I grew up fishing small streams for trout – first with spinners and then with flies.
I have done more small stream fishing than any other kind and welcome the chance to share some information about small stream trout fishing techniques to help others.
I will start by talking about fly fishing in small streams and add in extra info for the lure fishers at the end.
In terms of trout holding positions, obviously the info holds true for both fly fishing and lure fishing.
1.Always Fish Upstream
This is the very foundation of stream fishing – always fish upstream. The reason is that the fish face upstream and if you are moving upstream you stand the best chance of fishing to trout that haven’t been spooked.
2.Find the Fishy Spots: Energy/Food/Cover Balance
Fish are creatures just like us and have the same hierarchy of needs: food, shelter and protection. Trout will hold in spots that have each of these factors – abundant food floating past, a current flow that allows them to conserve energy and nearby shelter to flee into in the event that detect trouble. We’ve written about some typical spots you’ll find trout in a stream below.
These are little pools adjacent to faster water usually formed by rocks in the stream or an obstruction on the bank. The water slows here to allow the fish to save energy, but it is close to a conveyor belt of food coming down the faster water to the side of the pocket and if there’s a deep section nearby or whitewater then that offers a bolt hole in the case of trouble. Don’t be afraid to cast repeatedly in these spots. It’s tricky sometimes to get a drag free drift that interests the fish as the fly can’t really be on the water for a long time. Rainbow trout in particular love this pocket water.
A nice stream glide with likely fish lies marked in red
These are mid depth sections of moderate where a fish can sit swaying from side to side intercepting either subsurface nymphs, hatching insects or falling terrestrials. Trout can often be spotted in advance in these spots, particular against a light colored bottom. Always approach the tail of a glide carefully as this a favored spot for brown trout to sit and feed in many circumstances. Fish methodically upstream casting to all fish that you see and all likely spots.
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Drop Offs and Gravel Bars
These are other favoured trout hangouts, especially when there is a hatch on. Both brown trout and rainbow trout will take advantage of the drop in water velocity just when it drops off and hang there, intercerpting whatever is coming past. These are great spots to fly fish with a dry dropper rig.
Eddies are created by significant obstruction on the bank or a significant curve in the stream. In an eddy, the current flow will actually be the reverse of the stream direction and it will be flowing much slower than the main stream. Eddies have to be fished carefully, usually by stepping inland and heading upstream (away from the river’s edge) and then fishing them from above so the fish can’t see you. (In this case this wasn’t an option due to the tree, but a long range presentation with a mend gave enough time for the trout to take the fly).
The one are that most fly fishers tend to pass over is undercut banks. They aren’t always obvious, but if you can find a nice undercut bank that’s often where large fish will hold. The undercut gives the fish a genuine sense of safety and they can just peel out into the current to intercept food.
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3.Spot the Fish Where Possible
Streams usually have nice clear water and aren’t too deep. This makes them relatively easy to sight fish. You don’t need to be able to spot fish in advance in small streams – it’s usually fairly obvious where the best lies are – but it certainly helps. And it is fun! Move slowly and use your polarized sunglasses to spot as many fish as you can. If it is overcast, if you look towards trees or a high bank, this will cut the glare.
4. Go Light with Your Trout Fishing Gear
While there always some surprises, small stream trout aren’t usually that big. Going light with your gear (ultralight spinning rod combos for the lure guys) and twig water fly rods (a #2 weight –#4 weight fly rod is fine) for the fly guys makes for better spot. Depending on what type of trout rod you have, it is worth considering overlining it for smaller streams so it loads easily on short casts. Shorter rods are better too, as there is often a decent canopy of trees around the best small streams. Tippets too don’t need to be anything more than 5x. Some anglers like the feel of a fiberglass fly rod for fishing streams.
5.Master The Roll Cast
The roll cast is an absolute essential for trout fishing a stream with a fly rod. It’s useful just to get the slack line out on the water in preparation for a conventional, but very often the trees or shrubs will prevent any kind of backcast, meaning the roll cast can be your only option (along with the bow and arrow cast!).
6.Avoid False Casting When Fly Fishing
With small stream trout fishing (as opposed to river fishing or lake fishing), we are very rarely casting more than a few rod lengths so we don’t need to false cast much for these shorter casts. This means less fish spooked and more efficient trout fishing. Practice until you can cast two rod lengths without a false cast. Just take back the line and lay it out shooting some line on the forward cast or use a roll cast. Sort out your timing and you should be able to cover all distances inside two rod lengths in these two ways.
7. Don’t Obsess about Fly Choice
There are always exceptions, but for the most part stream trout are not fussy when it comes to food. Brown and rainbow trout in streams are opportunists who are usually inclined to grab whatever food is coming past. I like to fish dry fly only on streams and will only resort to indicator nymphing with a dry dropper rig if I have to. Choose a buoyant dry (Humpy, Royal Wulff, Elk Hair Caddis, Hopper patterns etc) that allows you to fish the pockets and the foot of little rapids and waterfalls without sinking. Use floatant and dry shake as required. Fishing small rivers and streams means you don’t need to carry spare fly reels, wet flies (beyond a few nymphs) and a range of other gear. A sling pack is sometimes a better option than a vest. In terms of hooks, consider fishing barbless – you aren’t likely to be landing any trophy trout and it makes catch and release much easier.
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8.Be a Good Observer
While fly choice is not usually an issue, it always pays to be observant to see if there is a particular hatch or fall that is triggering a feeding frenzy and seeing the fish get locked on to a particular food source, it pays to be able to pick up on what that is an imitate it. You’ll see this with grasshoppers in the right season, with termites if a storm is approaching and with mayfly and caddis and other aquatic insects during substantial hatches. Fly fishing is about observation and changing tactics and strategy according to what’s going on on the river or stream.
9.Avoid Wading Unless you Have to
Most trout in streams are on high alert for anything that spells danger and there is usually a healthy population of trout in a range of sizes. Avoid wading to fish small streams wherever possible as the small trout that you spook will often swim upstream and alert their larger cousins that something is not quite right! If it is hot, you don’t even need your waders.
10.Lure Fishing Advice
Lure fishing in small streams (see her for the best lures for trout) can be very productive and great fun. The main to remember is to keep the lure size small – small inline spinners and rooster tails are great when the fish are in an aggressive mood. You’ll need to switch to little crankbaits and jerkbaits if they aren’t turned on enough to hit a spinner. See here for some suggestions on good trout rods and reels and here for some lure-specific tips on fishing streams.
Final Thoughts on Trout Fishing in Streams
Trout fishing in small streams is really addictive and some of the best fun you’ll have on the water. It’s also a great way to introduce kids to fishing as most of the time you’ll be catching fish pretty frequently and you don’t need a wide range of fly fishing or lure fishing skills to catch a wild trout.
Smaller streams are a great learning academy for young anglers – I can attest to this myself. The trout fishing techniques you learn fishing small streams with a fly rod or with lures in terms of casting efficiently and accurately, avoiding spooking trout and sight fishing are really useful for river fishing in a range of different types of water from freestone rivers to larger rivers such as tailraces. Many of the fishing techniques you learn are also transferable to lake fishing including sight fishing, efficient casting and reading the water.
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