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Winter Streamer Fishing – The Gear, The Flies and The Water with Brian Kozminski

“How’s the fishing?” the lady on the bank genuinely inquired.

“We got one in the net, had a few follows- decent day,” my buddy in the bow replied. “But we are just getting to the good water-” I retorted.

“I would go get my drift boat out of the garage, but I only dry fly fish.” she said as she adjusted her position on her deck above the quick flowing seam.

‘What did she just say?’ Sam asked.

‘She only dry fly fishes? That eliminates like 8-9 months of the year on the river.’ I pondered.

Photo: Sam Bosworth

It is an unusually warm early winter day on the river with guide Sam DeJonge of Wild Rise Outfitters. A pleasant air temperature of 47 degrees, we are toasty in fleece and the guides on my TFO Axiom II have not seen ice since last winter. Water temperature is 40 degrees, we are seeing intermittent clouds- we were hoping for a steel wool cloud covered day, but the sun manages to brighten a few runs along the way. We will fish all winter as long as boat launches are accessible. Solid advice to always check the takeout before you put in, they might not get plowed or are a treacherous skating pond from snow melt and re-freeze.

Don’t get me wrong, I get as excited as the next guy/gal when we see that first bug pop in early spring and an eager trout slurps it under the surface- but the streamer game- it gets my heart pumping like nothing else. For most anglers who chase apex predators, it’s all about the MEAT. Why does it seem intimidating? What is the hesitation for an angler to take the next step and buy a seven weight? Or even an eight or nine? I would surmise, in most cases, it is more about hurling a six inch wet tube sock through the air that may cause some trepidation, but that doesn’t need be the scenario. Let’s look at the basics. The hardware- line, rod, reel and flies coupled with the application of river reading and where to place a tasty morsel for hungry trout and how to retrieve your offering are the stuff books are written about. I will break it down for you in three stages. The Gear, The Flies and The Water.

Photo: Sam Bosworth

The Gear

Rod choice – One of the most important tools in the formula. One should choose a rod that can lift and deliver a larger fly to a sometimes tight or difficult location. Best rod weights from six to ten depend really upon the river and species you are chasing and the proficiency of the angler. Smaller streamers like Zonkers or Zoo Cougars can easily be propelled to likely soft seams with a good six weight, I really like the Axiom II or LK Legacy for the responsive roll casts often executed. Choose an eight weight if you need to catapult double deceivers or Gamechangers across the 50-yard line, often better matched with a fast action rod like the Axiom II-X. If you are into a mixed bag of bronzeback and lake fishing, the Blue Ribbon series in seven weight can toss your Lunch $ or a Bad Hair Day all day long. If you are looking in the budget fly rod category, the Pro II comes in under the competition and performs above it’s class. Proper pairing of line weight to the rod’s capabilities are paramount. We shall cover that next.

Photo: Sam Bosworth

Line Choice – We need to get the fly in front of the fish. Even if the fish has already eaten, placing a sculpin or crawfish pattern in front of a 24-inch brown forces the fish to react aggressively. Divide the river column into thirds, top third is 1-2 feet of depth, middle section 3-5 feet, and the bottom is 6-8 feet of depth. We like to use Scientific Angler’s Sonar Titan for many Michigan rivers. The Hover sink 2/4 can cover the top 2/3 of the river effectively with proper fly choice. Sonar Sink Intermediate 3/5/7 can get you in the deeper slots, and if you really want to get down, go Full Sink, but be wary of the all the woody debris- you may lose a Bangtail or two. Many are going to argue some flies can go deep if you use a full sink line, and that often works, but don’t double down with a full sink and a conehead Fishwhacker or you will go broke buying flies. Keep your leader short. Really short. Some anglers try to switch from their 9-11′ leader and can’t figure out why they are missing targets. I will tie a two-foot section of 30# shock tippet with a barrel swivel to 2- 3′ of 12-15# flourocarbon. Keep it under 6 feet long, you will amaze yourself with how well you can roll that heavier wet Grumpy Muppet under some overhanging brush when the heavy taper of your line gets your leader on point.

