Everyone who has used minnows for bait knows that. They also know that live minnows must be purchased or captured before each fishing trip.
Anglers who don't want to go to the trouble have alternatives. Those who fish for bass, walleye or muskellunge use crankbaits, artificial minnows fashioned from wood or plastic. Those who fish for trout mostly use streamers.
Streamers are artificial lures used by fly anglers. Created from feathers, furs, tinsels or synthetic fibers to resemble baitfish or leeches, they entice even the largest and most selective trout to bite.
They've been around for close to 200 years. Artificial flies, as the name suggests, originally were designed to imitate insects. But by the 1800s, fly designers had begun to imitate other things fish prey on - minnows, crustaceans and even frogs.
By the early part of the 20th century, however, the term "streamer" had become the word most used to describe flies that imitate baitfish. Most streamer flies fell into one of two categories, feather-wing streamers and bucktails.
In feather-wing streamers, fly dressers used long, slender chicken-hackle feathers to mimic the torpedo-like shapes characteristic of most baitfish species. In bucktails, they used hairs from the tail of white-tailed deer to create the same effect.
Toward the latter part of the 20th century, fly tiers began incorporating fur strips, synthetic fibers, flashy tinsels and other materials into their patterns. Recent years have seen a veritable explosion in the number and variety of streamer patterns now available.
One of streamers' great appeals is that they're relatively easy to use. Most anglers cast them diagonally downstream, across the river's currents, and allow them to swing across the currents until they hang directly downstream. Once there, they can be retrieved with short strips on the line, or teased through the water with rod-tip twitches or pulses.
In lakes or ponds, most anglers cast them out and slowly retrieve them, usually with short, erratic pulls on the line. They can also be trolled behind a rowboat or canoe.
Time-tested and popular streamer patterns include the Woolly Bugger, the Mickey Finn, the Muddler Minnow, the Black-Nosed Dace, the Light Spruce, the Muddler Minnow and the Black Ghost. More modern patterns include the Clouser Minnow, the Slumpbuster and the Zoo Cougar.
Most streamers are tied on size 4-10 long-shanked hooks, but anglers who fish smaller and larger patterns also enjoy great success. Streamers for pike and muskie, for example, are tied on hooks as large as 5/0 and can measure up to a foot in length. On the other end of the spectrum, tiny "streamerettes," used to imitate newly hatched fry, are usually tied on size 12-16 hooks.
Streamer fishing isn't a delicate affair. Strikes, when they come, are often savage. Anglers accustomed to fishing with the light tippets used for dry flies and nymphs should switch to stouter, shorter leaders capable of absorbing the strain of a heavy fish's assault.
For economy-mined anglers, streamer flies are an attractive alternative to live bait or crankbaits.
Crankbaits often cost $5 or more apiece. Minnows can cost $5 or more per dozen. Commercially tied streamers cost less, but not a lot less. Anglers who tie their own flies can crank out streamer after streamer for less than $1 apiece.
And streamers aren't just for fly anglers. Conventional anglers can fish them, too, provided they make the ultralight lures castable by putting split shot on their lines.
Small wonder, then, that streamer fishing has remained a go-to technique for the better part of two centuries. Long story short, it works.