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Streamer Fly Design-
Top Tips for choosing the right flies for your streamer box

 Choosing Streamers? Why have a selection? Are not all Streamers created equally? 

Fly design is a really interesting topic. I had a recent conversation with Peter Driver on his weekly fly fishing show. You can watch it back here. This piece is designed as an accompaniment to that show, to help you understand some of the fundamental parts of a streamer and why to choose particular flies for your box. Everything in our fly designs is there for a reason. It is far from a case of tying on a bit of fluff and pulling it through the water. Nor is it a case of simply pulling colours. We are going to look at what impacts our streamer designs and selections when fishing from varying fishing conditions to types of streamers, material choices, hooks down to some common mistakes to avoid. We hope you enjoy and find it useful.

One on a Boyne bugger jig fly

A change is gonna come!

Because no two days are exactly the same. Conditions change and fish behaviour changes, therefore we as anglers need to adapt. So whether it is over the course of a days fishing, a week or weekend trip or a season, the only certainty will be change!

So what are some of these possible changes?

This is a variable from pool to pool and even within pools. It influences everything from fly size to weight to material type, to speed of retrieve. Higher water levels can make life easier for the streamer angler but it is not alone a guarantee for success.

Water colour and clarity is major factor and depending on the system it can change relatively quickly, even within minutes on a spate system.  Water colour and clarity play a big part in determining fly size and colour. Coloured water should be seen as your friend. The predators will prefer conditions where they can sneak up on their prey.

Light levels are affected by weather conditions, bright sun, passing clouds, Bankside vegetation & topography, can also influence light levels within a day on the same river, think shade and shadows. Light levels can and do change dramatically over the course of a day and you favourite fly might not look like the best thing ever seen! As a general rule aim for darker colours when declining light into dusk is occuring. A lot of people use the bright day bright fly rule but it’s a good idea to include a look at the fly in the water and make sure you yourself have confidence in it!

Atmospheric pressure has a huge influence on fish. A low or high barometer will effect where in the water column we want to fish and thus fly choice. 

Barometric pressure and it’s effects on predators is really interesting. We have found a falling barometer to be good for trout.

Wind conditions can determine fly choice and provide cover for us via a broken surface film. 

Trout are affected by seasonal availability of prey e.g smolt runs,  coarse fish movement, pin fry etc. Suitable imitations are necessary to be successful. They are also governed by their own reproductive cycles, becoming more territorial & aggressive as they are getting ready in advance of spawning etc.

So now with changes and combinations of the above conditions, one can see the need to be able to adapt and why we need more than one type of streamer. So to the streamers themselves.

Variable light conditions on a river Boyne tributary

So what is within our control and how do we adjust to these external variables? Trout detect their prey through a number of senses.  As fly fishermen we can exploit two of these senses, vision and auditory. We must use our concoctions of fur and feathers and other materials to create an illusion of life that convinces the fish that its worth pursuing. The trout can hear and feel vibration in the water via their ear and lateral line. Therefore, we have a number of things to consider in this regard; How the fly swims or the action of the fly, the profile of the fly and how that appears to the fish, the vibration and water displacement that the fly creates, The depth that the fly will fish and do we intend to imitate something or aim for an aggressive or territorial response?

Firstly let’s get some definitions for what a streamer is:

any large wet fisherman's fly with long streamer feathers, hair, or other appendages extending out behind the hook and from the head.

or maybe

An artificial fly having a wing or wings extending beyond the crook of the fish hook.

That’s quite a broad scope indeed! We will deal with the history and development of streamers in further detail in another article as we have lots to consider in the realm of trout and salmon angling. For now let’s say that we are talking about an artificial lure that can be cast with a fly rod and is used to imitate large prey items that a salmonid will potentially take into its mouth. That might be real food such as minnows or other smaller trout or “imaginary food” such as Yellow Trigger Treats. It’s important to say this as we are dealing with a creature with a very small brain that doesn’t actually know if a piece of rabbit or marabou is food or not until it checks. Streamer fishing is all about maintaining the illusion of life in constantly varying conditions.

Streamer fishing is all about maintaining the illusion of life in constantly varying conditions.

