When it comes to "the fishing in print," as Arnold Gingrich, longtime editor of Esquire magazine, described it, "large, free-flowing rivers and tailwaters get most of the attention." In one sense this is understandable: in these spacious, fertile waters, trout grow faster and get much bigger, adding to their appeal. Yet small streams offer their own special allure.
For starters, there are obviously far more of them, and in some parts of the country (notably along the spine of the Appalachians) they are about the only angling game in town. Then too, on at least some of these small streams, one can find that most welcome of fishing companions: solitude. There’s a lot to be said for elbow room, particularly if you’ve ever jockeyed for space on famed Western rivers such as the Big Hole or Madison or observed the constant “hatch” of drift boats on the Yellowstone. Add to those considerations the tactical challenges provided by rivulets and creeks, the fact that they often hold plenty of trout, and the likelihood you are dealing with truly wild fish (those born and bred in the stream), and you have the makings of a fisherman’s delight.
With that promo out of the way (and I might mention that I cut my trout fishing teeth on the sort of streams we are considering in the high country of North Carolina and have fished them across the country for more than 50 years), let’s get down to the nitty gritty of how to fish small waters wisely and well. Here’s a series of pointers which should, when taken together, give you a strategy for approaching small trout streams no matter where you live or fish.
Water clarity in small streams tends to be excellent, and that means the fish can see your offerings quite well. Therefore, your terminal tackle needs to be “fine.” That is to say, tippet sizes of 5X or smaller. You’ll get fewer refusals as a result.
Stoop To Conquer
Crouching as he casts, an angler casts to a tight, overgrown pool in a small stream. Photo by Jim Casada
The nature of many small streams demands that you be quite close to the pool or run to which you are casting. Overhanging vegetation leaves no other choice. With that in mind, you need to keep your profile low and use any available screens—in-stream boulders, streamside trees, shade, and the like—to hide your approach. Otherwise you likely will see nothing but miniature torpedoes racing for cover as you stand tall and proud (but fishless) at the edge of a pool. One distinguishing characteristic of a first-rate small stream fisherman is the knees of his waders—they always wear out first.
Reach The Water With Care
There’s no substitute for the ability to recognize likely holding spots and feeding lanes for trout, and they take on added significance in small streams. Some of this knowledge comes through “dues paid” in the form of time on the water, but a few obvious locations deserve specific mention. Anywhere the stream “breaks its back” on a boulder or log, thereby offering a place where a trout can fin easily while watching for food, will likely hold a fish. The same is true of the “V” formed where two runs meet. Brown trout in particular love backwaters or eddies, and dark, shady spots with some depth always have potential. Finally, don’t forget that a spot that yields one good trout will soon (usually in a day or two) be occupied by another one.
Standard wisdom for fly fishermen holds that small streams demand shorter rods (7 to 7 feet). I would stridently argue just the opposite. With a long rod of 9 or 9 feet, you can roll cast farther, “bow and arrow” cast for more distance, and “poke” into really tight places without quite as much likelihood of being spotted. Incidentally, roll cast whenever possible on small streams. Minimal motion and/or shadows from the line in the air mean you are less likely to spook trout.
In most small streams, a trout like this is every bit a trophy. Photo by Walt Tegtmeier
Make The Right Offerings
With the notable exception of spring creeks, trout in small streams tend not to be particularly picky. When in the mood they eat whatever happens to drift by. That translates into a truism you should always keep in mind—presentation is more important than pattern. Get the fly where it needs to be, avoid drag or work it right, and your success rate will be high. Obviously, though, you don’t want to use big flies when fishing for trout that average only 7 or 8 inches in length. Keep it small (size 14, 16, or even 18) and simple.
Recognize The Importance Of Versatility
While 90 percent of my small stream fishing involves only a dozen fly patterns or so, I will readily and frequently change flies when little is happening. Most of the time this involves use of a two-fly rig where a high-floating dry fly does double duty as a strike indicator for a nymph trailing along 18 to 24 inches behind. If most of the action comes on the surface (or beneath the surface) you can always adjust to a single fly.
Useful patterns—and I’ve found this true everywhere from New Zealand to Alaska, Labrador to Montana, not to mention my home waters—include the Royal Wulff, Elkhair Caddis, Parachute Adams, Royal Trude, appropriate terrestrials and various stimulators. When it comes to nymphs, I’ve found Prince Nymphs, scud patterns, Tellico Nymphs, and Pheasant Tails productive, and beadhead versions seem to work best. Whatever you try, be willing to change until you discover just the ticket.
Cover Water Carefully
One of the most common mistakes associated with small streams is giving way to the angling equivalent of “cherry picking.” That is to say, focusing all one’s attention on bigger pools or particularly promising runs. Rest assured that anywhere there is sufficient depth and adequate cover, there can be trout. Fish the water accordingly. Thinking along similar lines, even though you should cover all possible holding areas, don’t spend a great deal of time doing so. A few casts, particularly in smaller pools, should be all that is required. Incidentally, try to make your first cast your best one, because the likelihood of a strike goes down with each succeeding cast.
Be Willing To Venture “Back Of Beyond”
Casting to a likely spot in a high country stream. Photo by Jim Casada
Even small streams, at least those that are readily accessible, can get a lot of pressure. The farther you hike or the more remote the water you fish, the greater your likelihood of success. Indeed, there’s a great deal to be said for streams accessible only to backpackers.
Fish The Impossible Places
Any time you can figure out a way to get a fly or a lure into a really tight spot, whether it is created by limbs only a few inches off the water, lack of room to cast, or difficult currents which make drag likely, try to do so. Likewise, be willing, even eager to take the road less traveled, which is to say, approach a pool in a manner which others do not use. By doing so you will cast to fish others bypass.
The techniques suggested above don’t cover every aspect of small stream fishing, but they do touch many of the bases. In closing, maybe a personal anecdote is worth sharing. Many years ago the state of Montana invited me on a trip to sample some of their fabled trout waters. I was delighted but also intimidated, figuring my intimate knowledge of small streams might not be adequate there. As it turned out, they were a comparative piece of cake. Anyone with an in-depth understanding of small stream techniques and reasonable casting skills is well equipped for bigger (though not necessarily better) waters.