Although often overshadowed by larger rivers or ever-productive tailwaters, small streams can be a fly fisherman’s best friend. These hidden gems can provide solitude, adventure, and huge numbers of fish.
If you know how to fly fish a river, chances are you’ll be able to pull plenty of trout from a backcountry stream. But, knowing what you’re doing on smaller creeks can be the difference between a 10-fish day and a 50-fish day.
These 11 tips will help you maximize your time on small, backcountry streams.
1. Look for pocket water
In small streams, pocket water is king. Contrary to the large, flowing runs of larger rivers, tiny creeks are often made up of pockets of slow water separated by obstacles. These pockets are perfect for holding resting trout.
As insects and other food bits wash over falls or around rocks, trout can easily snatch them up in the slow water without wasting energy. Pockets consistently hold trout because they’re the most efficient places for them to feed.
Pockets are easy to find, even for beginners. They most often form between riffles, behind large rocks, and along uneven shorelines. You can spot them by looking for clear, glassy water surrounded by rougher and faster water. It’ll be easier to see them with polarized sunglasses, as they will cut the glare and make smooth areas of water extremely visible.
In the smallest of streams, pockets often form between cascading riffles. These streams are generally very linear, with a riffle-pool-riffle pattern forming a sort of staircase as they go.
What’s nice about these streams is that it’s a no-brainer where the fish will be. Since they obviously can’t maintain a position in cascading water, they’ll have to sit in these pools. This makes locating fish very easy.
The downside is that you won’t get to have long drifts with your fly. Typically, you’ll be trying to drop your fly into the pool and keep it there, avoiding the downstream falls. The other downside is that if you don’t bring a hooked fish in right away, it could end up tumbling down over the cascades. Not exactly its idea of a perfect day.
However, if fished correctly, these types of pockets can be extremely productive and should fish well through the day.
Rock pockets are probably my favorite type of pocket to fish. These pockets appear just behind large rocks sticking out of the water. They can also form behind submerged rocks, but these will generally have faster-moving water and can be difficult to nymph without getting hung up.
A benefit of these pockets is that they often stretch far downstream of the actual rock. This provides a larger area to hold fish, and often larger fish.
These stretches also usually allow you to fish long, clean drifts, which is satisfying in itself. You won’t need to cast as often and won’t need to worry about maintaining a fly in one small area.
One last place to consistently find pockets is along uneven shoreline. When the edge of the river juts out or dips back, this can leave a pocket of slow water.
These can be hit or miss, depending on the water depth and the size of the pocket. If the pocket is too large, the water can become still and stagnant, which doesn’t usually equal many eager fish. Additionally, being close to shore could mean the water is only a few inches deep. Shallow water can hold fish, but they will usually be smaller and nymphing can be difficult.
On the other hand, if you have a small pocket in deep enough water, this can be a great place to find fish. A small pocket means that flowing water will be nearby and insects will be moving through. Fish will gladly sit on the sidelines while food gets delivered to their door.
2. Fish the banks
For slightly larger streams, pockets may not be super common. Even without pockets, it’s important to find features that break up the monotony of the river flow.
When all you have to work with is a smooth, flat, slowly flowing stream, sticking along the banks can be crucial. Overhanging shoreline with long grass not only provides cover for spooky fish, but also creates a funnel delivering bugs straight into the trouts’ dining room.
Look for areas where the water is still moving, but out of the main current. If you can find undercut areas that are covered and also deeper than the runs nearby, that’s perfect.
You do need to be careful not to spook fish from above. Fishing down on them from the same shore will usually give away your presence. Instead, cross the river and fish toward shore. If it’s a wide enough stream, you may be able to easily fish both banks from the middle. Just be sure to not get hung up in branches or grass as you fish.
3. Bring your polarized sunglasses
If you can only pick one tip to take away from this list, this should probably be it. Polarized glasses are a must-have for small-water fishing. Not only do they allow you to see pockets more easily, but spotting fish can be extremely important.
The number of times I’ve stomped through a run that looked too shallow/fast/etc to hold a fish, only to see one dart away once it’s too late, is through the roof. Spotting these fish is nearly impossible with a glare on the water.
Apart from the fishing itself, polarized glasses will keep you from stepping into unexpectedly deep spots and tripping on underwater rocks, too.
I’d say don’t even bother fishing without polarized sunglasses, but telling someone not to fish is always bad advice. Instead, just make sure you take them.
4. Stay mobile
Unlike large rivers where you may be able to stay in a spot for an hour and consistently haul in fish, small streams are designed for those willing to trek.
Whether you can step across the stream in a single stride, or it requires a full cast to fish, the odds are that most runs will not be big enough to hold more than a handful of fish. Especially in staircase pocket water, runs will often only hold a single trout.