Streamer Size

Streamers can be as small or as big as you like but in the face of varying conditions decribed above, size can be a critical factor for success. We tend to use length to describe the size of fly though overall silhouette can vary greatly for a given fly length.

Here at Impact Fly fishing we go up to the 10cm mark and based on 18 seasons of fishing streamers, our size range is with regard to fish size, casting, fishing and catching. A lot of prey such as minnow, stone loach, crayfish, roach, juvenile eels and other juvenile salmonids etc are in this size range. In places with bigger densities of large fish it is possible to work with even bigger flies at times, but for wild brown trout, across its normal range, these sizes are perfect and over the course of time have proven to sort out the better fish. A proficient wobbler/ lure fishing angler will fish a lot with 5cm- 7cm lures and going a few cm higher in bigger water conditions. We can and do go larger on rare occassions but its important to be sure that it’s warranted. So how to pick a size? As with the above conditions there lots of variables. Your own experience & proficiency, your equipment/tackle are considerations in this. A general guideline would be higher, faster water conditions, lower light go larger…. lower, slower, bright it can pay to drop down in size.

A general guideline would be higher, faster water conditions, lower light go larger.... lower, slower, bright it can pay to drop down in size.

Speed of retrieve can sometimes be governed by fly size so worth bearing that in mind too. It’s is all about maintaining a fly to water speed that makes sense based on fish behaviour and conditions. Often bigger flies will equate to fishing the fly faster but not always. The name of the game is to give the fish an illusion of life. We aren’t perfect, We don’t always get it right and that is the fun of fishing. The fish will let you know when you get it right or are close. Each time you get a response it is important to learn from the experience. Even in the same pool on the same day, two different sizes can have different responses. 

Fishing account is open for 2022. This beauty liked the Mc Genius Streamer

Colour

Just as an artist needs his palette, so too does a fly angler. While there are many arguments over the merits of colours there are very few experienced guides, ghillies who do not want to cover their bases with a selection of colours  Conditions, water colour, light levels and time of day will all play a factor in choosing a colour or streamers with certain colours. No colour in the spectrum should be out of bounds for wild trout! Consider that fish will often see contrast rather than pure colour. if you think about it, holding a pink coloured fly above your head and looking up to a bright sky as a background, you will see very little colour and mostly the silhouette of the fly against the background. 

If you are fishing in knee deep water which is often so good for getting fish to react to the streamer, It makes sense that the fish are likely get a glimpse of silhouette and colour as the fly passes them. So this is the bit that’s really important. Put the fly in the water and if it looks good to you, fish it with confidence. If you look at it and it doesn’t convince your own fishy senses then take it off. Sometimes it appears than a fly that has some subtlety and blends slightly into the colour of the river bottom is the key. Over time you will build up a sense for what looks good to you and what has the right amount of contrast, colour and saturation in order to fish with confidence.

Some rich Irish Colours on this Pheasant Bugger

In our experience, certain colours may come into their own on certain days and in certain systems some colours have a tendency to outfish all others. This is not confined to streamers, Salmon & Trout anglers have been acutely aware of this since Victorian times and the ensuing demands for exotic and coloured plumage. Learning what works best may take a degree of experimentation and one needs a reasonable range of colours for that.

Black is a popular choice as are olive, brown, yellow, tan & white or combinations of these with the addition of silver, gold, red etc. Natural colours such as Pheasant are really excellent in clear water. Dark flies are also useful in low light, at dusk and into darkness.

Streamer Types

We can classify streamers into many different categories such as classics, buggers, hairwings ,muddlers, crayfish, baitfish, swing flies, etc the list could be endless

For our purposes we will separate them into 3 categories according to their function in the water, Swim Flies, Push Flies and Jig Flies.

Swim Flies

The Trigger Treat A swim fly

In the case of some our un-weighted streamers such as the Trigger Treat  and Lester the Night Fly, their head is unweighted and is carefully cut deer hair which causes the fly to slow down quickly after being pulled. The light back end of hackles on these flies will flicker like a fleeing bait fish. They have a very different action to weighted articulated streamers. With the Trigger Treat there is much more of a lateral movement than a vertical one.  The ingenius wedge head design from Tommy Lynch deserves it’s own article as it allows the fly to move in all directions because of the headshape. 

