Dennis Collier Fly Illustration - Copyright Dennis Collier 2015Articles

Blondes Have More Fun

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By Dennis P. Collier

As we climbed into the truck and exchanged the usual "mornin" greetings, our guide made a prophetic announcement: "You probably won't catch more than three fish where we are headed today but the ones you do catch are going to be big!" "The good news is we will be chucking streamers so I hope you brought your seven-weights." Being a die-hard streamer fisherman, this was music to my ear.

This was day two of scheduled back-to-back floats on Wyoming's North Platte River just west of Casper. However, as does happen now and then, Mother Nature had been cruelly messing with our anticipated early May 2008 blue-bird weather. Driving up from Colorado a couple of days earlier, we had endured a white knuckle adventure in one of Wyoming's infamous ground blizzards. The following morning, the storm has passed on its journey to the east, and snowmelt was already turning the lower river a not-too-lovely hue of brown - forcing a change in plans and a launch from the Grey Reef dam - right in the middle of a blizzard hatch of drift boats to keep us ample company. Definitely not what we originally had in mind and not on the menu for a second day on the river if we could persuade our guide otherwise!

When we finally arrived at our destination, a lone bald eagle sailed on the thermals high above, casting a wary eye on the trespassers that had invaded its personal fishing hole. In contrast to the previous day, the tailwater release below Glendo Dam was running low and clear, and the solitary bird of prey was the only other fisherman in sight. Meanwhile our guide had the boat in the water and was busy preparing our rods for the day ahead. Five-foot fast-sinking "heads," were looped to our floating fly lines, and a few feet of twenty-pound Maxima Ultra Green leader material completed the terminal rigging. When I quipped that the twenty-pound leader might be overkill, the guide curtly replied that twenty-pound browns lived in the canyon section below Glendo Reservoir and heavy fish warrant heavy tackle. Works for me! A word of caution here: Don't even think about floating this section of the North Platte without a guide experienced on this particular stretch of river - the river is remote and the take-out point so obscure, that unless one knows exactly where it is - and then know how to navigate the route back to civilization, you could find yourself in big trouble.

On many western rivers, a typical streamer rig will call for two flies of different colors tied in tandem. This occasion was no exception and two very heavily weighted streamers - one light and one dark - were soon hanging in the hook keepers of our rods. We were going to be covering a lot miles and water on this float with none of the usual back-rowing to concentrate on productive runs - a standard approach when nymph fishing some western rivers. The tactic this day was to pound the boulder studded banks with a rapid-fire approach; maximizing the amount of time our flies were in the water and probing potential holding lies as we rapidly drifted down the liquid highway. With the tandem fly rig, one fly or the other would visibly stand out against the multi-colored subsurface palette for a short distance before they sank out of sight in deeper water - a distinct advantage when you are attempting to quickly place the flies over submerged structure and into the anticipated strike-zone.

Continually casting seven-weight rods with heavily weighted dual-fly rigs all day is not the most pleasant of fly fishing endeavors, nor is it for everyone. However, catching big fish is soothing salve for sore shoulders, and when the fish are in the mood for streamers they are an effective way to go.

Blondes Have More Fun

The first blonde streamer specimens I tied occupied a remote corner of my streamer box for at least a few seasons before desperation prompted me to try them in a last-ditch effort to salvage a trip to Colorado's famous Dream Stream. I can usually manage to catch a fish or two on any given outing, but on this occasion the fish were exhibiting an elevated level of nose-finning snobbery and ignoring my every ruse to persuade them otherwise. The Dream Stream is one of the hardest fished tailwater rivers in the Rocky Mountain Region and the fish have seen about every fur and feather contrivance known to mankind - usually on a daily basis - so they can be downright obstinate at times.

Having run the fly-switching gauntlet from nymph to dry, and exhausting my usual stock of streamers, I finally tied on one of the long forgotten blonde Wooly Buggers. That turned out to be a life-altering event in my fly fishing career. Fish that hours earlier had resided on another planet were now slamming the fly on the cross-current swing; cementing my resolve to become a die-hard streamer fisherman with a beautiful blonde as my constant companion.