The Reel – Don’t over think this one, but DO NOT dismiss it either. Get a quality reel, decent arbor size, I prefer large arbor for quicker line pick up and retrieve. I have witnessed more fish lost when an angler is fumbling around with a load of line at his feet and he can’t seem to get enough line on the reel to get the upper hand before his 24″ brown takes his leader to log town and ‘POP!’ I have also witnessed fish charge the boat or go upstream and the slack in the line allows for the fly to ‘fall out’ on a poor hook set. Be sure you have a substantial drag that has quick initial start up, sealed drag is a bonus on the often sandy Michigan rivers. The newly designed BVK SD between $200 and $240 fits all these requirements- even for saltwater.

Photo: Sam Bosworth

The Flies

Fly choice – When you mention ‘streamer’ to certain crowds out West, they immediately think of cute flies like the Autumn Splendor and Woolly Bugger- those flies certainly have a time and place, but most often we are using articulated flies to imitate bait. Sculpin, crawfish, darters/dace, shiners/chubs and smaller trout- these are all on the menu for the fish who have achieved a certain size class. Flash is good, not too much, not too little, often it’s the only thing that allows you to track your fly in the water. The old adage bright fly bright day often applies, but don’t be afraid to go black- it can save the day. We also have plenty of leeches/chestnut lamprey and baby coho/steelhead smolt that add to the dinner features on most rivers that connect to the Great Lakes, perhaps this is why our streamer game is so different. Most often, it is best to try to match the color of the natural surrounding, the bottom. Olive, is a key color on the Manistee, but I have a good buddy who most often throws yellow, and his Instagram account will back his color choice. Kelly Galloup, who, along with Bob Linsenman, pioneered much in our way of thinking for ‘how to fish’ and what to tie for streamer patterns- they actually cowrote the book some 20 years ago ‘Modern Trout Streamers‘. Most flies are either versions of Kelly’s vast arsenal of witty named feathered configurations, but also some of the guides who either worked with Kelly when he was in Michigan or thousands of tyers who have watched countless hours on YouTube and his tying tutorials. Russ Maddin brought us the Circus Peanut and recently updated with the Chromatic Peanut, easily one of my top five flies for rivers we fish. Kelly adapted this pattern with the Peanut Envy. His streamer patterns like the Sex Dungeon, Zoo Cougar, Silky Kitty, Knappy Sculpin, Double Madonna, Barely Legal, Bottoms Up and the Woolly Sculpin have all opened our eyes to a wide variety of tying skills and methods of chasing trophy trout. Mike Schultz has brought us the Swinging D and the Swinging D 2.0, while Rich Strolis –Catching Shadows– and his Ice Pick, Hog Snare and Headbanger Sculpin have put plenty of big fish in angler’s nets. Mike Schmidt with Anglers Choice Flies continually bangs out a couple dozen Cotton Candy Deceivers, Viking Midges, Red Rockets, and Meal Tickets for his far reaching fan base. TFO’s very own Blane Chocklett revolutionized the streamer concept with his multiple articulated GameChanger. Primarily a toothy Esox chaser in his guiding days, Blane was out to mimic something that had more lifelike swimming motion. But his patterns have begun a revolution in all aspects of the streamer world and we continue to see evolution as we hit the tying bench.