 

Lester the nightfly, we have Tommy Lynch to thank for the clever deer hair wedge head..Think lip of a Rapala/ wobbler!

Swim flies depend very much on the density of your sinking line and as a result can be fished on a slower retrieve and manipulated with the line. You can use mending to change direction. The aim is to swim the fly rather than simply burn it back to you as fast as possible. So again depending on the fish’s behaviour and conditions it may be a more suitable choice of streamer. So even with the same sinking  line, one can fish very differently depending on streamer choice.

Jig Flies

Jig Flies have weight on the front to provide a vertical action to the fly. We use a lot of Fish Skull heads for this. Some people use a lot of weight like leadheads and heavy sculpin heads but these are more suited to spinning rods in our opinion. Fishing should be comfortable and enjoyable over a long period of time. Of course there are edge cases where we have to resort to extremes, but as a general rule its best to use fly lines and a comfortable amount of fly weight to get the fly where you want it.

The famous mcgenius
The ulitimate prize, A specimen wild irish river Trout on a wedgehead type swim fly

Push Flies

Push flies cause a commotion in the water. The bulky head not only displaces water but stops the fly after pulling. This is an important design consideration as stopping the front effects what will happen at the back.

The Mary Banger, A push fly

Streamer anatomy, Materials and Mobility

We are big believers in flies that literally move standing still! The use of mobile materials such as marabou, rabbit fur, rubber legs all give a sense of life to the fly along with the action the angler imparts.

The amount of dressing on a fly is critical. Overdressed flies don’t swim, they don’t cut through the surface and fish straight away, they don’t cast well and they retain water. Less is ALWAYS more! Sparseness helps the movement, appearance and illusion of life for all flies.  Quality synthetic materials like the EP (Enrico Puglisi) fibre in our Effin & Blindin streamer can give it volume without excess watercarrying/weight for casting. 

 

Overdressed flies don't swim, they don't cut through the surface and fish straight away, they don't cast well and they retain water. Less is ALWAYS more! 

So a streamer has a tail, body, wing and a head. The material, shape, density and weight in each section will influence how the fly swims.

A tail made from marabou for example will swim and pulsate more than a couple of chicken hackles sticking out the back.

 The said chicken hackles however can be very useful to provide a faster flickering movement in the back of the fly

A body could be tied very lightly so that it doesn’t catch water or dubbed with long fibres so that is flows and pulses in the water.

A head could be packed densely with deer hair so that it will resist progress in the water. When a head such as this is used, it influences what the tail does and cause it to kick

The Chassis; Hooks, beads, wire etc

 

Streamer specific hooks are important! We use the best in the business, both Ahrex & Gamakatsu streamer specific hooks. They have to be so so sharp and strong and robust! Streamers do not have the relatively cosy, sheltered life of an elegant dry fly. No sirree, they get thrown hard into banks, rock pots and dragged fast and deep across rivers, and ripped up by spikey teeth. They are in the school of hard knocks every day, yet have to be good enough to hold onto a trophy trout and secure a hold in the tough maxillary bones of big trout. Please make sure that all your streamers are built on the foundation of high quality hooks, anything else is false economy. It is really important to make sure that a fly swims on plane. Depending on how materials are applied will determine if the fly needs a keel to keep it upright.

Some of our favourite streamer hooks include:

Gamakatsu f314 (b10s in USA), 

Ahrex Trout Predator TP650 abd TP610,  NS122 light stinger

Partridge Bomber, Streamer and Predator Trout hooks

What about shanks, trailers, tubes etc?  We don’t use shanks or game changer platforms as life is too short to spend that much time tying a fly! Not to say they arent sucessfull. Tubes are useful…Keith has another article on this site where he went fishing for Hucho with large tube streamers. 

Hooks are critically important for streamers

Beads

People regularly send us pictures of their fly tying efforts and more often than not they use tungsten bead heads or their grannies fake pearls. Don’t do it. Keep the beads light weight or they will impede the swim of the fly. The purpose of the beads are to help prevent the fly fouling and separate the front and back hook. Because the beads need to be there we might as well use them to our advantage for added attraction. Anglers have for the longest time known that coloured beads are attractive to fish. Seed beads used for hobbies and crafts are perfect, they are lightweight, cheap and readily available. Two beads are normal in our articulated flies up to 10cm. On bigger flies three beads may help.

