Small Stream Fly Rods

In the heart of Virginia, we have near boundless opportunities for small stream fishing. Almost every stream you come across in our mountainous National Forests has native brook trout or a wild population of rainbow or brown trout. Because of the ample fishing opportunities and small streams, the question is often brought to us, “What rod should I use to fish small streams?”

There are 3 things you need to think through to determine what is best for you: 1) rod weight 2) rod length, 3) fiberglass, graphite, or cane.

The rod “weight” is the first determining factor. The average rod most beginners have is a 5 weight. This number determines what size line pairs best with the rod, what flies will cast easiest with this rod, and ultimately what fish you can target effectively with this rod. The scale of rods goes from 0 - 15. Zero would be something like a wet noodle of a rod and fifteen would be for offshore fishing.

Now, think about the fish that inhabit your local small streams. Throughout most of VA, a 12” fish in a stream would be a monster and worthy of bragging rights. However, most of the time your average small stream trout in VA will be anywhere from 6-7 inches.

You don’t need an incredibly strong rod to wrangle with these peanuts. You want to find a balance where landing the fish is quick and easy, but you still get to experience some of the fight that we anglers day-dream about.

The most common rod weights for small stream angling range from a 2-4 weight. And the most common would certainly be a 3 weight rod. These rods can cast a decent size dry fly well and have enough strength to land that 12” brook trout you may run into one day.

For anglers that enjoy fishing a dry/dropper rig, I often recommend a 4 weight. This rod has a little more backbone, and the line will be able to accurately present a large dry fly and a heavy nymph at the same time. Of course, some 3 weights are capable of doing this, but a 4 weight definitely would have the upper hand.

Some anglers choose to go with a 0-2 weight rod. This rods are designed for casting smaller dry flies. If you only care about casting a single sz. 16 dry fly, you can consider this, but within that thought process you also need to keep in mind that these rods are not nearly as effective when there is any amount of wind. Because the line is so light, if there is any kind of wind, your fly will not travel to your desired location. I have had many personal frustrations with this using the 2 weight I once owned, and that is what led me to the 3 weight I use now.

For a summary of rod weight, a 3 weight will be the most versatile rod for small stream angling that also allows you to enjoy the few second fight the small stream fish put up.

There are many different options when it comes to length of rod. Some companies even go so short as offering a 6’ rod, yet others go for as long as physically possible (Tenkara) - some of these rods can be over 12’ long.

There are clear advantages to a longer rod. With a longer rod, you will be able to control your drift easier. There will be less fly line on the water, which means you won’t be able to effectively fish certain runs and pools.

The disadvantage would be that some streams have so much brush it makes casting a longer rod very difficult. There are ways around this of course; things such as the bow and arrow cast can be incredibly helpful and eliminate frustration while out on the water (as long as you don’t hook yourself).

I’ve used 6’6” rods and I’ve fished Tenkara rods stretched out to 12 foot on the same piece of water, and I landed more fish with the longer rod. Your drift is undeniably better with a long rod. This means that your fly looks more realistic for longer. Of course, I’m not saying the only way to go is by using a Tenkara rod, but they are certainly effective. My recommendation would be to start on a 7’6” rod or longer.

If you have difficulty casting this length of a rod, try learning a bow and arrow cast, choke up on the grip, or try to fish that pool from a different angle.

7’6” is as short as I go. 8’ or 8’6” is probably my favorite, but that’s me. As you get on the water and fish, you will develop a personal preference with your angling over time. You may disagree with my thoughts, but just know that my own preferences are for how I personally fish these small streams.


This will be a touchy subject. Until the 1970s, the rods were made using fiberglass (or in some cases metal). They were heavy, felt somewhat like cane rods, and did the job asked of them. The introduction of graphite rods made things lighter and faster. Graphite rods load faster than fiberglass. This means you can make tighter loops and cast with less effort in the wind. Graphite became king.

In the last 10 years there has been a resurgence of fiberglass rods. Manufacturers were able to make fiberglass lighter and cast easier than their grandfathers’. This has made choosing the perfect rod for you a little harder.

In a small stream environment, you are often making short 10’ - 15’ casts. With this amount of line out, you need a rod that will load with very little line out of the guides. With a 7.5 ft. leader and a 10 foot cast, you only need 2.5 feet of fly line to land on your target. This means you need a rod that will cast with very little effort. Short, very tight casts are where fiberglass/ cane have a slight advantage.

This being said, as soon as you start to stretch out past that 15’ marker, graphite takes over again. Some of the pools I fish are easily 30’ wide and several feet deep. When a fish actually eats at this distance, it requires a great deal of energy to set the hook, which is something graphite is better suited for.

With these different aspects revealed, your rod material choice is a matter of preference.

You want to get the rod that will work best in the situations you put yourself in. For example, I don’t mind throwing nymphs or small streamers, so I use graphite rods 80% of the time. I use fiberglass rods when I want to strictly fish dry flies in medium to tight cover. If you'd rather use a graphite for these situations, you can always over-line your rod to make your graphite rod cast shorter distances.

FIBERGLASS TIP: There are different levels bend in a fiberglass rod. I don’t recommend getting fiberglass rods that feel like rubber bands; they may seem cool in your local fly shop, but on the water they will frustrate you. Rods that bend too much won’t have the force to set the hook and do a poor job of keeping fly line off the water.

Selecting a small stream rod is a personal decision. I can tell you what my favorite is, and how I fish, but that doesn’t mean what I like is what you will like. My personal recommendation for the beginner would be to get a 7’6” 3 weight rod such as the Thomas and Thomas Zone . If you're a little tighter on your budget, the TFO Pro II or Signature Series are also great options. Pair it with an SA Trout Line and you will be a happy camper.

If you’re on the hunt for a fiberglass rod, the Thomas and Thomas Lotic is my favorite one we sell.

Now, don’t think that your 9 foot 5 weight intro rod won’t work. You can certainly make do with it for a time, but if you are serious about wanting to catch small stream trout, you will want to get a shorter/light weight rod. It will make the fight more enjoyable, casting more accurate, and the fishing easier while you hike through our beautiful mountains.