Photo: Sam Bosworth

The Water

The River – Let’s talk about the water and how to fish it, effectively. The top third of the water column can be searched with patterns such as classics like a Muddler Minnow or Zonkers, but also the forever classic Zoo Cougar or Butt Monkey. If you add a sinking line, you can take some of these more buoyant flies to the next level. Most flies with a lot of deer hair or classic bucktail streamers like the Black Ghost tend to stay in the 1-3 feet zone. Sometimes I find these flies are very effective in early fall for pre-spawn brook trout and can be easily flung on your favorite five weight with an aggressive taper. This brings us to the middle column, 2-5 feet of depth, often targeted by floating anglers because you can tempt a fish up from the bottom or out of the woody cover without snagging up and losing $8 flies. Intermediate sink or sink tip lines will allow you to get down, especially if you make a downstream roll cast/mend immediately after your fly hits the water. This allows the line to sink with the current and paving a path for your fly to follow in front of that very ominous looking log jam. Great flies for this depth are the Double Boogie Man, Sex Dungeon, Great Lakes Deceiver and Circus Peanut to name a few. Going deep- aka Dredging- we need to be on the bottom, Headbanger Sculpin, Tungsten Conehead Woolly Sculpin, or a conehead Madonna will get down deep and dirty. I have often heard, “better to use the wrong fly at the proper depth, than the right fly at the wrong depth.” Basically, you gotta get the fly in the fish’s face- banging streamers on the bank is a good call, you will get a reactive aggressive strike that simply is the fish exerting dominance over territory, which is why we will see flashes on our streamer and get short strikes or ‘misses’- but sometimes they can’t just stop on a dime when they charge. Never overlook or underestimate the soft inside bend. This is an easy thing to do, especially when the far bank holds a ton of wood and a sweeper that is the very definition of a trout condo, but trust me. That transition water where the sand fades into dark cobble is exactly where a large aggressive fish can disappear into the bottom and wait for a careless brook trout or crawdad to slip out of his comfort zone. These can be camouflaged as shelves or deep gradient slopes, learn to read these tell-tale trout lies and you will amaze yourself in hook up ratio. Get a guide that can show you some of these non-descript looking trout hideouts, the return will be worth your investment.

Be sure to investigate a few spots like the front of a riffle zone or deep behind a down tree that looks like frog water. Big trout, especially in winter months will rest in dark murky water looking for a casual leech or crawfish to pass in front of their noses. There may be many likely looking holds that many trout may inhabit, especially on our wood-laden northern Michigan rivers, but the unlikely looking hold still can hold a trout, only a few less anglers have plied that water. Make a variety of retrieves. Imagine you are the baitfish that just came face to face with with a 22-foot dragon, would you casually walk out of the room, or turn on a dime and high tail it out of there? Make that fly dance and run like it is designed to swim. Sometimes the water temperature will dictate a very slooow thump thump retrieve. Trout will actively feed when water temperature is between 55 and 65 degrees, but post spawn opportunistic trout need to get some weight back on for winter. Spawning season can be stressful on trout, please leave them plenty of room to reproduce and secure future generations of trout to chase the other 11 months of the year.

No matter what you perceive as your preferred fishing method, always leave room to expand your horizons. Whether dry flies are your thing, or maybe you prefer Euro nymphing, having the right gear, the right line, and the “right” water always make for a memorable experience. Get out and enjoy the journey. #fishtheoriginal

Photo: Sam Bosworth

Blog written by Brian “Koz” Kozminski. Koz is the TFO rep for the Great Lakes region and has been affiliated with TFO on various levels for the past six years. He runs a guide service called True North Trout in the off-season (May-October). You can get a hold of Koz on Facebook and Instagram, via email.

Tools of the Trade – The Axiom ll Fly Rod

It’s hard to believe it’s been almost four years since the Axiom ll fly rod was released. With the collaboration of pretty much the entire rod design team at TFO, we were able to revisit the original Axiom (2007).

What we came up with was a lighter, more responsive rod that would eventually set the foundation for the popular Axiom ll-X. While the Axiom ll-X, (released in 2019) has received great feedback for being an excellent fast action fish fighting tool, the moderate-action taper of the Axiom ll can be applied to many freshwater and saltwater applications. There is a clear reason why it is a favorite amongst TFO staff, ambassadors, and anglers.

Whether you’re looking for a streamer rod or looking for an upgrade to target both larger freshwater and saltwater species, the Axiom ll is not to be overlooked. Here is more about the Axiom ll from TFO’s Fly Fishing Category Manager Nick Conklin.

Photo: Oliver Sutro

The Axiom-II fly rod fits in a specific and critical spot in the TFO line-up for those looking for feel and power.

What the Axiom II offers is something needed by every fly angler – a rod that anglers of many casting styles can pick up, and effectively load and un-load within minutes. It is why our product copy calls it a tool that is “engineered to fit the angler, (not the other way around).” But what is the other way around?

We found after years of designing and producing fly rods, a startling trend had emerged. Rod design emphasis started to focus on space age materials, fibers and materials resulting in ultra-fast and stiff rods. What was meant as tools for anglers of different casting styles and skills, the new focus was to compete against other brands and garner a high return on search engines. The needs of anglers started to fall by the wayside.

