes. If your streamer is still in the strike zone make sure you have given the steelhead every opportunity to strike before throwing it into the air for another cast. This is generally not a problem when we’re swinging for steelhead because we’re using two handed rods. But stripping streamers on a long rod is a pain in the butt, so either get really good roll casting heavy flies and sink tips on a 9’ rod or learn to minimize and economize your overhead cast.

Also, it should be said again here that law #1 of steelhead streamering is warm = fast and cold = slow. It not only applies to where steelhead hold, but also to how fast they are willing to move to chase a streamer down. When it’s cold, slow down your presentation. When it’s warm, speeding it up can be the ticket to generating strikes.

What method to choose? Easy… all of them.

With almost any fishing I start my day on the aggressive side and move slower, deeper, and smaller as conditions demand. If you start out slow and conservative you have closed the door on the opportunity for a day of big numbers and hot action. The most aggressive techniques allow you to cover water faster and to use larger and brighter streamers that will maximize their chances of being seen.

As a general rule I make my first presentation through a new spot relatively quickly and fairly shallow. Then I follow with another couple presentations, each slower and deeper. This allows me to continually test for patterns and make adjustments. It also maximizes hook ups, a streamer moving quick and shallow allows you much better strike detection than one moving slow and deep… more on this in our next part of this series, Fishing Basics.