10 Tips on Small Stream Fly Fishing

I love small stream fishing. Following water in the middle of beautiful nowhere trying to fool trout on the fly has only a few comparisons in my mind. I have read numerous books on the subject, fished with other good anglers, and spent a lot of hours out in the woods fishing small streams. Here are ten tips I use, and wish I had known when I first started parading the creekside chasing trout.

1- Observe
Don’t show up to the stream and start flogging the water the second you arrive. Spend a few minutes looking around. I have a trout stream very close to where I live that I fish on an almost weekly basis. I know what is hatching through friends, experience, or simple observation. I oftentimes know what worked last week and last year at this time. However, I will still make observations as I head out to fish. As I walk, I watch. When I arrive, I look for signs of rising fish or lack thereof, the size of bugs flying around, and anything else that catches the eye. Sometimes you will notice there is not much to notice! 

Oftentimes, I will begin fishing with what was working the last time I was out, but I still observe. Keep in mind, with small streams, the specific hatch that went off the night prior will not have as much effect on what the fish are willing to eat, but you never know…

2- Walk
The farther you are willing to go, the better off your fishing may be. Most times it is better to walk. The farther you go, the less pressure the fish receive by other anglers (not that there are often a lot of other anglers around). The primary point in this is that you work for the fish you’re after. The work on small streams is not so much changing flies, using ultra light tippet, or matching the hatch perfectly, but rather it is more commonly walking, hiking, walking some more, and possibly even climbing a little bit. 

Don’t be afraid to walk a few miles for a stream. You never know what gem you might find!

3- Fish Upstream
The most efficient way to fish small streams is by casting your fly upstream. This is pretty common knowledge, but it’s a valuable point. This presentation technique means you will be out of the fish’s sight, at least as best as possible. Small stream trout are incredibly spooky, as they are conditioned to bolt at any sense or feeling of danger. Therefore, staying out of their sight will greatly increase your odds. Staying behind the fish will better hide your movements and allow you to get closer to the fish. In addition to stealth, casting upstream will help minimize drag because you can stand in the same current as your fly.

Though there are obviously some exceptions, in most circumstances, fishing upstream will give you the best chance of success in a small stream environment. 

4- Move Slow
Slowly approach your target. Don’t throw caution to the wind just because these fish aren’t pressured by anglers. They have grown to freak out at any hint, whiff, or feeling of danger. Before you run and splash up to a pool, figure out the best angle of approach and move there as quietly, softly, and ninja-like as possible. Don’t make sudden movements. Nearly everything in the wilderness is trying to eat these little dudes, so mimic the stork and move slow and methodically.

Helpful Hint: Even the casting movement of your fly rod can alert these guys and send them scrambling. You should try to limit your false casts as much as possible. Not to mention, the less false casts you make, the less trees you will catch. A species most are too familiar with…

5- Move Fast
There is no contradiction with the point above. What I mean is, move quickly from location to location. Don’t spend an hour on a pool the size of a Honda Accord. You can’t force your fly down the little brookie’s mouth. If he’s around, he will often smash it on the first or second drift. You may remember a time where you cast 1,000 times in a pool and on the 1,001 cast you caught a fish in a pool. Well, that’s great and dandy, but I bet if you cast those 1,000 times while continually moving upstream you will have landed a lot more than 1 fish. As much as you love that one pool or run, keep moving forward after giving it a dozen or so casts.

6- Control Your Fly
The first aspect of control is where you cast.

Methodically, place your fly in every spot in the pool then move on. I typically cast from the rear of the pool moving towards the head. This gives the opportunity to catch the fish in the tail of the pool without spooking the fish at the head. 

As a test to see if this actually worked, I cast into the head of several large pools I knew had fish. At the head, I would consistently catch one or possibly two fish. I would come back on another day and cast from the tail of the pool to the head (same pool) and land 3+ fish. This means that when I just went straight for the head I was missing/spooking a lot of fish. (This is not a fishing fib; I really have done this test multiple times.)

The second aspect of control is what you do after you cast. 

Drag is the constant ruiner of fly presentation. For a simple working definition, drag is when your fly moves unnaturally across (or in) the water. Drag is something that we can control or minimize to some degree, and the more drag you remove or delay, the better your ability to fool fish!

One of the easiest ways to avoid drag without getting too thick into technique is to keep your fly line off the water as much as possible. The less fly line out, the less your fly will be impacted by current, which means your little bug will look more lifelike for longer!

 A simple way to do this is: 

1) Cast Upstream. This will help minimize drag because your fly line will be in the same current your fly is in. You won’t have fifteen different currents all competing to push your fly line downriver as fast as possible or hold it back as long as possible!

2) Remove Slack. Excess slack in your fly line will make it nearly impossible to set the hook on a blazing fast Brookie. They strike with the speed of a falling star, and if you have an extra 4 feet of fly line drifting downriver that you aren’t in control of, you will miss fish. A simple way to do this is keep your fly rod tip as high as possible to ensure your fly line is staying off the water, and be sure that as your fly drifts downstream, you are retrieving your fly line at the same pace as the fly is moving. 

