Best Streamer Flies & How to Fish Them

News & Tips: Best Streamer Flies & How to Fish Them...

Fishing elegantly-dressed dry flies on the surface is the most glamorized way to take trout. But if you want a fish-catching machine, tie on a streamer. Streamers will fool all species of trout, often more of them, and in larger average sizes than any dry fly ever invented.


Brook trout caught on a streamer fly.

They're also fun, active flies to fish. When using dry flies and nymphs, you mostly just wait for a strike as the fly drifts along. With streamers you manipulate the offering almost constantly, trying to create the image of a lifelike prey struggling to escape, but being vulnerable. It's an active, engaging form of angling if ever there was one.


Streamers aren't just good for trout, either. They'll take everything from hand-sized bluegill to pugnacious smallmouths to tarpon as long as a man. Sizes of the flies vary as widely as the fish you catch. I've used mini-streamers for low-water trout that measured no longer than a thumbnail. On other trips I've struggled to throw 5-inch long streamers for leg-long northern pike.


Sizing Up


What size streamer to use depends on the species you're going after; how large it is; and what size forage is present. As a general rule, panfish, shad and small stream trout respond well to size 6-12 streamers on long-shank hooks. For smallmouths, trout in large rivers, steelhead, pickerel, walleyes, salmon and arctic char, use sizes 2-6. For largemouths, stripers, northern pike, peacock bass and larger saltwater species, sizes 1-4/0 are useful.


These are only rough guidelines; however, not hard and fast rules. I once caught dozens of 2- to 4-pound brook trout in the Sutton River in Ontario floating through Polar Bear Provincial Park using barbless 4/0 tarpon flies!


One thing that helps is being able to look over the forage in the lake or river. If you can see baitfish in the shallows or near the surface or catch a fish and see what's in its stomach, that information will help you decide what size streamer is likely to score.




Streamers are made with a wide variety of materials, including animal hair, feathers, fur and synthetics. They range from chunky patterns like sculpins to lightly-dressed imitations such as the Black Nosed Dace. Generally the sparse patterns are good for trout in lakes and small streams as well as for panfishing. They're also excellent when waters are low and clear, providing realistic imitations of thin-bodied minnows such as dace and shiners. Fish these sparsely-dressed streamer flies in the mid and upper levels of the water column and use no weight on the hook.


With it's deep Mylar body and rabbit fur wing, the Zonker streamer is deadly on many species, not just trout.

Thicker patterns work well for imitating bulky creatures such as sculpins and stonecats (also called mad toms.) They often perform best at dusk and dawn and during the night or when the water is off-color. The chunky patterns push water, allowing fish to locate them more easily through sound. They are often tied weighted and draw the most action when fished on or near the bottom.


Some hybrid streamer flies such as Wooly Buggers and leech patterns don't necessarily imitate baitfish at all but rather hellgrammites, leeches and a variety of large aquatic insects. These can be fished like a traditional streamer or dead-drifted with slight twitches, like a nymph.


A good streamer selection that would see an angler through a variety of fishing situations should include some thinly-dressed patterns, some chunky flies and a few hybrids. It should feature both traditional patterns and a variety of newer offerings. Here are 10 top patterns worth stocking in your streamer box, plus a bit on tactics for fishing them.


  1. Mickey Finn — Use this bright, sparsely-dressed fly for brookies and rainbows. It's an excellent pattern for slightly discolored waters with its bright yellow wing.
  2. Black Nosed Dace — This is a fine imitation of the minnow of the same name, a species that's common to many trout and bass waters. It works especially well in clear shallow waters.
  3. Zonker — A rabbit-fur wing and deep Mylar body make these flies excellent choices for smallmouths, panfish and brown trout.
  4. Whistler — This heavily-dressed fly with bead eyes works wonders on striped bass, largemouths, tarpon and northern pike in sizes 2/0 to 4/0.
  5. Matuka — This is a top pattern for trout and smallmouths in olive and black. Binding the hackle along the top of the hook shank prevents this New Zealand pattern's wing from tangling.
  6. Clouser Minnow — A sparsely-dressed pattern with lead eyes, bucktail and Krystal Flash or Flashabou, this fly sinks deep quickly. It's great for bass, stripers, trout, walleyes, pike and a variety of saltwater gamefish.
  7. Sculpin — This is my favorite streamer for tailwater rivers and spring creeks when trout aren't taking dries on the surface. Use black, brown or olive versions in sizes 2-6 probing dark pockets between weed beds and undercut banks.
  8. Wooly Bugger — This hybrid streamer is terrific for smallmouths in rivers, trout in streams and panfish in ponds and lakes. Olive, tan and black are the top colors.
  9. Muddler Minnow — This classic pattern can be fished weighted and deep, in mid-levels or even greased on top as a grasshopper imitation. It has a full-bodied silhouette and pushes water well, attracting fish in roily water.
  10. Marabou — A simple marabou streamer with thin body and marabou wing of black, white or olive is excellent for teasing strikes from clear-water trout.

Tactics for Fishing Streamers


Some anglers turn to nymphs when gamefish are not feeding on the surface, but streamers are also an excellent choice for this situation. They're particularly useful after a rain slightly raises the water and colors it a bit.


When wade-fishing rivers, cast across stream so the fly is presented broadside to the quarry. Mend line after the cast so a bow doesn't develop in the line. Also try straight upstream delivers for a change of pace. Dead drift the fly down in the current or add a slight twitch now and then to make it look like a barely-alive baitfish struggling to right itself.


Drift fishing from rafts or dories and probing the first 5 or 10 feet next to the shore is another good tactic. Probe logjams, undercut banks, rock piles and eddies that might hold scrappy brown trout or smallmouths.


An angler with a streamer-caught brown trout on Bow River in Alberta, Canada.

On lakes streamers can be excellent searching patterns for random casting near flats, weed beds, inlets, outlets, points and humps. Also check out coves for bass and pike. Since retrieves are snappy, you can cover lots of water and fish quickly this way.


Trolling with oars or an electric motor and a streamer is another good way to take trout, as well as bass and landlocked salmon. Pump the fly occasionally to impart an extra pulsating action.


Streamers are also a good choice for jump fishing on lakes for trout, largemouths, stripers and white bass. When you see fish slashing shad or minnows on the surface, get to the commotion quickly and work a streamer back through the melee with sharp tugs.


Whether fishing in lakes or rivers, the most productive retrieve for streamers usually involves pointing the rod tip at the fly just above the water or even in it, then stripping crisply in 6-18 inch pulls with pauses in between. Occasionally, though, a hand-twist or dead drift presentation pays off. Always remain flexible and experiment with different speeds and lengths of pull each day on the water.




Fly rods for fishing tiny streamers can be as light as a 4-6 weight line. For most big trout waters and smallmouth rivers, though, a 7-8 weight outfit is best. For pike, big bass and stripers, a 9-10 weight rod works well. For tarpon and other big saltwater fish, go with an 11-13 weight rod.


Depending on the depth of the water being probed you can usually get by with a floating line or fast-sinking tip, but for deep probing in lakes a full sinking line or shooting head is best. Leaders should be 6-9 feet for floating lines, 4-6 feet for sinking lines. Tippets can range from 4-20 pound test, depending on the size quarry you're going after.


No, I'll never give up a chance to float a dry fly over a rising trout or twitch a popper in front of a bass. But if surface action is slow, I know a good snappily-retrieved streamer can save the day.