When most people think of fly fishing, they think of Brad Pitt in A River Runs Through It making long casts with a dry fly to trout eagerly feeding on the surface. If not, you’ve either not seen the movie (which you should) or your first-time fly fishing was with a guide who immediately set you up on a nymph rig. Aside from dry fly fishing, there’s nymphing and streamer fishing (we’ll save euro nymphing and tenkara for another time). Nymphing is incredibly popular in Colorado, especially during the colder months when hatch activity is limited. The lesser used strategy of the three is streamer fishing. Compared to dry flies and nymphing, streamer fishing is less consistent but if you’re looking to land a trout worth writing home about, it’s a great tactic. It requires a new set of skills and strategy, so we’ve tapped on our streamer junkie ambassador, Max Pavel, to answer some frequently asked streamer questions.
Max is a Colorado Native who spends his summers guiding in Alaska and the remainder of the year guiding in Colorado. Fly fishing a variety of rivers that Colorado and Alaska have to offer requires different fishing techniques, but deep down, Max is a streamer junkie who jumps at any opportunity to throw big patterns to aggressive trout. His success with streamer fishing also encouraged him to start tying and selling his own patterns, which we have to admit, have become our go-to streamers.
Q&A with FlyCast Ambassador Max Pavel
FlyCast: What drew you to streamer fishing and why do you enjoy it so much?
Max: I guess to keep it simple, it’s all about the eat. Streamer fishing is addictive in nature. It’s that primal take of the fly by the fish that really gets your heart pumping.
FlyCast: What is the most difficult aspect of effectively fishing streamers?
Max: Moving from spot to spot and getting the fly in the correct zone. When your fishing these bigger flies, you may only get one opportunity passing that fly through the correct spot. Committing to streamers from the boat all day is your best shot because you can cover a lot of water and target many different spots that would otherwise be tough to reach from the bank. If a fish is going to eat your streamer, there is usually no doubt.
FlyCast: How do you identify good streamer water?
Max: I think it all depends on where you are. Any type of water is good water depending on where the fish are. In Colorado, it’s all about pounding the banks and getting a good swing across their face. In Alaska, deep pools with structure and a change in the river bed are always a safe place to start. In order to get your flies to the fish, it always seems like a game of risk/reward. Be prepared to lose flies and move often.
FlyCast: How do you determine what size and color to use?
Max: There are many factors to consider when picking the size and color of the streamer, however, I think depth is the first thing to address. What fly can I put on that will get to the fish and imitate the biology of the river? The streamer set up I have depends on what water I am fishing. One of my favorite setups is a fast action 8wt rod with a 10-15ft intermediate sink tip line. If I am fishing a shallower river or creek, I will use a weight forward floating line with a 5-9ft leader and some split shot. A fast action 8wt allows me to toss a wide range of flies with good accuracy even with a lot of wind. You can use a 6wt or a 7wt, but using a bigger rod is more forgiving. If you are fishing streamers, chances are you are trying to catch a bigger fish, and to land a big fish quickly and effectively in faster currents the 8wt really helps. I always assess my fly choice by current conditions and timing of the year. If a lake or river was recently stocked or has adolescent fish present, pay attention to the size and color of small fish you see and match accordingly. A common saying in streamer fishing is bright day bright fly, dark day dark fly. I think this holds true most of the time, but if the bite is off then switch it up. If you’re getting follows and chases, maybe size down. Fish will key into what they have available to them in the river or lake. Baitfish, crawfish, and leeches are my big three that almost every piece of water has. Presentation is everything. So if you want to catch more fish, pay attention to what else is in the water and how they move.
FlyCast: Is there a certain time of day or year that is better for fishing streamers?
Max: I think this depends on what species you are targeting. When trout fishing, I have caught some of my biggest fish on the worst weather days. First light and last light also seem to be the most productive. There are usually less people on the water and more opportunity. There is always a big fish looking for another easy meal.
FlyCast: Should anglers use a different size tippet? If so, what size do you recommend?
Max: Your leader and tippet should be thick enough for you to turn over the size fly you are fishing. A 0X or 1X leader with 12-24” of 0X or 1X fluorocarbon tippet will cover a very large range of sizes. Depending on whether you are fishing a floating or sinking line will determine the length of leader and tippet you should run to your fly. I also like to use maxima to build custom leaders. 25lb to 20lb to 15lb or 20lb to 15lb is usually a pretty solid combo.
FlyCast: What is the most effective knot for tying on your streamer? (We could provide a link to a video or create our own on how to tie the knot)
Max: I like the non-slip loop knot. I think it’s also called the Rapala knot. I like the loop because it helps add more movement to your fly.
FlyCast: Does your approach change when fishing streamers from a boat vs from the bank? If so how?
Max: When fishing streamers from the boat or from the bank it’s all about getting your fly in front of the fish. In a boat, you can cover more water, which is nice and more effective for streamer fishing. Almost every spot you toss a streamer you may only get to fish a couple drifts before the trout becomes glued to its hiding spot. With that said, it is extremely important to make those first couple casts count. From the boat, pounding the banks and throwing a downstream mend seems to be the most productive. When wade fishing, the ticket is finding deep pools or structure and sinking your fly in these deeper sections. Fishing around or under structure will trigger that fish to leave its safe hiding spot for a quick meal. So if the water looks fishy, then fish it, and make sure that first cast is your best cast.
FlyCast: We’ve heard that adjusting your retrieval speed is important. What is your default setting and how do you know when to change it up?
Max: My retrieve is based on the streamer I am fishing. With a leech, the presentation is a slow and somber retrieve. When fishing a minnow, quick changes in speed and direction work well. Also knowing the way that different species eat their prey, really pays off. Trout will often tap a fly once to stun their “meal” and then come back and actually eat it. So if you feel that first tap and then give a giant pull, moving the fly a long distance, you won’t get the trout to eat. Bass ambush and inhale their prey. Pike stalk or remain still until the right moment to viciously attack their prey. All species feed a little different, and the more you know about the fish you are trying to catch, the better chance you have of catching it.
FlyCast: What’s your biggest piece of advice for an angler looking to improve their streamer skills?
Max: Pay attention to what you are doing and how you are doing it. Don’t get caught making the same mistakes in new water over and over. Also pay close attention to the surrounding water that you are fishing. What other things do you see going on in the water? Commit to streamer fishing for an entire day. Don’t give up, make your shots count, and learn more about the feeding habits of the species you are trying to catch.
FlyCast: Where can we learn more and buy your streamer patterns?
Max: I am an avid fly tier and take custom orders. I do not currently have a website but I do have an Instagram page where people direct message me for orders @fyre_flyz. You can also shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tell me where and what you are fishing for and I can give some recommendations on the flies you should use.