Classic Tuesday Tip: How to Fish a Mountain Stream

Written by: Phil Monahan

The key to catching lots of brookies from a mountain stream is to move fast and hit all the right spots.
Photo by Sandy Hays

The keys to catching good numbers of trout on steep mountain streams are stealth and speed. Wild brook trout are wary, fast, and can hide in tiny spaces. There are lots of predators that eat these fish, so they’ve evolved heightened senses and evasive maneuvers. You need to learn how to move and fish upstream without spooking the fish in front of you, and you want to cover as much water as possible to get your fly in front of more fish. Think stealth and speed.

Always work upstream, which gives you the advantage of approaching trout from the rear. Some folks take extreme stealth measures—crawling on hands and knees up to each pool—but if you simply crouch, avoid jerky movements, and keep your shadow off the water, you should be fine. Because you’re working upstream, you can see the series of pools and runs ahead of you. Plan a course upstream that will put you in the best position to cast and avoid throwing your shadow on the water. A good small-stream angler is like a chess player, always thinking several moves ahead.

When you get to the bottom of a pool, your goal is to drop your fly everywhere a trout might be hiding (since you can rarely spot brook trout) and to do this quickly, so you can move on to the next pool. When you look at a pool, there are usually plenty of likely fish lies—under the whitewater at the head, alongside rocks, current seams, and so on. Divide the pool into a grid, and work your way upstream such that each cast leads to the next one. By starting close and planning your casts, you can keep from throwing your line over any likely holding spots before you get a chance to put your fly there.

I always work on the assumption that, because food is often scarce in these waters, if a mountain brookie is going to strike, it’ll hit the fly the first time it sees it. So I don’t make multiple casts to the same spot. The accompanying photo of a mountain pool shows a series of casts that would allow you to cover the water quickly. The shot is taken looking downstream. You would approach from downstream, facing the camera. The numbers indicate the order of the casts and where your dry fly should land.

The right sequence of casts allows you to put the fly in the most likely holding spots without spooking any trout. This photo is taken looking downstream; the angler would approach from upstream (top of the photo).
Photo by Phil Monahan

1. Your first cast should be just above the lip where the pool drains. You’d be surprised how many fish will strike just as your fly is about to go “over the falls” into the whitewater below.

2. The “funnel” where the pool narrows, thus focusing the current and food supply.

3. The near side of the main current seam, allowing the drift to continue around the near side of the midstream rock.

4. The tailout of the main current, allowing the fly to drift into the cushion in front of the rock.

5. The near corner, where slow water meets the main current.

6. The near side of the main current in the middle of the pool.

7. The center of the main current.

8, 9, 10. Working from near to far across the top of the pool.

11. The far corner, where slow water meets the main current.

12, 13, 14. Working from near to far to hit the soft water next to the whitewater.

Cast number 15 hits the lip of the next pool upstream.

Although it takes 14 casts to cover this small pool, these are quick, short casts. You don’t want to put much line of the water in these turbulent currents, and your normal drift will be just a few feet. The 14 casts shown here should take no more than two minutes. (The water on the right in the photo is very shallow, so it probably doesn’t hold trout.)

For this kind of fishing, you’ll want a short rod, which allows you to make quick casts in tight quarters. As much as possible, high-stick your fly through its drift, keeping the fly line off the water. When you’re done with a drift, one or two drying false casts are all that are needed before you drop your fly in the next spot.

11 thoughts on “Classic Tuesday Tip: How to Fish a Mountain Stream

  1. BenC

    Wow, excellent information for a beginning fly-fisher (which I am)! Wish I had read this article last week before I went up to a bunch of small mtn streams. Caught a few, but could have done better (and worked upstream instead of downstream).

  2. Ted Padilla

    Excellent article! I look forward to trying this methodology on the next Northern NM small stream I visit.

    1. Spencer

      You got it, this is exactly how I fish the Agua Fria and Rayado in northern NM. Speed is key, the more water you cover, the more fish see your flies, the more you catch!

  3. Mike H

    I truly appreciate the wealth of information you provide on a daily basis… not to mention great photo’s, videos and inspirational stories.

    Keep up the good work… thank you!

    Mike H.
    Albany, NY

  4. Bernie Baldwin

    An excellent approach to pools on small streams. Will use these on my next NM stream I go to. Thanks!

  5. Jeff

    Excellent advice all around. One thing I’ve discovered though violates the cardinal rule, but it only applies during low still water situations. That is, sometimes you have to fish downstream to catch a brookie.

    Its the cardinal sin, but if the pool you are approaching has a large glassy flat with any depth to it, you should just skip trying to work your way up the pool. If you don’t get a brookie on your first cast, odds are that they have either been scared before you cast or by your first cast. That still water is just too clear and any disturbance scares the fish. If the big pool has a deeper lip I’ll start by tossing a fly there before I make my next move. Dropping my fly there I can let just the fly and some tippet settle on the water gently, without any ripples from the larger end of the leader or the fly line disrupting things.

    For those big pools, if a fish didn’t take the 1-2 casts at the bottom lip and the brookies aren’t actively hitting the top, I’ll see if I can spot any by approaching from the rear and side of the pool, very stealthily. The side I approach from is determined by where I want to fish the pool from. If its deep enough to hold some nice fish, I might toss a fly at them to see if they’ll rise. If one does its likely to be the only one you’ll get from a pool like that as the others will scatter or madly dash around the pool in circles, frightening every other fish in the pool (and sometimes even shooting upstream into the next pool). Again, I keep the fly line off of the water or pandemonium could ensue.

    Otherwise I’ll bypass the pool and work the bottom of the next pool up from the side, and the top of the pool I went around, dropping my fly right into the foam at the head. If I haven’t scared them in that downstream pool, they’ll be feeding there and they can’t see me because of the foam. Anyway, that’s my contribution about the rare exceptions to the “never downstream” rule.

    As a testament to how good the advice from Phil is, earlier this week I fished a little freestone in north central PA. Using the techniques Phil outlined here and my exception on one pool I managed to catch about 20 brookies in just a few brief stops, fishing a total of no more than five or six plunge pools. I would have spent more time and had many more brookies but I was supposed to be hiking with my wife. :D

    A local came by while I was fishing one pool and watched me catch five and miss one in a period of no more than two minutes and told my wife I was the first person he saw have so much success there. He wondered if it was the fly I was using–no, it was a matter of properly fishing the pool as Phil outlines. Apply Phi’s advice and you’ll be able to have great success as well!

  6. Aaron

    If you’re making 15 casts into a small stream pool, you don’t really know how to fish a mountain stream. Or, you enjoy casting a whole lot more than actually catching fish.

    I totally agree with #1. Those are what we refer to as the ‘sentry’ fish. There are almost always 1 or 2 at the lip of the pool. Your first cast should ALWAYS be to the sentry fish. If you catch one, you MIGHT catch another fish at locations 12-14, but most likely not. If you cast to the sentry fish and spook them, time to move to the next pool because that one is 90% of the time totally shut off. If you cast to the sentry fish and they don’t take, but slowly move forward, you still have a good chance of catching another fish out of the pool and then you can work locations 2-14. If the sentry fish move forward slowly which usually won’t shut off the bite, I would next cast to locations 5, 6, 7 & 11.


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