As a fly fisherman, I have mixed emotions as I watch summer slowly fade into fall. Gone are the insect hatches that were so plentiful all spring and summer and along with that the heyday of dry fishing in Iowa’s trout country. Always a silver lining type of guy, I also realize that even though trout are no longer eating hatching mayflies and caddis flies, with the approach of winter they will need to pack on the calories to get them through the winter so they HAVE to still be eating something. These increased caloric needs and absence of insect hatches cause the trout to shift their focus to a different food source…the sculpins, minnows, young-of-the-year trout and other small prey fish that share the stream with the trout. This not only means trout are feeding heavily on this type of prey, but it also means that BIG trout are more actively feeding than they probably have all year long. It takes a lot of calories to sustain big trout through the winter, so they are after the highest caloric food sources they can find; the more calories they can ingest in one bite, the better. I believe this is one of the biggest reasons we catch more big trout in the fall than we do at any other time of the year.
I LOVE to dry fly fish, but as the trout shift their feeding focus, I must change my presentations to match. That means casting streamers. Streamers are the best imitation of smaller prey species of fish that share the streams with the trout. By casting streamers, not only are we closely imitating what the trout are feeding on, but we are presenting an imitation of a concentrated high-calorie food source that big trout will go out of their way to eat. Much like we do when dry fly fishing, matching the hatch is a good idea, except instead of matching a dry fly or a nymph to an insect, we are attempting to imitate whatever is in the particular stream we’re fishing.
Some streams have a dense sculpin population while others contain more minnows. In some streams that have neither, trout (especially BIG brown trout) which actually become cannibalistic and eat trout from the previous spawning season. Some streams have a very healthy crawfish population and trout will key in on these to satisfy their calorie crunch. Regardless of what fall prey the trout may be keying in on, with a selection of a few different streamer patterns in your fly box, you should be able to cast something to them that will trigger a strike.
Wooly Bugger – Probably one of the most well know streamer patterns in existence, and with good reason. It’s versatile, easy to tie and casts well. To look at a wooly bugger it’s hard to imagine what in the stream it might be imitating, but its ability to not look like any specific food source but resemble several is part of what makes it so effective. The wooly bugger can look like a sculpin, a minnow, a crawfish, a leech, or a baby trout. I think often times trout eat it not because it looks like something they should eat, but because it moves like something they should eat. Wooly buggers are available in almost any color you can imagine, but my 3 favorite colors are black, olive and rust. Black is my go to for almost any situation, it can look like a minnow, a leech or a dark crayfish. If you’re not seeing exactly what they might be feeding on, black is a good color to start with. Olive does a good job of imitating young trout, minnows or crawfish. Rust probably does the best job of imitating the familiar reddish-orange that many crawfish display so often. If fish are especially deep in pools, I will use a conehead or bead head wooly bugger to get the fly all the way to the bottom, otherwise I will go with the standard variety.
Muddler Minnow – The Muddler Minnow was deigned to be a dead ringer for a sculpin, but it does a good job of looking like almost any prey fish that swims. While not quite as versatile as a Wooly Bugger, it is my go to fly for streams that have especially high sculpin populations. Even though the Muddler Minnow is my 2nd favorite streamer pattern, it is the fly that my largest trout was caught on; a 7# rainbow that came from Bloody Run in August a couple of years ago. Like the Bugger, Muddlers are also available in cone head variety for fishing deeper pools. While there are several different color variants of the Muddler Minnow available, I prefer to go with the natural colored Muddler, because it most closely resembles the coloring of the sculpins found in the streams of Northeast Iowa.
Clouser Minnow – If I suspect that trout are feeding heavily on small trout or minnows, I will go with the Clouser Minnow. The small minimalist fly darts quickly in the water and ideally imitates the smaller prey fish the trout are targeting. It is available in a myriad of colors to imitate brown trout, brook trout, rainbow trout or any of a number of minnow species.
Zonker – While the Clouser is a slender minimalist fly, the Zonker falls at the other end of the spectrum. Its body is typically a metallic braid which gives lots of flash and does a great job of imitating a prey fish. The rabbit fur strip across the back comes alive in the water and makes the fly look like a living, breathing fish. That same fur also does a good job of imitating a fleeing crawfish.
There are really two approaches to fishing streamers. The first is to simply drift it through areas where the fish are holding, much the same as we would when fishing a nymph. Typically this involves casting across the stream and letting the streamer drift away from you. This will carry the streamer directly to the downstream trout who are facing into the current waiting for food to drift to them. The biggest problem with this approach is that since you are upstream of the trout it is possible they could see you and spook. A better tactic is to cast directly upstream and let the streamer drift back to you. This way, you remain behind the waiting trout, so they cannot see you. It is important with this technique to strip line as the streamer drifts back to you so that there is no slack when you need to set the hook. The other presentation option involves actually imparting action to the streamer by retrieving it via stripping line and can be done either upstream or downstream. Probably the best approach is a combination of the two techniques. Begin by casting across the stream and allowing the current to sweep the streamer downstream until it reaches the end of your line and swings across the current. At this point begin to retrieve against the current with short quick strips of the line. This will cause the streamer to slightly rise and move forward as line is stripped and dip and retreat ever so slightly between strips. This action looks exactly like a baitfish struggling to move upstream against the current and drives trout nuts!
Fall Is Time For Streamer Madness!
I have to admit that it’s really hard for me to put away the dry flies and dig out the streamers, but when the fall rolls around, streamer fishing is the best bang for your buck. Fish are hungry and looking for something a little more filling than tiny aquatic bugs. They are on a mission to pack on as many calories as they can with the least amount of effort, so they start to focus on high-calorie options like baitfish, crawfish and other small trout. Big trout become very active in the fall too as they attempt to fatten up for winter and casting streamers is your best bet at tying into one of those trophies. Fall is a great time to be on the trout streams of Northeast Iowa…temperatures are cooling, weeds are dying off and the fish are feeding aggressively. I can’t think of a better time to let the madness take hold of you….streamer madness, that is!