May 03, 2022
I have a recurring dream that always starts the same way: I’m standing on the bank of a small stream that I know is home to big trout. It’s springtime, there are bugs everywhere, big browns are coming to the surface to slurp them up and I make one perfect cast after another—only to be refused time and again.
Then, finally, I move a big one. He eats and the fight is on. I see him in all his spotted, golden glory for a brief second before he runs downstream and is gone. My personal best becomes my personal nightmare, and he haunts me.
Fishing small streams can be as technical as it gets for an angler. Beautiful water teems with trout exactly where they’re supposed to be—under a fallen tree, in the cutout of the bank, behind that big rock. But small streams mean tight cover and wary fish that won’t eat if they see you coming, or that will scatter completely if you take one step too close. That’s what makes fishing small streams so exhilarating and so maddening at the same time.
Small streams require small adaptations to your fishing technique regardless of whether you’re a seasoned angler or just starting out. The approach, fly selection, cast and even your understanding of the fish are just some of the factors you need to consider. Adding a few of the basic concepts below to your fishing routine will help you get more bites and bring more fish to your net.
APPROACH WITH CAUTION
Water is powerful. It has carved out valleys and washed away towns. It also might have undercut that bank where you want to stand. In many instances, the fish are hiding a foot or more underneath the bank. Fishing a small stream requires you to be closer to the fish than when fishing bigger waters. If you stomp your way to the edge of the stream, the fish already know you’re there. If you break a branch at the edge of the river, the fish already know you’re there. Watch where you step. Stay as far back from the bank as possible; when not possible, proceed with extreme caution.
STAY OUT OF THE WATER
There typically isn’t a lot of extra room in small streams for the fish to spread out. When you step in the water you increase your chance of being seen and spooking nearby fish. As much as possible, stay on the bank. If you must wade, remember that even a little ripple will alert trout to your presence. Stay in the skinniest part of the stream where water is already rushing over the rocks, but remember that fish also hang out in shallow water, not just in deep holes. Be careful where you step and always take an alternate route on land when possible.
Trout instinctually face upstream to breathe and to let food come to them. They are opportunistic feeders, so an easy meal is always their first goal. Making sure the fish sees your fly before it sees you can be a difficult task that’s made easier if you fish upstream. By fishing upstream, you’ll be out of the trout’s vision. Present the fly above the targeted area and let it drift to the fish. This approach also makes it easier to set the hook when a fish bites, and better hooksets lead to more fish in the hand. Fish upstream and your chances for success increase greatly.
CHOOSE YOUR FLY WISELY
I typically fish with two different rods—a dry fly or hopper-dropper setup, and a streamer—to try a couple different techniques through the same hole. Never strip your streamer through the hole first unless you’re OK with getting skunked. If you drift a dry fly or bounce a nymph through the hole first, you’ll have a greater chance of catching more fish. If you rip a streamer through the hole first, you might put down a lot of fish for no reason. If you’re going for the one big bite, then streamer away, but if you’re looking to cover the holes thoroughly, grab the dry fly first.
Of course, you want to make a bomber cast to that beautiful pool 60 feet away, but take a step back before you let it fly. Examine the runs between you and that pool. Is there a tailout at the end of that pool? If so, many big fish might hold there. What about the space in front of a big rock or downed branch? And the bubble line between you and the pool that is also most likely holding fish? Making a big cast over great water will only spook fish and send them packing upstream. Start with a rod’s length of line first and fish that water, then add a couple feet at a time until you’ve covered the whole section. Covering water in this way is your best bet at catching more fish.
ALTER YOUR CAST
Many small streams are surrounded by deep and, at times, heavy cover. There’s nothing more frustrating than getting your fly stuck in a tree, just to have it pop off and land in another tree behind you. Slow down and take in your surroundings. Being aware of what is above, behind and around you will allow you to alter your cast and ultimately lead to less frustration. In tight quarters, think first about where you want your fly to land and then make an intentional cast. Being able to make a side-arm cast will keep your fly low to the water so you can avoid the trees and get under low-hanging branches. The bow-and-arrow cast can be helpful when you need to propel your fly into a tiny little hole. And, most notably, a small roll cast with a high-stick approach can prove lethal.
THINK LIKE A HUNTER
Trout fry are born with a target on their backs because, well, they’re food. Larger species from below and birds and animals from above are always looking for a fish dinner. Fry are born skittish, defensive and on the run. The last thing they want is to be another critter’s next meal, and it’s a defense mechanism they never outgrow. Often, you’ll get only one chance to present your fly to a fish you’ve spotted, so make sure it’s a good one. If you plop the fly on the water, the fish will be gone.
If you rip the fly out of the water with a pop, it’s game over. If the shadow of your fly line passes over the fish, the jig is most likely up. To be successful, you’ll have to think like the hunter you are. Pay attention to the small details, be patient and make every cast count. But, most importantly, get out and fish more. This is a sport that takes a lifetime and then some to master, so enjoy the trip regardless of the outcome at the end of the day.
Quality equipment to help you get more out of your next small-stream adventure.
- Fenwick HMG 7’6” 3-wt. Fly Rod: A shorter stick is a must for small streams with a lot of overhead cover. The HMG is medium-fast and has enough backbone to make short casts even with heavier flies. ($159.95; purefishing.com)
- Tenkara USA RHODO Rod: A Tenkara rod is perfect for high-mountain streams where you’re dipping a fly into small pools. It’s compact and has everything you need and nothing you don’t. If you haven’t tried Tenkara and you love fishing high-mountain streams, this setup is for you. ($250; tenkarausa.com)
- Brodin Stream Stalker Net: Using a net allows the angler to relax and take in the moment as the fish revives, and reduces the amount of handling needed to unhook and release the fish. The Brodin Stream Stalker comes with your choice of a purpleheart wood or teak handle, features a rubberized nylon net and is easy to carry. It’s also a beautiful work of craftsmanship. ($120–$195; brodin.com)
- Orvis Ultralight Foam Fly Box: This floating foam box can house all your tiny trout flies securely and fits comfortably in a vest or wader pocket. (starting at $19.95; orvis.com)
- True Fly Supply Trout Subscription Box: If you are new to fly-fishing or just like to try out new gear, this subscription box specialized for trout could be right up your alley. It’s totally customizable, so you’ll never be caught on the river without enough flies—and we all know how many ornaments we leave in the trees on small streams. (starting at $12/month; trueflysupply.com)
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