August 09, 2021
Let me begin with a confession: I wasn’t raised as a trout angler. My father was a crappie fanatic, and so, naturally, I became one as well.
However, despite my extensive instruction with cane poles, light bobbers and lively 2-inch minnows in my formative years, trout still intrigued me.
Not the lake trout that inhabit the deep and vast waters of the Great Lakes, mind you, nor the football-shaped brutes found in tailwater fisheries. Rather, it was the beautifully colored browns, rainbows and brookies of the Midwest’s small freestone and spring creeks that captured my imagination. Those were the trout I longed to catch as a youngster.
Through a long process of trial and error—and I do mean lots of error—I was able to learn a lot about catching these gorgeous gems. And I was fortunate enough to do so in some of the region’s best small trout streams in places like South Dakota’s Black Hills, Iowa’s remarkably pretty Driftless Area and across Missouri—including an afternoon on Little Indian Creek in Dogwood Canyon, the private playground of Bass Pro Shops’ founder Johnny Morris. Along the way, like so many others before me, I fell under the spell of small Midwestern streams.
When introducing someone to the concept of small-stream fishing, one of the first questions sure to arise is, "What exactly is a small stream?" How wide must it be? How deep? By and large, I believe the definition can vary depending on a variety of factors. However, others have offered some qualifiers to consider.
"In my mind, a small stream is 35 feet wide or less, on average," says Cameron Enbright, a guide for High Mountain Outfitters (highmountainoutfitterssd.com) in Spearfish, S.D. "And you should be able to wade it comfortably in most stretches, with a water depth less than roughly two feet, save for the deeper holes."
Enbright adds that pretty much anything he can fish effectively while wearing knee-high waterproof boots probably qualifies as a small stream, though he admits that most of the waters he hits are more easily fished in waders.
In Decorah, Iowa, some 650 miles due east of the High Mountain Outfitters fly shop, Ethan Pole, the man behind NEI Fly Fishing (neiflyfishing.com), has a similar but slightly more inclusive take on what defines a small stream. Namely, he says, it’s anything from 6 feet wide to 25 yards across, with a depth ranging from a foot to about 5 feet. He adds that in his area it typically refers to a limestone-fed stream or a tributary to a larger river.
BETWEEN THE LINES
The first challenge facing any small-stream angler is reading the water. You have to differentiate between stretches or pockets with good potential and those with little to none.
"I think this is the hardest part for someone just starting out," Pole says. "They look at a stream and think there ought to be fish everywhere. They don’t understand where the water’s going to feed the fish the most."
An accomplished angling instructor, Pole has his students and clients break a stream down into a grid and then fish each section or group of sections individually and thoroughly. He instructs his anglers to visually divide the water into boxes approximately 3 feet by 3 feet. They then identify if a particular box has some depth, if it’s coming off a rock or if it’s shadowed to some extent. Those are places where fish are likely to hold.
With these features, fish have a measure of protection, whether it’s water depth, good flow to carry food sources to them or shade to keep them hidden from avian predators. He says that sections where multiple promising boxes adjoin can be even more advantageous from a fish-holding standpoint.
In the Black Hills, Enbright generally searches for water with a depth of at least 8 inches, which he says is about the minimum a fish will tolerate. They’ll especially hold in very shallow water in areas with structure such as rocks or logs, and areas where slow water meets a faster current.
"The two biggest benefits of small-stream fishing," Enbright says, "are that in many cases, you can actually see the fish you’re casting to, and you can cover more water types in a short period of time when you’re trying to locate fish."
He adds that it’s a good idea to make mental notes of the types of sections where you encounter fish, and use that information to guide your presentations on similar stretches of water upstream or down.
Small freestone and spring-creek streams rarely require elaborate tackle, and you certainly won’t need anything too stout. Whether you tempt trout with a tiny dry fly on a lightweight fly rod or cast small spinners with ultralight spinning tackle, getting geared up and on the water shouldn’t be complicated.
For Fly Flingers
In Enbright’s mind, there’s no better fly rod for small-stream trout than an 8-foot-6-inch 4-weight. He sometimes fishes a 9-foot 5-weight rod when he’s casting larger flies, but generally, a 4-weight rod in the 8-foot range with a weight-forward floating fly line is the perfect do-it-all small-stream rod. Pair this with a reel—a budget option is fine since you’re unlikely to tangle with any drag-peelers—and what Enbright feels is one of the more critical parts of the setup: a quality fly line. He particularly likes the Frequency Series from Scientific Anglers ($49.95; scientificanglers.com) but notes there are many good alternatives. Round things out with a tapered 5X to 7X leader, depending on water conditions.