While these fish will likely take your fly after just a cast or two, it’s probably not worth sticking around for long after you land one. In larger pools, you may be able to pull a second or third out, but for many small streams, there’s only enough real estate for a single fish in each hole.
The plus side is that in these cases, there won’t be a shortage of spots to hit. You may only get a single fish out of a pocket, but where there’s one pocket, there are usually hundreds more if you keep moving.
Staying mobile can make every cast valuable. If you’re constantly fishing untouched spots, the fish can’t wise up to what you’re up to.
5. Pack a tenkara rod
Tenkara, the traditional Japanese style of fly fishing, is becoming more and more popular these days. If you’re unfamiliar with it, tenkara fishing involves a very long (often 12-13 ft or more), collapsible rod and no reel. Instead, the thin line is tied directly to the tip of the rod.
The obvious downside of tenkara in most people’s eyes is that you can’t work the line the way you can with a reel. You can’t make 60ft casts or use a drag system. But when was the last time you needed either of those things on a tiny creek?
On the other hand, there are many benefits to using a tenkara setup on small streams.
The first and most basic is how light and simple the setup is. You don’t have to haul around a clunky reel or worry about excess line getting tangled on your pack. The telescoping rod allows you to carry it in a backpack pocket, or even a pants pocket. It’s designed to be about as hassle-free as possible.
The extra length is also perfect for babbling brooks. When possible, it’s good to avoid wading too much in small streams to prevent spooking fish. Having a couple extra feet of rod length will make up for wading. The length also gives you the opportunity to place your fly exactly where you want it, instead of making long casts and getting snagged, or slapping the water in the wrong spot.
Though people will insist that tenkara can be used on any body of water, there’s no arguing that small streams are what it was designed for. If you want to “specialize” in these tiny hidden gems, tenkara is the way to go.
6. Practice precision
Let’s face it, fishing large rivers doesn’t require much accuracy. Hucking a fly out and hoping for the best often produces great results. With open water, obstacles aren’t an issue and fish are spread around a larger area.
Not the case with small streams.
Precision is absolutely necessary. Much of the time, you’ll be surrounded by trees on all sides. If not trees, bushes or tall grass are likely. Without a conscious effort to avoid them, your fly is sure to get caught up every few casts.
This can be especially annoying when the fly gets hung up across the creek, forcing you to choose between losing a fly and splashing through a fishy run.
Apart from the risk of getting snagged on brush, you’ll need to have a solid aim to hit the tiny spots that hold fish in small water. If you can’t land your fly in an area the size of a basketball, you’re going to have trouble placing it where you want on the water on your first cast. If it takes you three or four splashy casts to hit your mark, the trout will likely be gone before you nail it.
Obviously, practicing on the water is the best way to get better at precision. Find a pocket water stream and fish every pocket you see. You may botch the first couple holes, but eventually you’ll catch on and will still have plenty of pockets to fish.
Build your own practice arena
If you don’t often get time on the water, practicing in a backyard is just fine, too (avoid asphalt, as this can damage your fly line). Build makeshift targets from things in your house. A hula hoop works great, but you could really use anything that’s small enough to challenge you. Empty milk jugs, dog toys, or kitchen bowls will all do the trick.
Stand as far away as you want, and practice hitting these targets with your casts. Once you can consistently hit them cast after cast, you can try moving back farther. It’s unlikely you’ll need to make 60 ft casts for small streams, so if you are able to consistently hit 20-30 ft casts, you should be golden.
One extra tip for practicing in the back yard: tie a small piece of bright yarn to the end of your leader. This will make it much more obvious where your cast landed. Otherwise, you’ll be looking for the end of a leader, which is never easy.
7. Skip the waders
Obviously, skip this tip if you are fishing in the winter. If you are fishing in the warmer months, though, consider ditching your waders.
During the summer, most people will be dying to cool off while they’re fishing. Wearing waders in a lake when you’re chest deep is one thing, but there’s really no need to have them for creek fishing. A pair of wading boots with gaiters or just a pair of solid outdoor sandals can easily replace sweaty, stuffy waders.
The first obvious benefit to ditching waders is that you won’t have to worry about destroying them. Since small streams often run through brushy forests or fields and require precise techniques, there’s a good chance you’ll be pushing through branches and over rocks to get in just the right position. This is a recipe for torn waders. Going barelegged (if you don’t mind scuffed legs) or wearing a pair of long pants will let you push through brush without having to worry.
The other huge downside of waders in small streams is how clunky they can be. Keeping a low profile is vital when you’re fishing right on top of trout. You often won’t have distance, fast water, or turbidity to hide you from all the eyes and ears on alert in the river. Being able to nimbly move through the water and along the shore can allow you to close distance and take shorter casts, giving you the best chance to hook up.