Craftshop seed beads are just the Thing!

Some fly material companies are selling articulation beads. The prices are crazy on these so just go to a craft bead shop!

Wire

There is a lot of stuff out there that works and some lasts longer than others. 30-50lb multi-strand coated steel wire is what we use. 

Coated Multi strand wire

Don’t use mono, it will slip on the fish of your dreams. You can thank me that I took one for the team and learned that lesson so you don’t have to! It is also very important to use touching turns of thread and coat with superglue. In the  video below I show how to do the join in good detail.

Fly tying wire join on Articulated streamer

Quality/Cost:

The old saying about quality does not come cheap certainly still rings true. However while quality can come at a price, it is not excessive in the realm of streamer offerings. Bear in mind that an articulated streamer is more than double the fly tying effort! Factor in two high quality streamer specific hooks, all the best quality materials, tying time and the distilled experience and knowledge that goes into creating these streamers, they are pretty good value for money. Remember these things are the end result the trout see so make sure you are 100% confident in it.

Use high quality, large breaking strain tippet with a rapala/ loop knot to retain them. With our 0.35mm fluorocarbon tippet you get a lot of of your flies back. A top tip for getting your streamer back from trees and bankside velcro is to allow a little slack line between you and the fly and swipe your rod side to side gradually increasing the width of the swipe until the fly shakes free. Though never do this without glasses to protect your eyes as the fly can return to you quickly!

One on the Mary Banger streamer, A push fly

Common mistakes in Streamer flybox selections

Surely every anglers dream? a well stocked fly box covering all the bases

Not having a true selection of styles/sizes.

Get a mix of single-hook streamers and articulated streamers. Sure we would like to sell nothing but the big guys but you need the likes of the Grizzly Conehead Bugger & Sheelin Humongous in there to cover certain bases. Many beginners are drawn to weighted flies. Be sure to have push flies, swim flies and jig flies.

Don't BE afraid of Colour

 Cover your colour bases a little better, have a couple of contingencies for when your favourite colour is not pulling! Over reliance on one colour style is a mistake and dont be afraid of any colour in the spectrum. They all have their uses.

Stay away from cheap flies on poor quality hooks

A well tied streamer is a piece of art, requiring skill and attention to detail to create. If it looks like a toddler took a scissors and trimmed barbie's hair don't touch it! Any fly that you can rotate the dressing around the hook shank easily is poorly tied and should be avoided. Ensure they are on high quality hooks with quality materials, this can’t be done for 2 euro!

Skip the poor quality over-tempered hooks, life is too short, big trout are too important!

,

Buy Tried and Tested Flies or if tying your own, Test them thoroughly

People blast out flies everyday on the internet that have never and will never see water. You can't expect a fly to be successful without testing it. Don't buy flies unless they are proven from a reliable source.

Don't fish Them with your normal trout tippets

If you fish 6-8lb breaking strain tippet you will : 1. Loose loads of flies and 2. Get your ass handed to you in an instant. Big trout are not line shy and they can hit really hard.. you've been warned!

Hold on to them with quality tippet at least 12-15lbs. It will save you big fish, streamers, time and money!

:

Learn lessons about fly selection everytime you fish

For all anglers this is an essential tip. You need to make sense of what happens in order to work on the jigsaw puzzle. Stir that trout but no take? Consider why he didn't commit?

 Recently I saw the trout of my dreams which sauntered lazily down stream behind the fly inspecting it like it was past it's use by date. The body language of the fish demonstrated he was slightly interested but knew it wasn't real. He moved casually off to the tail of the pool and the story will hopefully be continued again soon. The thing that wasn't right was that I had put on the fly I had most success with last season even though the day was a little bright for that fly. The fly didn't look 100% right in the water and the fish agreed!

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Note the substantial Deer hair head that upset this monster Wild Irish Brown trout from the Boyne

Comments (2)

Great article, years of hard earned experience for us apostles to digest and absorb.

Great info, thanks , will be on the “River Suir” for both Salmon and Trout in June ;
A new appreciation for streamers
Tight lines
Frank

Comment to Frank Condon Cancel reply

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