Streamer fishing for Michigan steelhead – are we missing fish?

After covering gear, fly patterns, reading water, conditions and patterns, presentation styles, and fishing basics, this is the last installment in Kevin’s streamer fishing for Michigan steelhead series,

Streamers for steelhead may be one of the most misunderstood and frustrating aspects of fly fishing. Think of the jokes and stereotypes of streamer fisherman doggedly swinging the water with outrageous flies while they are happily hopeful of a bite every few weeks. Meanwhile, their streamside neighbors, the “dirty ass” nymphers and bait boys are wearing out their arms battling big shiny fish.

We streamer swingers, we know that we are doing something special. There’s just something special about battling severe weather with a big two handed rod, maybe like a knight swinging his two handed claymore against a gigantic fire breathing dragon. And in fact, watching others fight beautiful steelhead while you get skunked only makes you feel more heroic.

While this kind of narrative is romantic, it’s not really for me. I demand fish in the net. As a full time guide working in Michigan I can tell you that “we’re the only ones not catching fish because we’re noble fly fisherman” doesn’t really work. Watching others catch fish while you’re when you have a big “Guide Service” sticker on your boat, it burns like salt and lemon in a deep cut. It’s the reason most of the bad guides and some of the good ones are alcoholics.

The preceding entries in this series paved a straight and level path on the basics of streamer fishing for Michigan steelhead and I’m confident that you will have success if you read no further. The information below allowed me to refine my streamer techniques to a fine point. With the exception of unusual circumstances, like the steelhead being in an egg or nymph only daze, I have as much confidence in streamer fishing as I do with any other method. But there seems to be a daily shift in preference with streamers that isn’t as obvious with other methods, so it’s important to not get into a rut.

Unfortunately, a little success can inhibit innovation and improvement by getting you stuck in a rut. Why change up if your methods are working? But your successes, as frequent or infrequent as they may be, are perhaps only a fluke because of some unknown variable like lucking into the one fish in the area, an unusually aggressive fish, or just hitting the magic half hour of the day. It’s easy to change tactics when you’re not catching fish, but it’s hard to switch up when you’ve had even the smallest bit of success.

The most important question I ask myself is, “are we missing steelhead?” If you cannot answer this question, then you are simply guessing and making assumptions about your fishing tactics. But if you know the answer, you are on the road to adjusting your streamer tactics to increase you odds of catching fish.

I answer this question by using a control whenever possible. Sometimes other anglers are my control. If everyone but me is getting fish, than I’m obviously doing something wrong. But most often, thankfully, there simply are not enough other anglers around for this to work. So, and this is the part where some of you lose the little respect you might have had for me and completely take me off the Christmas list: almost every day, in my boat, there is a spinning rod. The spinning rod will have a crankbait that has landed so many steelhead the hooks have been changed out a dozen times and the paint is scrapped off.

We either place the plug rod in a holder and let it work below the boat while we cover the water in front of it with a streamer, have the back fisherman use it, or simply make a few cast with it before we move to another spot. You could also do a couple drifts with bait or if you don’t want to cross the line to the dark side, then a couple drifts with an egg and nymph combo on another fly rod. We just need to use a bread and butter, tried and true, always works, consistent method to find out if there are fish that are not reacting to our streamer.

As soon as I know that I’m missing fish on the streamer, I start adjusting. The variables that we can adjust are presentation speed and style, depth, and streamer selection.

I like to alternate my presentation style and speed until a preference is determined. So this variable is handled with a cast this way with a smooth swing and then a cast that way with a twitch sort of approach.

Confirm that you’re getting proper depth, most often you want to be just off bottom.  People are always skimping on weight for, I guess, easier casting. If depth is a problem it is almost always because they are fishing too shallow, rarely are anglers too deep.

If the depth is perfect, I make a big fly change. Try the opposite of what you had on; light to dark, flashy/bright to natural, or large to small.

If you’re not getting bit on either the streamer or the control then the fish are just off or you’re into low numbers. Cover water faster by hitting every third good spot until you locate fish or head somewhere else.

This brings me to one final point. Before you tear an email off in my direction with your disappointment at my use of a spinning rod to satisfy my need for catching more fish and I simply haven’t learned to enjoy the beauty of fly fishing, the joys of just being outside, and on a beautiful stream, allow me to say this: I do understand this or at least I think I do. But I’m a full time guide with bills to pay and Christmas presents to buy. With all of my competitors and especially the new ones with all of that damned youthful energy, I have to constantly strive for innovative improvement.

If your perfect day is simply getting out and casting a fine rod in a cold stream, and encounters with fish are just the icing on the cake, great. You’re a winner in my book. This series and especially this installment are the tools I’ve used in my attempt at sharpening my steelhead skills to a razors edge.  This series is for people that want to improve their skills and I believe that if knowledge isn’t shared it is wasted.

This concludes everything I know about streamer fishing for Michigan steelhead.  Though by continuing to utilize a control technique and answering the most important question, of whether I’m missing steelhead, the learning will never end. I cannot believe how little I knew about swinging for steelhead five years ago and when I go back and read this series a few years from now I’m certain that I’ll be eager to make revisions.

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