What TFO aimed to develop with the Axiom II was a tool that is more of a medium-fast action, with mid-level stiffness.

Photo: Colin Arisman

Breaking It Down: The Design Emphasis of the Axiom ll

The top sections were designed specifically for easy loading, with increased sensitivity, while also incorporating a butt section stiff enough to fight fish and maintain a load when casting larger flies and heavy lines. The Axiom II is not necessarily a rod for beginners, but rather an “in-between,” tool that could handle more advanced angling and casting scenarios.

We learned from our original Axiom rod series, that some people liked the cannon, “broomstick,” style rod, but many did not. Those same people found they had to put too much work into loading the rod and were not being effective anglers. Solutions such as overlining the rod, or applying too much on the forward cast, creating too many problems and many times bad loops.

What we felt some anglers needed was a mix between power and feel. A tool with the guts to cast the big stuff, but enough soul in the blank to provide an angler with instant feedback while casting.

The “feedback,” portion of this is critical, which mean being able to feel the load, while the rod adapts to the caster. Whether you have a faster, powerful casting stroke or a more deliberate, timed casting motion, the Axiom II will be an effective line moving tool.

Michigan guide and TFO sales rep Brian Kozminski reflects, “I love the Axiom ll because it allows for better roll casting. Short distance delivery of the fly is crucial in smaller rivers. The only time I need to launch 60+ feet of line is in Mio/Au Sable or on the White in Arkansas. I also use the 6 wt for small mousing and Hex action – big, bushy flies, that are wind resistant and require something with a little more stiffness to deliver.”

See below for a review of the Axiom ll from Trident Fly Fishing.

Axiom ll vs Axiom ll-X

The application of the Kevlar thread is what further sets this rod apart. This is very apparent when comparing it to the Axiom II-X.

The placement/location of kevlar thread on the blank is what makes the Axiom ll more medium fast, while the Axiom ll-X, is a step faster and stiffer. In other words, the Axiom ll-X is meant for those with a more aggressive hauling hand and precisely timed casting stroke. While the Axiom ll can accommodate the intermediate style caster, with a varying casting stroke and prefers more immediate rod feel.

*For a more in-depth review of the comparison between the Axiom ll and the Axiom ll-X, check out this article published by Fly Fish USA.*

Photo: Jo Randall

Kevlar Strength

The wrap of Kevlar thread along the blank prevents the blank from ovaling. This occurs when weight is loaded onto the blank when moving heavy lines and flies, or when really having to reach out and make a long shot at a fish, (more line, more mass outside of the rod tip), Kevlar keeps the blank round, and keeps it from collapsing – which means more line moving efficiency, and no loss of power or distance on the cast.

While we cannot go into specifics on the thread, and what section of the blank it is emphasized on, just know, you get a different feel between the two rods, and that is intentional.

McDonald’s may not tell you exactly how they make their special Big Mac sauce so good, but you know it is, and sometimes that should be enough.

Photo: Oliver Sutro

 

 

 

Swing Season Prep – Choosing The Right Rod, Reel, & Line

“When the day get shorter, darker and colder, most anglers lament even getting out of their warm beds…if you are a swinger, the coffee is brewing and you are more then pumped to get on the road and step into a run.

Dries flies aren’t really coming off, the hopper-dropper crowds have all but vanished and the fair weather anglers are at home prepping for a day of running errands and ambling around Home Depot killing time.

There is something about swinging flies.

Long rods, a pocket full of flies and sink tips.

Deep glassy runs, foggy eyes and cold toes.

It’s an exercise in patience and consistency, (and some kind of dark attitude to deal with the long hours and sparse hook-ups).

Strip, strip, strip, cast. Take a step. Put your hand in the fleece liner.

Wash, rinse, repeat.

Photo: Lance Nelson

Maybe you’ll push that steelhead far enough back into the pool, piss it off enough for a strike.

Maybe you’ll cover enough water and hit that big trout laying low, get a strike on the dangle.

The hours and days drag on. You over think the the purples, blues and blacks of your flies. Maybe you switch out tips. The desire to move spots looms heavy.

