Small Stream Fishing Part 3: Smart Tactics for Small Streams
By Tom Rosenbauer
Which Fly First?
If the water is at a normal level and its temperature is above 50°, you have a choice of nearly any fly. If the water is shallow and not overly rich, choose a dry fly. You can cover a lot of water quickly without spooking the entire pool or run with a dry fly. The thinner the water, the more likely a blind-fished dry fly will produce. In fishing a dry, I’ll often find a deep pool where a dry won’t produce and throw on a weighted nymph that may catch a trout that didn’t come up for the dry.
Move more quickly than you think. Often fishermen move too slowly—spending too much time flogging one pool. Dries, especially in infertile streams where trout grab the first morsel that drifts by, can be fished fairly quickly, with one or two casts to each attractive spot. If there is tricky water in a pool or run, where drag is influencing your fly, you might make a half-dozen casts to the same spot, to learn the currents, or to throw slack line or curve casts to improve your drift.
With dries it also makes a difference what species of trout are in a stream. Rainbows, cutts, and brookies are more likely to take a dry on the first decent cast than browns which may wait for over a dozen seemingly perfect casts. Nymphs require a slower pace, especially if you know there are trout in a spot and feel confident you haven’t spooked them. Your first cast with a nymph should still be your best, as each subsequent cast has more potential to frighten the fish. Trout may often ignore a nymph until it drifts right in front of them, particularly if the stream offers a lot of food. A smart plan is to add weight to your leader, or to use a tuck cast, to get the fly deeper if your first dozen casts don’t produce a strike. Add weight until you start hanging bottom.
How long do you go before changing flies?
I’ll always give a dry fly a complete run through a small stream’s pool, or maybe half a riffle in a larger river. If I catch any trout, I’ll stay with the fly. If I catch a small trout, I might try a similar fly in a larger or smaller size, usually smaller. After a while, if I keep catching smaller trout, I may drop a nymph off the back, figuring the larger trout are not interested in surface food. Often smaller fish come to the surface but the lazier, more efficient, careful adults are reluctant to feed on top.
How to Make a Careful Approach?
When prospecting for trout, you don’t have the advantage of knowing exactly where the trout are, as when fishing to rising fish, so your approach is even more critical. Not only don’t you know where they are, but trout not actively feeding are more alert. Assume that the fish can see or hear you before you see them.
You can get closer to a trout by approaching from directly behind, but many times stream conditions or the method you have chosen won’t allow it. Keep your profile low and your approach as stealthy as possible.
The crucial part starts before you step into the water. Staying well back from the water, read the water in the entire pool or riffle and figure out where most of the fish are before you step in. Then make a plan for the pool. If you’re faced with a pool where you suspect most of the good fish are at the head, starting at the tail may spook smaller trout into the head, causing a chain reaction of spooked fish. Your plan here might be to cut into the middle of the pool, so that any spooked fish will be forced to the tail.
Remember not to push ripples ahead of you when you wade. Any trout within the concentric circles will stop feeding. Stay on the bank if you can. As long as you can keep your profile low and kneel or crawl along the bank and don’t create heavy foot falls, you can almost always fish a meadow stream more effectively by staying out of the water.
If you have to wade, shallower water dissipates ripples quicker than deep water, and fast water keeps them from moving upstream, so try to stay in fast, shallow water. In slow, glassy water, ripples radiate in all directions, so moving slowly downstream, stepping no faster than the current, is stealthier than moving upstream and minimizes disturbances.
By staying directly below an object, you can break up the effect of wading, and often wade to within 15 feet of a trout with a rock or log between you and it. It is always better to kneel or crouch when approaching trout. Most of us are not physically suited to crouching through six hours of fishing, so it’s best to save the crouching for areas of a stream where it is really needed, like the tail of a pool or shallow, slow water.
Avoid making a silhouette against the horizon. It draws attention to you. When possible, stay on the side with the brushier bank. Choose the color of your fishing vest and clothing to match the background of a stream. Green for brushy streams, tan for summer grasslands in Montana or Wyoming. Avoid bright metal objects like metal pin-ons or forceps.
In small streams, the shorter your casts the more successful you’ll be—as long as you make a careful approach. Making a 20’ cast when a 10-footer will do is asking for trouble by spooking every fish in the pool and having your fly drag as soon as it hits the water. Not to mention catching brush behind you. This is why many small stream fly fishers prefer Superfine Trout Bums. They cast precisely and accurately at shorter distances, places where a normal trout rod would need to be pushed too hard to get a short line moving.
Have fun and good luck.
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