By Blake Sherburne
A year ago, some fishy friends and I took a trip to the White River in Arkansas to try our hands at one of the best streamer rivers in the United States. Streamer fishing on the White is at its best when Bull Shoals Dam is running extra water to generate power or the floodgates are open so the river is up and moving and so are the big browns. Unfortunately, we chose the weekend of the annual Sowbug Roundup, a fly-tying and fly-fishing show that is held the last weekend of March in Mountain Home, Arkansas. This festival brings a lot of fly fishers into town, so the Little Rock Corp of Engineers tries their best to limit flows so that visiting fly fishers can wade and fish the river. Minimum flows on the White are about 600 cubic feet per second, which makes the river easily wadeable. The flow can range up from there depending on power generation and flood gates to over 26,000 cubic feet per second (cfs). As a result, the dam was only generating power the first few hours of our first day, so we only had one morning of good streamer fishing conditions out of our three days of fishing. We caught a few on streamers before the water started to recede and then we spent the rest of the trip staring at bobbers (indicators, if you’re a stickler about the fly-fishing lingo) and catching lots of planter rainbows and a few decent browns. The water dropped so far that first morning that the high water marks on the bank were above head height when I was standing up in our guide’s boat.
The highlight of the trip was meeting, and getting to pick the brain of, one of northern Michigan’s streamer gurus, Alex Lafkas. The relatively recent big streamer revolution began in northern Michigan, mostly through the genius of Kelly Galloup, who used to own a fly shop in Traverse City called The Troutsman. Lafkas is one of the streamer junkies who took the big streamer game to the White in Arkansas. You can watch videos on the Fly Fishing the Ozarks Youtube channel of the White River and Michigan guides talking about the streamer game in Arkansas and how the Michigan guys showed up with these giant streamers and started moving browns that local guides had never really seen move to fly gear before. In the course of our long conversation with Lafkas, I mentioned that my fishing buddy Kenny and I had been spitballing hiring him to show us some streamer techniques back in Michigan for the past couple of years. He said he would call me to set up a date when he got back to Michigan.
A few weeks later, Lafkas called to tell me that he was home and booking trips for Michigan. He was excited after I told him that this was really just a learning trip for Kenny and me. We did not really care about production. We just wanted to learn about how to streamer fish Michigan. A couple of long telephone conversations ensued where we discussed timing for the trip and what gear we should bring. Usually, he told me, he provides all the gear that would be needed for the day, but since we were already streamer junkies, he wanted to see our gear to know what we were using and whether or not he could help us on that end. He told us to bring everything. “Let’s load my boat down,” he said. Lafkas told me that the ‘trophy water’ on the Au Sable River was running a little high and was colored up without being too muddy for browns to see well — great streamer conditions. In addition, the DNR had just planted that section of the river, so the big Browns would be out in the high, colored-up water looking for the easy protein that newly-planted trout provided. Considering river condition before a streamer trip was something I did; however, I had never considered taking advantage of the DNR’s planting schedule. We were learning about streamer fishing before we even had a chance to get in the boat.
The trip was set for a Saturday in early May. It is a long trip from Mesick, in northwest Michigan, to the Au Sable on the east side of the state. Kenny and I wanted to make sure we were not late, so we left about 45 minutes before we would have had to make the two-hour drive across the state.
We arrived early, as planned, and watched the river flow by for about a half hour before Lafkas arrived. The river was up, as he had said, and foamy and perfectly colored-up. He checked our rigs first. Kenny and I were both running three hundred grain, sink-tip streamer lines on eight-weight rods. Lafkas said that set-up was perfect for the water we would be seeing that day, but our leaders left a little to be desired. He cut both our leaders back to a thickness that would allow us to pull stumps out of the river and then tied on a short section of 12-pound fluorocarbon. A loop knot to an articulated streamer finished our set-ups, and we were ready to get in the boat.
The instant our flies were in the water, Lafkas began extolling the virtues of the strip-set, that is setting the hook on a fish by continuing to strip in line aggressively once we felt a strike. A strip-set, as opposed to a “trout set,” where one lifts the rod as one would to hook a fish that had taken a dry fly, keeps the streamer in the strike zone should the fish miss or lose its grip on the streamer and come back around for another try. This is something we had been practicing but had not yet perfected (still haven’t), both through years and years of being dry fly, nymph and gear fishermen, and lack of enough real-world opportunities to get comfortable setting the hook on streamer-attacking trout.
Lafkas had set me up with a yellow double deceiver. You can see how to tie his version on Youtube. He had set Kenny up with something similar in olive. I was the first one to move a fish, not far from the ramp. I trout set like a rookie and Lafkas was not shy about letting me know what I did wrong. “Ooooh,” I heard, “the big guy sets the hook like a newbie.” I laughed at myself because I knew what I had done wrong, joining Kenny and Lafkas. I hoped the embarrassment would set my mind right for future opportunities.
Now, in my experience, landing a fish in the first hole, or in this case, almost within sight of the ramp, is rarely a good sign for the rest of the day. Luckily, I did not land, or even hook, this first fish. It would prove to be a good omen for the day.
Lafkas kept us moving just slower than the current. He spent the time in between fish teaching us to pick our targets and be accurate with our casts. We were looking for structure in the river and the way the current moved off the bank. He encouraged us to keep our streamers up in the water column where we could see them in case we had a fish following that we could then entice by throwing a little extra movement in our streamers. As soon as our streamers hit the water, he directed us to keep one eye on our streamers and one eye on the next piece of water or structure we wanted to hit. This also helped to keep the fishing and casting entertaining. Often we had to hurry a retrieve to hit the next target or pause just long enough to fish an eddy correctly.
This soon paid off for me with an actual, landed brown trout. I was able to strip-set semi-competently, and the fish was quickly in the net. It was not a giant, measuring about 18 inches, but my day was made. I had a fish to hand and had learned a lot from a guy who has a lot to teach. Alex’s techniques helped me land another fish that day, also just in the upper teens. I was able to strip-set again, and it paid off.
Kenny had to work a little harder for his payoff. Lafkas decided to switch him over to yellow, too, as olive had not produced for him. The brown came off a piece of woody structure just off the bank. Kenny set hard and the fish dogged for the bottom. Lafkas kept instructing through the fight and soon scooped the big brown into the net. Kenny’s specimen was big enough that Alex rowed for the bank to give us good footing for a quick measurement and a hero shot. The big female stretched the tape to 23 inches and was our best fish for the day — also Kenny’s personal best on a streamer.
The education was worth the price of admission. Lafkas had taught us what kind of structure to look for in our sandy, northern Michigan rivers. We spent the day fishing the insides of the corners where the current was slower and the browns could catch a bit of respite. We concentrated on submerged woody debris and the edges of eddies where trout could sit in a seam, ambushing unsuspecting prey. It’s not rocket science. It’s the stuff that most fishermen target. Our suspicions were confirmed in that the real challenge is the grind. Steamer fishing is an all-day sucker. Big streamers target the most aggressive of the bigger fish in the given water, and those can be few and far between. We bombed long casts with three hundred grain lines on eight-weight rods all day while trying to keep focused on the task at hand and ready to be in a position physically and mentally. And strip-set. Always strip-set.