When I shared the news of my newly discovered "miracle fly" with good friend Charlie Craven (owner of Charlie's Fly Box in Arvada, Colorado), he confessed to using blonde streamers for some time and with a high degree of success. He even ties a version with cream colored rubber legs which have been marked with blue and red magic markers to mimic the spots on baby browns.

On one occasion, Charlie and I were fishing the public water Kemp-Breeze Unit on the Colorado River, when late afternoon storm clouds and a light drizzle suggested we call it a day and head for home. Reluctant to wrap it up with a few hours of daylight left, we succumbed to the siren song of the river which beckoned for just a few more casts. You know the drill: just one more cast; then another cast, and an hour later; just one more cast.

At the time I was suffering from a shoulder injury and experiencing a lot of pain from a long day of casting streamers. Not wanting to further aggravate the condition, I handed Charlie my fly rod - rigged with a large blond bugger - and stepped back to watch the master in action. Starting at the head of a long run, he proceeded to hook fish after fish with his fast, staccato style, stripping action. "I like to make them commit to the fly", said Charlie with a grin, and before the demonstration was over nearly a dozen fish had done just that.

Another theory suggests that blonde streamers catch a lot of fish because the fish haven't seen a legion of them, dressed in like color, swimming thru their dining rooms all day. This is frequently validated by my personal observation of seldom seeing other streamer fishermen on the water, and even fewer of the few going blonde. Regardless of what wanders through a fish's mind and triggers an interest in these patterns, the hit-rate with cream colored flies is just too great to ignore.

I recall sneaking a blonde Las Vegas Bugger onto my leader while floating Wyoming's North Platte River several years ago. It only took a couple of casts for the switch in flies to be duly noted. At first our guide seemed a little miffed that I'd brazenly departed from his "tried and true" patterns which had previously graced the end of my leader. I have fished with this guide many times over the years and he generally regards me as one of his problem clients. Consequently, he just kept silently rowing along and ignoring me in the back of the boat. The silence was short lived however, when Las Vegas started catching fish and he had to abandon the oars and grab the landing net. When a professional guide - who makes his living by floating the river a couple of hundred days a year, and where the size of his tips is often determined by the daily success of his anglers, endorses your product - take it to the bank.

Numerous flies have gotten the peroxide treatment since my first experiments. One such pattern is the Vanilla Gizmo Bugger, which really doesn't look much like a Wooly Bugger at all. Tied in similar fashion to the venerable Clouser Minnow, the Gizmo Bugger utilizes a set of solid brass hourglass eyes tied to the top of the hook shank, thus counterbalancing the hook and forcing the fly to ride point-side up. After a lot of experimentation, I started tying this fly on Tiemco #9395, 4XL hooks to move the business end well back in the fly profile. This has significantly reduced the number of missed fish due to short strikes. The other advantage to the fly riding point-up is its ability to swim over bottom structure without getting snagged.

Fishing the Dream Stream one day, a nice sized rainbow kept following my Vanilla Gizmo-Bugger without taking the fly. Tiring of the game, I let the fly come to rest on the stream bottom in fairly shallow water. The fish moved up behind the fly, nose to tail, and sat there like a cat waiting to pounce on a mouse. After several seconds of waiting and watching, I quickly raised the fly an inch or two off the bottom; with that, the rainbow lunged forward engulfing the escaping prey. I considered this to be a one-time fluke until Charlie sent me a photo of a big Cheesman Canyon rainbow he'd just caught with a black Gizmo Bugger using the same technique.

The Gizmo Bugger is tied with a combination of marabou for the tail and Extra Select Craft Fur (Hareline Dubbin, Inc.) for the over-wing. The key is to pinch the Craft Fur near the tips and then comb out the under-fur, using only the long guard hair. If you don't execute this step, you'll have a lot of problems trying to tie in all the bulk and your wings will lack the attractive streamlined look. The hair can also be hand stacked by pinching the butts and tips of the material in both hands, and separating by pulling the two apart. Once you've done this, lay both clumps of hair on a flat surface, tip-to-to tip, and repeat the process as necessary to end up with a nicely stacked and tapered wing.

