Few moments in fly fishing rival the hard thud of a steelhead striking a streamer and the ensuing chaos that ranges from cartwheeling runs to violent shakes of the head.
Streamers require some dedication from anglers because they typically won’t be quite as productive as nymph rigs, but there are certainly times when these flies are the way to go and the action can be unforgettable. In the Great Lakes, anglers spend much of their time chucking egg-laiden nymph rigs into likely holes and riffles hoping to tangle with a beast. There is so much information out there to suggest nymphs are the way to go that some don’t even bring their streamer box along! For those that experienced a banner day hammering these fish on streamers, there will never again be an outing that doesn’t have a few of these flies stowed away for good measure.
One of the keys to catching more fish on streamers is knowing what forage fish exist in the waterways you’re on. Early season steelhead are known to fall victim to streamer imitations that mimic the baitfish in the big lakes. Lake Erie emerald shiners in particular are great options for anglers, since steelhead are used to snacking on them during the months they aren’t in the streams.
In some drainages, huge runs of shad and shiners pour in from the Great Lakes and, as such, steelhead will key in on them. Even though they aren’t necessarily in the streamer category, a well-placed crayfish is another good choice because they pack a ton of protein and are usually present in most Great Lakes tributaries.
Having the right flies is important, but so is the manner in which they are fished. Few things are as exciting as stripping in a big, articulated streamer and seeing it violently attacked by a steelhead, but there are other techniques to use that are sometimes just as, if not more, effective. When the weather turns and streams become colder, dead-drifting a wooly bugger or crayfish imitation can yield some fantastic results.
Steelhead behave much like other fish in that they become more lethargic and less willing to move much for their food. High-sticking a large weighted streamer through deep runs or pools is a good way to get some winter action!
For those that become addicted to the heart-stopping moment when a fish hits a stripped streamer, the pace in which the fly is retrieved becomes critically important. When steelhead are fresh in from the lake, they have incredible amounts of energy and are used to having a ton of water at their disposal. These fish are prime targets to eat a streamer and the retrieve can be quicker as the steelhead will pursue and chase down any food they see in their path. Once winter sets in and water temperatures chill, consider using a slower retrieve to ensure the streamer is on the bottom and crawling over the rocks. Fish will be much more inclined to strike when they don’t have to burn as much energy to get their meal. Adding weight can be of great benefit during this time, and even though some snags are bound to happen, the increase in hookups will be well-worth that minor headache!
Streamers can become more of an addiction than a fly fishing technique, and steelhead are some of the most amazing quarry to target with them. Since they spend much of their life in the big lakes, baitfish are a huge part of their diet and they don’t forget about them when they enter the streams. Knowing what forage fish are present, and then understanding how to fish them is the key to catching more steelhead using streamers!