I’m lucky enough to call the Rocky Mountains my home, and luckier still to have a half-dozen stellar small streams within 40 minutes of my driveway.
While some anglers feel more at home on the wide open runs of big water like the Madison or the Bitterroot, I much prefer the confined solitude you get on small streams. Now, big water can be a bit more straightforward to fish for some anglers. Roll casting with nymph rigs through likely holes isn’t technically demanding. Those same anglers, though, may struggle with the intricacies of small-stream fishing.
Of course, it goes both ways, and I don’t pretend to be an expert in either environment. I have, however, spent my life playing in small water. Regardless of where you live, most of the rules regarding fishing small streams remain the same.
Watch the cast
The biggest problem I see anyone have with small streams is the lack of room for casting. Most of us get used to not worrying about snagging a tree with a back cast, but on small water that’s just a reality. Even casts 10-20 feet out are in danger of getting hung up in fly-eating willows and cottonwoods.
So, you should practice casting off the tip of your rod, instead of using a full casting stroke like you normally would. By this, I mean that you should be able to just “flick” line and leader with a hard snap of your wrist. It’s not intuitive, and certainly not “proper” casting form, but it works like a charm.
Along this train of thought, your rod choice matters a lot more on smaller water than it does just about anywhere else. Most of my fly rods are 8’6” or shorter, but my favorite small water rod is a 6’ 4wt bamboo. Realistically, though, any 7’ or 7’6” 3 or 4wt rod will be your best friend on small water.
Learn to high stick
This is a skill most anglers have, but you really have to hone it for success on small water. Since you’re often casting into tight pockets, the window for obtaining a good, drag-free drift is relatively short. That means you need to get your flies on the water, and immediately lift your leader off the water, without moving your flies. It’s simpler than it sounds, I promise.
As you master that, though, your flies stay in position for a few seconds longer than they otherwise would, which translates to more fish in the net.
Find the pockets
I think my favorite part of fishing small creeks is fishing pocket water. I love meticulously picking my way through a tumbling stretch of river, dropping flies in every piece of water that could be a holding spot for trout. It’s a methodical way to fish that leaves room for little other thought, so it’s a great way to really clear your mind.
Some pockets are easily spotted. Slack water behind boulders, eddies, and the soft stuff between seams are good places to start looking for fish. But you want to make sure you cover as much water as possible. That means finding the pockets of calmer water in front of rocks, on the edges of pools, and even around sticks or logs. Sticks and logs don’t have to jut completely out of the water to create pockets of slower-moving water; often, just their presence alone slows the current enough that trout will hang out around them.
Go light on the leader
Some of my fishing buddies give me a hard time for rarely having tippet heavier than 4x around. But given that most of my fishing is for small trout, on small water, I don’t see the need.
Small streams generally sport clearer water and spookier fish, so I go with 5 or 6x fluorocarbon on nearly everything. Even on dry-dropper rigs, there’s no need for tippet heavier than that. Plus, thinner tippet allows for slightly more natural movement of your flies on and in the water.
Don’t worry about flies
Speaking of flies, 90% of the time, fly choice doesn’t matter a whole hell of a lot on small water. Stick to the basics of trout flies – caddis, mayflies, and midges – and you’ll be set. My boxes are full of really only a dozen or so patterns, because that’s all I need for the majority of my fishing.
Small streams aren’t as hard, or as technical, as they may appear. The fish usually aren’t as big as what you’ll find elsewhere, but they’re generally prettier. And the solitude small streams offer just can’t be beat.
Words by Spencer Durrant.
Spencer is a fly fishing writer, outdoors columnist, and novelist from Utah. He’s the News Editor for MidCurrent, and a regular contributor for Hatch Magazine. Connect with him on Instagram/Twitter, @Spencer_Durrant.