There is something about fly fishing on small creeks and fishing small mountain streams. For me, the experience of fly fishing small streams is far more rewarding as the limited area, compared to a big river, means you always know where fish are holding. Plus it’s far more personal overall, as it’s just you and the stream or creek, with no boat and generally with no other anglers around either.
What are small streams like?
The first key to fishing successfully on small streams on a creek is understanding the water. The streams in the upper reaches of a national park for example will be thin and shallow meaning the fish will be on guard to predators and they are affected quickly by the temperature.
This results in quite smart and spooky fish making catching them a little harder and that the feeding habits of the trout in the river can change very quickly based on the temperature, so don’t be surprised if the trout start feeding ferociously one minute and stop the next.
Approach Small Streams Quietly
Small streams are often some of the most peaceful places you can fly fish in. There isn’t that large background hum of a big river flowing, it sounds more like a trickle and the trout in the river are very much used to the peace and quiet so if you disturb it, they are likely to notice.
When I say approach the stream quietly, I don’t just mean whispering, you need to think about every little step you take and how much noise it’s making, especially if you’re wading on rocks. If the fish hear you, your chances of success reduce by around 90%.
Always Fish Upstream
Having grown up fly fishing in the UK, where downstream fishing is frowned upon, I have always fished every river I’ve been on by casting upstream.
Now, you can get away with sending your flies downstream on a large river, but you can’t on a small stream. The fish, since they always face into the current will see your fly line and they will be gone in a flash.
This means when you’re casting on small streams, you should always be casting upstream. Make sure your fly lands a few feet in front of where you think the trout are while ensuring your fly line lands behind the fish – this way, they will never notice you are there.
This also applies to how your fish a mountain stream too. You should always be moving spots in an upstream direction as the fish will see you if you’re walking down towards them, even if you try to take a loop around them.
Your First Cast Is The Most Important
Due to the lack of deep water in a small stream and its limited size, the fish don’t have many places to be and they are far more aware of the environment outside of them due to being closer to the surface.
This results in you casting to very aware and rather intelligent trout despite their smaller size when compared to the fish in larger rivers so make your first cast count if you want to catch.
Often your first cast is your only chance to fool say brook trout in small pockets of water, as by the time you have made a few casts, they know you’re there and will have stopped feeding until you’re long gone.
The better your first casts and the more subtly they land, the more trout you will catch on small streams and this comes down to being in the right position.
If you need to wade, wade, but do so extremely quietly. I find by being in a position that is vaguely in the middle of the stream, I can access all casting angles to drop my flies into the pools I expect to see fish in.
Look Hard Before You Cast
Trout in a small stream can be sitting in inches of water, the water you would usually disregard and fish-able when on big rivers. When you get to a fishing spot, approach very slowly and scan everywhere you can before making a cast.
Sometimes the trout can be in such a small area that if you spook one, that whole spot needs to be rested.
When fly fishing in a small stream the fish like to hang out in all sorts of places. A deep pool is always a good spot but so is any part of the water with a bubble trail as this is oxygenated and most likely a good food channel.
The fish also like to hide under some cover like an undercut bank, even behind a structure like a boulder can create some cover for them from birds of prey and the like. Be sure to target these areas and your chances of success will skyrocket.
Change Spots Often
When fishing on a spring creek or stream it’s best to keep on moving on to search fresh waters and not to linger at a fishy spot or you could waste a lot of valuable fishing time. If you haven’t caught a fish in the first 10 minutes of fishing then the next drift or 10 aren’t going to catch one either. They know you are there and it’s time to move on.
If you have caught a few in one spot, then test it out to see if you can find a few more fish in it, but once you have had 3 or so, move on.
Hick Sticking Or Czech Nymphing Is Best
My chosen rig for fishing on smaller streams is a 10ft 3wt fly rod. You might have thought a shorter fly rod would be better, and it would for backcasting into trees but you wouldn’t be able to control your drift properly.
By using a longer fly rod, you can roll cast then high stick or Czech nymph which will keep your line off the water ensuring you are as stealthy as possible.
What I mean by high sticking or Czech nymphing, in case you have heard of it, is to only cast out your leader and tippet, leaving the fly line in the rod and not on the water.
You then manage the drift with your rod by keeping your stick high and feel any bites you might have instead of relying on an indicator.
Using A Dry Dropper Works Well
Generally, I always start fishing on small streams with a dry fly on the top and a nymph underneath. Although dry fly fishing on smaller creeks isn’t that great as there aren’t many hatches, trout do still hit them which is always entertaining.
The reason a dry dropper rig works so well is because the water is only a few feet deep meaning your nymph will be in the food lane near the bottom and will get hit by fish all day, so long as it’s the right one.
Another great thing about using dry flies as an indicator for your nymphs is that it’s far more stealthy than a blob of orange fluff or a bobber. Since the fish are a little smaller, you should always set the hook even if your dry fly sinks slowly under the surface of the water.
See also our post here on Three Ways to Build a Dry Dropper Rig.
Change Your Flies Often
It so ofetn happens on spring creeks and small streams that you’re fishing the head of a pool or on some fishy pockets and you can’t seem to put a foot wrong. Every cast into the pool results in a fish and a photo, and then a few minutes later it all stops.
At this point, anglers would check their leader for tangles or see if the hook is bent, when actually it’s time to chnage fly. The fish in small stream water will switch on to a fly for 10 minutes and then feed on something else, this is because their food sources isn’t so consistent.
Keep changing your flies, try different sizes of the same that was working before, with a lighter or heavier head, and if that doesn’t work then switch colors.
What Fly Rod Is Best For Small Streams?
When it comes to choosing a fly rod for small streams, you want to use something light which can land your flies delicately on the water. The two best choices are a 9ft 4wt or a 10ft 3wt, and as I mentioned earlier, the 10ft 3wt is ideal for an angler who wants to Czech nymph and keep the fish from seeing their line.
You can check out our full breakdown of the Best Fly Rods for Small Streams here.
How big can trout get in small streams?
Generally speaking the trout in smaller streams are smaller than the trout in larger rivers but this is not always the case. If a small stream water flows into a lake for example, then during spawning season, the big trout will move into the stream to spawn.
Movements like this can also happen when larger water bodies are muddy and turbid pushing the bigger fish into smaller streams. So you never know what size trout will be in a smaller stream but in general a fish between 1-2 lbs is a solid hoo up.