Take a Spin
I feel safe in saying that fly anglers predominate on most small trout streams throughout the Midwest. However, that’s not to say spinning tackle doesn’t have its place on the water.
With spinning gear, I’m partial to a lightweight rod and matching reel—something akin to Penn’s Pursuit III LE Combo ($84.99; pennfishing.com)—or, if the quarters are exceptionally tight, a 6-foot, light-action rod and reel such as Shakespeare’s Wild Series Panfish Combo ($49.99; purefishing.com). As for line, given the often gin-clear water, I’ll opt for a 4-pound fluorocarbon like Berkley’s Vanish Transition ($18.99; berkley-fishing.com).
Five places to find small-stream nirvana
1. Spearfish Creek, SD
Averaging only 29 feet wide and surrounded by the Black Hills National Forest, Spearfish Creek has a great population of wild rainbow trout and offers something for all skill levels.
2. Rapid Creek, SD
Rapid Creek has the distinction of being the longest streams in the Black Hills. It also flows right through Rapid City. Brown trout are the draw here, though rainbows and brook trout are available, too.
3. The Driftless Area, IA/IL/MN/WI
Home to thousands of miles of small streams—many teeming with native fish—the Driftless Area covers a large portion of northeastern Iowa, southeastern Minnesota, southwestern Wisconsin and a small sliver of northwestern Illinois.
4. Mad River, OH
The longest cold-water fishery in the Buckeye State, the Mad River hosts a wild population of brook trout, with browns being stocked periodically, courtesy of the Ohio Division of Wildlife.
5. French River, MN
Located just a short drive to the north and east of Duluth, the French River offers both rainbows and browns downstream of the hatchery to Lake Superior, while brook trout can be found above the facility.
TOP PICKS: FLIES
Favorite patterns of two veteran guides
Fly selection is something that varies pretty widely from stream to stream. Anglers must consider local hatches as well predominant terrestrials and baitfish species. That said, two of the Midwest’s preeminent trout guides offer some suggestions for a basic box of small-stream flies.
"I think with as complicated as fly fishing can be, your flies are actually a spot where you can simplify things," says Enbright. "I fish one of 10 patterns probably 90 percent of the time. There’s a saying that as long as the fly doesn’t offend a fish, it’s probably going to eat it."
A few of Enbright’s favorite patterns are a black Wooly Bugger (size 6–10), the Parachute Adams (size 12–24), a Cutter’s Caddis or X-Caddis (size 16–24), the Prince Nymph (size 16–24) and the Bird’s Nest Nymph (size 16–24).
"If I had to choose just one fly to fish, it’d be the Bird’s Nest," he says.
"I always say beginners should have a plethora of Size 14 and 16 nymphs and dry flies," says Ethan Pole of NEI Fly Fishing in Decorah, Iowa. "But if I had to choose just three to fish here in the Driftless Area, they’d be a Black Zebra Midge in size 20 to 22, a Blue Wing Olive in size 14 to 16 and a Parachute Adams in size 16 to 18."
TOP PICKS: LURES
Best bets to add to your box
While fly selection can be very specific based on the major hatches and insect species in a given stream, choosing a lure to use with spinning gear is often easier. Unless you’re fishing flies paired with clear casting bubbles or small floats, lure selection should include imitations of baitfish, crawfish, sculpins and other meaty trout offerings.
Below are a few classics to get you going. As always, try to match the size of the lure to the stream and its reputation for larger or smaller fish.
- Rapala Countdown (1 1/2 to 2 3/4 inches)
- Rebel Hellgrammite (2 inches)
- Rebel Wee Craw (1 3/4 inches)
- Acme Kastmaster (1/8 ounce)
- Luhr-Jensen Coyote (3 inches)
- Mepps Little Wolf (1/8 ounce)
- Blue Fox Vibrax (7/64 to 1/8 ounce)
- Mepps Aglia (1/12 to 1/8 ounce)
- Worden’s Rooster Tail (1/16 to 1/8 ounce)
- Note: 1/4-ounce spinners might be useful in high water.
- Mister Twister curly-tail grubs, 1/32- to 1/8-ounce
- Marabou jigs in various colors