Once you begin spending some time streamer fishing, it's easy to see that the way you retrieve your streamer plays a huge part in how successful your day of fishing will or won't be. Water conditions, available food in the water, and the preference of the local fish all play a huge part in which streamer retrieve will mean more fish in the net. Across the board, one technique of retrieval may not necessarily be better than the other day in and day out. Instead, it's best to have a handle on the variety of techniques at your disposal and see which one works best on that particular day.
A retrieve simply means the rate at which you strip line back toward you as you actively fish a streamer. The retrieve can also mean the actual amount of line that you pull toward you as you fish. There are a few basic retrieves you should have in your book of tricks to try out on the water and see which the fish prefer.
6 inch Strip
This is the most basic and common streamer retrieve while fishing for trout and bass. Cast your fly out to your chosen spot: a deep bucket, the bank, or a boulder in the river; let it sink to the desired depth, then retrieve the line back toward you in 6 inch or so pulls on the line.
This is a good place to start and typically the most effective way of streamer fishing. This retrieve can imitate any small bait fish or prey that is on the move, and the motion and action of the fly while you are pausing momentarily between strips of the line is often a trigger to illicit a savage streamer take.
This technique is similar to the 6 Inch Strip but instead of continuous pulls of the line, add more time and sinking between strips.
Count to 5 or 6 between strips and allow the fly to sink or even reach the bottom on each pause.
This is a great method for very cold water streamer fishing or when fishing sculpin style flies. As you let the fly sink to the bottom and then strip it towards you, you can effectively jig the fly off the bottom and then allow it to sink again. Sculpins dwell in the crevasses of rocks and in tight quarters along the river bottom, so using a strip-pause retrieve is a great way to imitate an actual sculpin either migrating or fleeing from cover.
Swinging the fly down and across the river is by far the best way to cover lots of water while streamer fishing. Cast out either directly across or at a slight angle downstream, throw a large upstream mend into the line, and then simply keep a tight line as the fly swings downstream until it is directly below you. You do not strip the line while swinging flies until the fly is below you and it is time to make another cast.
By starting with water closest to you, then progressively working line out to your longest comfortable casting distance, you can cover larger areas of water quicker and more effectively.
If fishing a long run or tailout, start at the top of the run and work line out to your longest cast, then after each cast, mend your line upstream and take two or three steps down
Taking your steps downstream to cover water allows the fly to sink after each mend depending on your sink-tip or leader selection. Letting line belly downstream during the swing allows you to use your cast and line to do all the fishing for you.
Swing vs. Strip
The two main ways of streamer fishing are stripping and swinging the fly. Each style has its own respective place and use, but don't be afraid to try new things. Swinging a fly on a tight line and adding a few irregular jerky strips here and there throughout the drift can be a really good way to get into some fish.
Swinging the fly is the preferred method for salmon and steelhead fishing. It even works well in rivers for striped bass. Steelhead and salmon respond to a swung fly with more aggression than a stripped fly. In very cold winter and spring water, a swung fly is a great way to get into trout that are locked on the bottom but can't resist a big meal. They are far less likely to chase a streamer when their metabolism is low, but may not refuse one that's directly swung in front of them.
As a general rule:
Use tight line swings for steelhead and salmon in rivers. You can cover more water and present the fly directly in front of them.
Start out with a slow swing (a wider curve in the belly of the downstream line) for winter trout while streamer fishing.
Late spring and fall are great times to bust out the stripping retrieve while streamer fishing. Trout are especially aggressive during these times of year and are much more likely to actually chase down the fly and hunt it.
Whichever retrieve you prefer, it's good to know and have experience with a variety of retrieval techniques. You never know which one is going to be the ticket that day. No one technique is universally better than the other, but one technique may be better suited to the specific conditions that day. It's easy to change and try a whole bunch of retrieve styles while fishing, so mix it up and try them all. You never know which one will be the best until a fish responds by eating your fly!