1) Hike, then fish - In my observation, few anglers will hike one mile to go fishing. My estimate is over 80% of anglers will not hike a mile and less than 5% of anglers will hike three miles. What this means to the experienced small stream angler is the farther you get from the trailhead the more eager the fish will be.
2) Be sneaky - Small stream fish are very nervous about anything big hovering over them. They see fewer anglers so when they do see you they spook quickly and swim off and hide. Any trout that is aware of your presence is far less likely to eat than one that is carefree, going about his daily business of watching for food. The best presentation or the most innovative fly patterns will not hook fish that know what is going on. Move slowly and deliberately so you don’t slosh water while wading. Always move upstream when fishing. Fish will always be facing into the current (upstream) when feeding and you will also have a lower profile when you are downstream. The other thing to consider is to avoid wearing bright clothing. There are many times when a fish will follow your fly downstream. Just as he’s coming to eat the fly he will be looking in your direction. Subdued colors that blend into the background will mask your presence far better than bright colors.
3) Fish are inherently lazy - It doesn't take any swimmer long to realize that swimming against the current is hard work. This is why trout will seek areas where they can wait in ambush, without having to fight the current, and will move only slightly from this ambush spot to pursue food. The stronger the current, the less distance they will move to chase food. Look for areas fast water meets or flows against slow moving water such as eddies, whirlpools, areas under waterfalls, pools, and behind logs or rocks. There are also still areas near the bottom of a rocky stream that fish will hug. Keep in mind that fish like to have a place nearby that they can escape to if threatened by a predator. Runs above or below deep pools often hold larger fish.
4) Keep Moving - Most strikes will occur on the first or second cast. It’s not uncommon for fishermen to want to improve on a bad cast. However, if your first cast hit the water with a smack there is little chance that a fish will still be around to inv
estigate a second offering. It’s better to move on to your next good opportunity rather than play a losing hand. The same goes for good casts. If you’ve gotten several excellent drifts with no response, you need to move. My general rule is any more than three casts is too many. Even if you’re getting strikes, move when the action starts to lull. Things have probably played out. By moving often you’ll put the fly over more fish. Putting the fly over more fish means finding more willing fish, which adds up to more strikes.
5) Go small - There is no need for big rods on a small stream. The smaller your line weight the less splash you will generate and the less "presence" you will have on the water. This becomes very important on gin clear beaver ponds. Casting a 5 weight fly line can often spook the entire pond with just one perfect cast. If you get serious about small streams I strongly recommend considering a 2 weight fly rod outfit or less. Also cut back those 9' leaders. Many casts might only be ten feet. Use a leader that allows you to cast short but still cast fly line. I like to use a 7 1/2' leader and then I cut it back a foot or so. But keep in mind I am also using a one weight fly line. Remember that to make any kind of cast you need at least three feet of fly line out of your rod tip. Having a shorter leader allows me to make more accurate casts when dealing with all the obstacles that are common on a small stream. Most flyfishers will mistake this to mean that a short rod is also required. This is not the case. The smaller line weight is what is important here not a smaller rod length. It is relatively rare to find water where an eight foot fly rod is too large. There are more places where extra length helps mend line, cast over brush or make roll casts with precision.
6) When times are tough the tough keep going - Streams with an abundance of overhanging tree limbs and roots protruding from banks can take a toll on your fly box. Most trout in these waters are naive and not at all leader shy so leave your 6X tippet at home. You’re far more likely to get your fly back out of the branches with 4X or 5X tippet. Heavy tippet will hold up to snags and abrasions better. By the same token, use flies that can stand up to some abuse. Small streams are places where a good fisherman can really rack up some numbers so use flies that can really take a beating. One of my favorites is a Foam Streambank Hopper or a Yellow Humpy.
7) Plan then cast - There are many situations where you can pat yourself on the back for catching a fish. But did you ever stop and think about whether or not you could have caught more than one fish? I’ll often see anglers shoot a cast to the head of the run and immediately get a strike. However, it may have been more effective to have made a short cast at the tail of the pool, then make a second cast to a good area off to the side. Working your way up the run may give you shots at several fish while making one cast to the head might have gotten one fish but spooked all the rest. Work your way upstream so you fish the water without spooking fish in the next location you plan to fish. Another thing a small stream angler can do before lifting the rod is to assess the situation. Will a roll cast be required because of obstructions to a back cast? Does the overhang near your target require a sidearm cast? Every pool, pocket, and run will be different and should be treated as such. This is the part of small stream fishing that makes it so fun, interesting and challenging. Nothing is more satisfying then creating a plan, executing it, and then landing results.
8) Be sure not to ignore unlikely water - I cannot begin to count how many times I spot a prime pool and charge ahead to cast into it. In my haste I spook a fish under my feet which in turn runs up to my prime pool and spooks all the fish I so eagerly wanted to catch. It’s relatively common for large fish to reside in a rare large pool, but regularly feed just upstream or downstream of that location. I’ve stepped on more big fish than I care to remember by dismissing riffles or pockets on the fringes of a big pool. Plenty of anglers unfamiliar with small streams might focus all of their attention on a few good size pools but most of the trout caught in small streams will come out of pocket water so never ignore it.
9) Buggy, sunny days - Hiking in the thin air is spectacular but it also has its dangers. At high altitude the ultraviolet rays from the sun are more intense and therefore more damaging. Even when it is cloudy the risk of sunburn is extreme. Lotions can provide some protection, but there is nothing that works as good as a good hat, long sleeve shirt and long pants. With the advanced materials being used today you can find clothing that is light, breathable and sun protective. My new favorites are clothing pieces that have bug repellent built into the threads of the garment. This allows me to use far less sun lotions and bug repellent that are actually not recommended to be used together. DEET plus sunscreen is a bad idea. The chemicals used in sunscreen are absorbed through the skin and into your blood. As sunscreens penetrate the skin, they help carry other chemicals that are on the skin into the body such as harmful insect repellents. The problem for me is I have only found products with DEET to be effective. So my personal solution is to wear light long sleeve clothing that is made with an insect repellent and limit the use of sunscreens and DEET to just the back of my hands and my face and neck. Also keep in mind that black flies and horse flies are not repelled by DEET and clothing is your only defense.
10) Pick your fights - Fly fishing should be about fun and enjoying the outdoors. All too often I hear folks say that they stay away from small streams because they always get hung up. There are times when I’ll advise a novice to skip a cast where he/she is likely to get hung up. If hanging in brush is something that bothers you and just ruins your day, don’t feel obligated to cast under every difficult overhang. However, don’t get frustrated when you do hang up. Making the attempt might result in failure, but you’ll never progress if you don’t challenge yourself. Keep in mind that there is always another fish just around the corner waiting for your fly to land in just the right spot.
As you may be able to tell, small streams are my passion. They give me the opportunity to escape into the wilderness and pursue adventure. I am always excited to share my experiences so stop by the shop and I will be glad to help you find your adventure. In the meantime keep checking our list of places to fish on our "Where to Go" section on our website. We will continually update our list with places that we have visited with stories, pictures, and videos when possible.
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Women's Fly Tying class series: Class 3, Advanced tying techniques, Dry flies