Those with a weaker constitution may say, “F**K it,” and go out hide out in a nearby dive bar or nap in the truck.

Others considering tossing their two-handed rod into the trash and getting out the spoon rod.

More time to stand and think, the motions become repetitive, you start playing with different anchor points.

You start to drift off….

and then…..a thump…..”

Nick Conklin – Temple Fork Outfitters Fly Fishing Product Category Manager

Photo: Lance Nelson

 

If you’re reading this, and are interested in learning more about two-handed fly fishing, you’re in luck. Below is a basic breakdown of swing seasons, as well as rod/reel recommendations. Be on the lookout for more blogs and posts on swing season, but this should help you get started if you’re new to this type of fishing, and curious about what rod or reel to get.

 

LATE SUMMER/FALL STEELHEAD

When swinging flies later in the summer, before the rains come and the days become cold and short, a lighter shorter rod can be a lot of fun.

The 12-foot, 6-weight LK Legacy two-handed rod is perfect set-up weather your are fishing scandi floating lines and more classic patterns, or throwing small to medium intruders and weighted flies. This rod will also handle multi-density tips, from T-8 to T-11. The faster, stiffer road allows for smooth line pick-up and repositioning.

Rod: 6120-4 LK

Reel: BVK SD 3.5

Line: Scandi 400-440, Skagit 425-475.

The LK Legacy TH Photo: Oliver Sutro
BVK-SD reels paired with the LK Legacy TH – Photo: Nick Conklin

WINTER STEELHEAD

When picking a good winter setup I think it’s important to find a rod that will fit the size and type of water you are fishing. Swinging a deep slow run from the shore, or from a boat? On a wide, sweeping river? Or fishing a tight quarters coastal river? For winter fish you’ll typically be fishing medium-to-large size intruders and sink tips up to 15-feet long.

When fishing these heavier and thick diameter skagit heads and tips, most casters will find a more deeper loading rod beneficial and easier to handle during long days. Two rod lengths I always carry are a shorter, 11 to 11’6” rod and something longer and heavier, ideally a 12 or 13’6” 8-weight.

The Axiom II Switch is a great option not just for small to medium water, but also for those who want to “switch,” techniques and have the ability to go from heads and swinging flies to an indicator or chuck- and-duck system.

The 13-foot, Pro II TH model is great for skagit heads and tips, and due to is medium-fast action it smoothly loads and unloads

Axiom ll Switch – Photo: Lance Nelson
The Pro ll TH – Photo: Lance Nelson
The Power Reel – Photo: Lance Nelson

Small to medium waters, coastal fishing:

Rod: 08 11 0 4 Axiom II Switch

Reel: BVK SD III

Line: 525 Skagit head, 10-feet of T-11 sink tip.

 

Medium to large water:

Rod: 078 13 0 4 Pro II TH

Reel: Power III

Line: 550 multi-density Skagit head, 10-feet of T-11 sink tip.

Photo: Oliver Sutro

TROUT SPEY

When it’s time to put away the dry fly rods and the big foamy terrestrials have all but been gnawed off the hook trout anglers should be eagerly looking for a longer lighter rods to swing for trout.

Having a long and light two-hander can be a lot of fun, and teach an angler a lot about seasonal holding patterns on their local trout water.

I typically like to have two, (or one rod with two line set-ups) when attacking the “trout spey,” or “micro spey,” approach. One rod will be for swinging soft hackles and little nymphs in skinny water. The second rig will be for streamers and heavier flies. On this 3/4-weight set-up, I’ll also swing a double woolly bugger set-up to give the appearance of baitfish “chasing,” each other.

Photo: Lance Nelson

Soft hackles and light flies:

Rod: 023 11 0 4 Pro II TH, (2/3-weight, 11-foot Pro II TH)

Reel: NXT BLK III

Line: 210-240 grain scandi head. 5 to 8-feet intermediate tip, or long tapered leader.

Small to medium streamers and multi-woolly bugger rigs

Rod: 034 11 0 4 Pro II TH, (3/4-weight, 11-foot, Pro II TH)

Reel: NXT BLK III

Line: 270-grain, skagit head, (13 to 15 feet long). Short sink-tip, (T-8) or a polyleader, from five to 10-feet long.