Today when I arrive at the river, my first "go-to" fly is usually a size six Bread 'N' Butter Bugger - which for many years was called the Vanilla Ice (see Tony Lolli's book Go-To Flies, published by Wilderness Adventures Press, Inc.) - prior to Umpqua Feather Merchants adding the pattern to their 2009 new-fly lineup. If the fish decline that offering I'll tie on a black or crawdad orange streamer and repeat the exercise. If I remain fishless after all that, I'll usually concede that some days they simply aren't in the mood for streamers and go to a nymph rig - or head to the truck for a cold brew or hot cup of coffee ... and maybe a little nap.

Streamer Fishing Techniques

Effective techniques for fishing streamers are as varied as the flies themselves. However, for decades the more commonly accepted approach is a downstream quartering cast to the opposite bank, with a stripping action imparted to the fly as it makes the "cross current" swing. This is good medicine indeed, as many fish lie in ambush near protective bankside cover and will often follow the fly for some distance until it appears that it's on the verge of escape. Another time worn axiom is that presenting the fly to the fish in a broadside manner offers a better view of the bait to the fish. This is valid theory I suppose, but I have to question whether visibility is really the issue to a predatory creature that also finds and dines on midge larvae not much larger than a pinhead!

Just as successful nymph and dry fly anglers are adept at changing tactics and presentation based on ever-changing conditions; such as structure, current variations, approach constraints, to name a few - steamer fishermen should plan on doing the same. Here are a just a few of the unconventional techniques that I employ when circumstances dictate.

Upstream-down: As summer flows drop and fish move up into oxygenated riffles, a cast straight upstream, followed by keeping the rod tip high and retrieving the line just fast enough to prevent the weighted fly from snagging on bottom structure, can result in some arm jarring strikes as the fish surges forward to intercept the fly. I will generally downsize to a smaller and less weighted fly to discourage bottom dragging when exercising this approach.

Downstream-up: One of my favorite small Colorado streams is graced with a proliferation of overhanging bankside willows; a mixed blessing which poses both casting challenges for the angler, and much sought after shaded habitat for the big resident rainbows. By positioning myself upstream from the suspected fish haunt, I will cast straight downstream to a point below the intended target; then manipulating the line and fly position by arcing the rod tip left or right, I will draw the fly close to the target and strip it back directly upstream. As the fly moves into the visual range of the fish, it will attack the fly and stop the retrieve in similar fashion to snagging the root ball - which does also occur on occasion. This tactic is also used when fishing against high, undercut banks, where the angler if forced to cast from the same side of the stream as the intended target.

Dead Drift: Wyoming's North Platte River offers many miles of fishable water, much of which appears to be deceptively void of obvious structure. In reality, the bottom appears like waves of water in the silted substrate. These undulations, with rises and falls from a few to several feet, provide the holding lies for the abundant population of oversized rainbow, cuttbows and occasional brown trout. Due to the preponderance of private land surrounding the river and Wyoming's navigable river laws; this river is best fished by drift boat. Dead drifting a streamer along the bottom and allowing it to follow the contour, will get the fly into the strike zone of hog-fat fish that won't move far to dine. This also maximizes the time your fly is "down under" instead of zipping around in the air - in which, to date, I've never caught a fish!

Crawdad Crawl: Don't overlook that rod-bending opportunities that fishing a good crawdad pattern can offer. Mudbugs flee from danger with quick flips of their tales, propelling themselves backward leaving behind little puffs of detritus suspended in the current. I find that making a down and across cast to the opposite bank; then letting the current swing the fly to my side of the river and retrieving upstream with short strips, draws some rewarding strikes.

Based on the food-chain principle that big fish are opportunistic feeders and will not hesitate to grab a careless forage fish preoccupied with feeding on the emerging bugs; some of the finest streamer fishing to be had will take place during insect hatch cycles. If you are fishing dries or emergers and catching more than your share of smaller fish, clip your leader back and tie on a juicy streamer. A word of caution: Don't make the mistake of tying that streamer to the 5X tippet you have been using and then having a big fish break you off on the strike. I've had that happen too often simply because I was lazy.

Streamer fishing is a fun and productive way of expanding your angling repertoire. Hopefully, some of the techniques and patterns presented here will add to your success and serve you as well as they have me. Tight lines!

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