Shenk's Streamer -
The Darting Sensation
Here's an "old-time" pattern that is still an incredibly effective and enjoyable fly to fish. The Shenks Streamer has been around for over a half-century, but at fly shows and clubs I encounter many anglers who aren't aware of this outstanding fly. This ignorance seems most prevalent in the Midwest, but I don't think the SS (as I call it) gets near the attention it deserves anywhere in the country.
I've used the Shenks regularly for 20 years and it's become one of my all-time favorites, both for my personal fishing and when guiding and hosting Canadian lake trips. I've seen this fly catch thousands of smallmouth in both rivers and lakes. Naturally, this includes tremendous numbers of mid-sized 12- to 15-inchers, but also some true heavyweights over 20 inches. Many other warmwater species also love it, including pike, largemouth, drum, walleye, catfish and carp. And of course it's still excellent for its original purpose, attracting big brown trout. I've caught some excellent trout over 18 inches on it and an Arkansas friend who lives on the White River regards it as a superb streamer for his area's big browns.
Why is the Shenks Streamer So Good?
First and foremost, it's because of the darting action you can get out of this fly. With its fat front trimmed down to a slim rear and just the right amount of weight, the SS produces an enticing side-to-side motion few other patterns are capable of. Using short rod-tip twitches, a skilled angler can make this fly literally come alive in the water. And smallies will rise up several feet through the water column to strike a darting Shenks Streamer.
In fact, I've had many days when pods of smallmouth bass were attracted to this darting fly while it was twitched in place downstream of my anchored craft. One fish nails the fly, it's brought to hand, a quick cast back to the same spot, a couple twitches, bingo, another strike and another battler, and then another and another. Sometimes 7 or 8 fish in a row will nail the fly. Few patterns generate this much fish appeal.
But there are more reasons I love this darting sensation. In smallmouth sizes, the SS is easy to cast even with a 5 or 6 wt rod. Its slow sink rate and its fat head and body means it readily bounces off rocks and doesn't easily snag. And because it is slow-sinking, you can sight-fish a brightly-colored SS (like a white or yellow one). Depending on water clarity, you can see the fly at one to three feet deep. When the river is clear enough, my clients love to watch this fly perform-- and of course, see bronze boys charging up and nailing the fly.
Why isn't the Shenks Streamer more popular?
Two primary reasons: One, it seems too "plain-Jane" for many of today's fly fishers. With the tremendous variety of tying materials available nowadays, many anglers seem to judge a fly's effectiveness by how many ingredients it has crammed into it. You've seen these kind of fancy flies-- a couple shades of chenille, 3 colors of silicon legs, various neck hackles, a half-dozen colors of Flashabou, some synthetic hair and topped off with fancy eyes. They might not catch fish worth a darn, but a lot of guys love to tie these elaborate creations. Most companies that sell flies like to make fancy flies too, since they know they can charge a lot for over-tied patterns. In contrast, the simple SS only needs a single color of two materials: rabbit hair and marabou. The smallies absolutely love it! But fish don't buy flies.
"The Shenks seems too "plain-Jane" for many of today's fly fishers.
The smallies absolutely love it! But fish don't buy flies."
The other reason the Shenks Streamer isn't more popular is because it's actually hard to tie correctly. One of the very best body materials for it is dubbed rabbit hair. And many tiers have plenty of trouble dubbing the large quantities of loose hair required for each fly. When most guys first try tying the SS, hair goes everywhere and frustratingly little of it stays on the hook. Getting the weight right is also tricky. A little too much and the fly doesn't dart worth a darn. Too little and it looks like a waterlogged topwater dragged dispiritedly along the surface.
But just because it's challenging to tie and not a trendy pattern doesn't mean a savvy smallie fan can't use the SS. Smallmouth Fly Angler sells the Shenks Streamer pattern in three colors. Why would you miss using this spectacular fly by following the herd? I sure don't.
Shenks Streamer Tying Tips:
The SS can be tied in various sizes (my associate Dan Johnson and I even have a muskie version). However, a smaller, much easier-to-cast size will cover most smallmouth situations. If you want to try tying some of your own, here are the steps:
- Start with a Mustad 9672 #4 hook.
- Add a 1.5-inch-long marabou tail.
- Add 15 wraps of .020 lead wire.
- Add 10 wraps of .010 lead wire.
- (Optional) For better dubbing, cover the wire with Kevlar thread if you prefer.
- Use plenty of rabbit hair to create the dense fur body, using a dubbing loop.
- Trim the fly. Leave the front diameter 50% larger than the rear by tapering the scissors-cut carefully. And trim slowly. You can always trim a little more, but can't replace hair if you cut too much.
Shenks Streamer Fishing Tips:
The Shenks Streamer is deadly in any type of river, but one place I love to sight-fish it is on smaller streams. Quietly walking/wading downstream, I cast across and down to the opposite bank. After dropping the fly right along a fishy-looking bank, I let it sink a foot, then slowly work it away from shore with 6-inch rod-tip twitches. Some fish will strike right along the bank and those quick takes are exciting, but others might not strike until I've twitched the fly in place for 8 to 10 seconds after it's swung downstream of the rod tip. The secret is to stay alert and watch the fly every second of the retrieve.
Learn the rod-tip-twitch retrieve and then use the Shenks Streamer. You'll see how irresistible its darting action can be.
About the Author
Tim Holschlag has fished more smallmouth bass rivers than any known angler, over 300 different rivers across North America and South Africa. In addition, he has caught smallmouth bass in dozens of lakes in both the US and Canada. He has a deep understanding of all types of smallmouth habitats.
The author of the highly acclaimed book "Smallmouth Fly Fishing" and author of hundreds of magazine articles in major fishing publications, Tim Holschlag is nationally known for his encyclopedic knowledge of the species. His smallmouth expertise is unrivaled.
Over two decades as a popular angling instructor, guide, and seminar speaker, Tim has helped thousands of anglers improve their smallmouth skills. His lifelong study of smallmouth gives people insights found nowhere else.