8. Master the roll cast
If you fish a lot of creeks, you probably rarely make full false casts. Not only is the distance not required, but false casting can lead to you climbing a tree to retrieve your fly. Instead, master your roll casting.
Roll casting involves lifting the rod above your head and slightly back, and then “rolling” the line out in front of you by strongly and smoothly making a single forward cast. The advantage of a roll cast is that there is no backcast to get caught on brush. It can be done in almost any area due to its low profile.
The video below is a good demonstration of a roll cast.
In the video, the caster is in a fairly large stream and is using the surface tension of the water to help “spring” his roll casts forward. This is helpful for him because he is trying to make longer casts. In smaller bodies of water, you won’t need the extra length, so don’t worry if your line is too short to use surface tension. Even if your line is down at your side out of the water, the technique will still work just fine.
9. Avoid clunky indicators
One of the fastest ways to clear trout from a hole is to make a big splash on the surface. Using big plastic indicators can be a great way to nymph for trout, but not when even the smallest ripple could spook the fish.
For small streams, leave your Thingamabobbers at home and consider something a little less intrusive.
The simplest way to nymph could be to tight line your fly using a long rod (like a tenkara rod). You will have precise control over your fly and can position it exactly where you want it.
Alternatively, you can still get the benefits of an indicator without using a heavy plastic one. Two of the most effective approaches are a dry-dropper rig and using a less conspicuous indicator like yarn or foam.
My preferred method is the dry-dropper approach. As long as you can keep your dry fly floating well, it will be a very effective and sensitive indicator. The obvious benefit here is that the fish can choose to take the dry in addition to the nymph, upping your chances of getting a strike. The downside is that if your dry gets waterlogged, it can be annoying to constantly be drying it off.
The other effective option is a discreet indicator. There are several options available. One of the most popular is yarn. These fluffy indicators float well, don’t cause much drag in drifts, and are light enough to have little effect on casting. Adding a little floatant can keep them water resistant and buoyant.
Foam indicators are another great choice. These come in various options as well, but for small streams, the stick-on foam indicators are my favorite. They’re ridiculously easy to put on your leader and are so small and light that they won’t cause a disturbance on the water. The two drawbacks to the stick-on foams are that they are single-use and that they’re fairly hard to adjust once you’ve stuck them on your line.
The type of rig you choose will ultimately be based on personal preference. As long as your setup has minimal drag and a subtle landing, you’re good to go.
10. Don’t overset the hook
One of the hardest big-water habits to break when you are fishing small streams is the strong hook set.
If you set the hook on a small brook trout the same way you do for a 20″ rainbow, there won’t be much brookie left at the end.
The same way small trout give subtle strikes, you have to match with “subtle” hook sets. This doesn’t mean wait and hope the fish does all the work, but it does require some conscious effort to not overdo.
The goal is to pull the fly just enough to set the hook, but not hard enough to lift the fish out of the water. This happens more often than you’d think if you’re used to setting the hook on larger fish. I’ve seen multiple tiny fish go flying.
There aren’t many tricks to getting better at this apart from mental preparation and practice. If you haven’t prepared in your head how you will set the hook, you’ll probably be caught off guard when you get a strike. Before you begin casting, tell yourself not to overset the hook. Just having a game plan in place can make a world of difference.
Practice on streams with small fish. After you successfully hook a few, it will start to become second nature that you can’t be overly forceful on small water.
11. Always fish upstream
This is a good rule of thumb regardless of the size of stream you’re fishing. However, it’s way more crucial on small streams than it is on large rivers where the fish are less likely to spot you.
Fish in narrow creeks are always on high alert. Without the protection of deep runs and fast water, trout are left much more vulnerable.
Because fish require moving water over their gills, they tend to face upstream when they aren’t on the move. This means that anyone approaching from upstream will quickly be spotted. It also means that any silt or debris you stir up will be sent straight past all the fish you’re about to target.
In addition, since most of the time you’ll be casting upstream, it can be difficult to get into a good position if you’re constantly working down.
The solution to all these problems is simply to work your way upstream as you fish. You can cast upstream as you go, fishing every hole before you get to it. As long as your wading isn’t out of control, you’ll be able to get reasonably close to each run without scaring the fish facing upstream. You also won’t have to worry about mucking up the water you’re about to fish.
Again, this is good practice regardless of the size of stream, so getting in the habit now will pay off down the road.
Time to hit the water
With these 11 tips, you’ll find great success on small streams wherever you are. If the river you normally fish is littered with other fishermen, trash, or unsightly views, consider checking out an unnamed stream in the woods. You might be pleasantly surprised.
And, if you learned a thing or two from this list, check out my list of 9 Tips to Catch More Trout in Backcountry Lakes.