3) Make Shorter Casts. There is no need to launch a 3 weight 60 feet to fool a fish, at least not in a small stream (if you can even cast that far/ there's that much open water). Be deliberate with closing in the distance to where you want to fish with your feet, with an outstretched arm, and by utilizing the length of the fly rod. The shorter cast you make, the more you can delay drag. 

4) Pay Attention! I have lost and have seen tons of fish hit a fly with lightning speed, and the angler (or I) wasn’t paying attention, which resulted in a missed fish. Yes, sometimes the fish could be refusing the fly last second, but if the angler is distracted, it is more likely that he will have a hard time getting the fish hooked. You can't control your fly if you aren't focused.

7 - Wear Natural Colors(?)
I have read and heard quite a few people say it is absolutely essential you wear natural, muted colors. I understand this. We want to camouflage ourselves as much as possible, but through my experiences it is MORE important that you move slowly. You can spook fish even if you’re in complete camouflage when you run through the woods pretending to be Sasquatch on fire running from a camera. I’ve fished with friends side by side on a small stream that wore bright blue and red jackets, blaze orange hats, and lime yellow shirts and they still caught a lot of fish! 

But, we moved slowly

Now, I do wear muted colors, but I don’t think it’s the color that makes the difference, but rather, the movement. 

The increased color contrast of a red shirt and a green tree background theoretically makes you stick out a lot more, but I think it’s the increased contrast with additional movement that makes the problem, not the color itself. 

So my advice is, wear natural colors. But, with that, don’t expect a green or camo shirt to hide your movements from the fish! As well, if someone wears a red shirt don’t just dismiss the day as ruined and not fish with them, you just need to make sure they know - move slowly!

8 - Use Floatant and Dessicant
One of the many reasons people are attracted to small stream fishing is the visual aspects. Beautiful places, and beautiful fish smashing a highly visible dry fly. When small stream fishing most times you are using a dry fly, and truthfully dry flies are often one of the best ways to fish a small mountain stream.

With this comes a need to keep your fly floating in a way that you can see it. Now, I have caught several fish on a completely submerged dry fly, but that’s not really ideal. Keeping your fly on top of the water, and keeping it visible is an important task when you want to see everything go down. There are several “free” methods you can use: 

  • Dry the fly on your T-shirt.

  • Get excess water out of your fly by false casting with a good deal of extra force a few times (watch for trees).

  • Change flies frequently.

Those three tricks are great, but if you want your fly to stay on top longer, which means more time fishing, put floatant on your fly. Once your fly absorbs water, use desiccant (a water absorbing powder of some kind) to suck the water out of the fly and help it to float again. 

In recap, floatant goes on before your fly has touched water; after your fly has touched water, use desiccant. 

I've used quite a few different products and these are the two I like:

FLOATANT: Loon Aquel


9 - Limit Your Fly Selection
You don’t need 1,000 flies to fish a small stream. You don’t even need 100 flies to fish a small stream. In some places you could get away with 10 flies - 9 for the bushes and one for the fish. Small stream trout are not often picky. They live in a sterile environment, which means there are not a ton of food choices. If something floats overhead that looks nutritious, they need to cram it in their mouth before it gets away or somebody else eats it. First come, first serve in these places. Therefore, you don’t really need to intensely “match the hatch.” It certainly won't hurt, though. 

I am not going to tell you what flies to have and use, but I will only say, limit your selection. A handful of smaller and bigger patterns, a couple of nymphs, and maybe a small streamer, and you’re set. 

You don’t need to spend much time switching through pattern after pattern in these environments. Observe. See if there is something that sticks out to you about the stream - are there cicadas, are there stoneflies under some rocks, is there a hatch of mayflies, etc.. Pick a fly, go with it and stick with it. If you don’t catch any fish, keep moving, if you still don’t catch any fish, keep moving and adjusting your presentation. If you still don’t catch any fish, then change fly. 

Yes, sometimes the fish will be keying in on one particular species. For example, I use a little black(ish) caddis bug sz. 16 or even 18 on most early springs on the streams . I have fished larger patterns - attractor patterns - but the most success I have had has been on the smaller black fly. I don’t know what the fish think it is, perhaps one of the small little black stoneflies (though many have their doubts about that), or maybe the fly looks like a whole bunch of things. Anyways, you can try other dry flies and have some success, but when you put on that little black fly, the fish demolish it. 

10 - Explore
There are thousands of small streams across the US. In Virginia alone there is approximately, “94,000 miles of streams and rivers” (https://www.iwla.org/docs/default-source/conservation-docs/water-docs/clean-water/righttoknow_va.pdf?sfvrsn=2). Of course, not all of those are small streams, but the point is still the same, there is a LOT of water to go, find, and fish!

If you want to catch fish you need to fish. Small stream fishing is incredibly exciting, it’s not incredibly difficult, and your possibilities are near endless. Just get out there and fish!