Small Stream Fly Fishing How To

FEA_small-streamNothing epitomizes fly fishing like casting to trout in a small stream environment — and here’s how to best target trout in your area.

I really enjoy fly fishing small creeks. They offer a tremendous amount of diversity, from small babbling mountainous brooks, to raging torrents, to slick meadow spring creeks. They harbour brown, rainbow, brook and cutthroat trout and arctic grayling add a nice spice to complete a great recipe. However, becoming a small stream fly fisher requires a specific skill set and equipment list. Do you have what it takes?

Stream Types

There are two broad types of small creeks: spring creek and freestone. The water on a spring creek is clear, fertile and smooth. Spring creek trout live a good healthy life, and they are aware of most everything around them. The result is a trout that tends to be challenging to catch, but is often larger than his freestone cousin.

Freestone creeks on the other hand are typically quick, turbulent and infertile. This creates a frantic fishing style, with fishermen quickly working their way between potential lies, getting eager trout to bite. I’ve caught some great trout while fishing these waters — I can’t say I’ve ever regretted fishing one.

Locating Trout

Locating trout in a creek is the most important step in effectively fishing them; even a beginner would land at least a couple of trout if he spent 100 per cent of his time fishing productive water.

Deep water is vital in small creek fishing. Deep water is abundant in most large rivers, but is often at a premium on little creeks, and some are very scarce in it. It allows fish to overwinter, and more deep water in a creek means more trout can overwinter, not to mention larger trout. Deep water will typically appear darker in colour than the water around it, making it easy to find. Remember that “deep” on a small creek may mean only a couple feet, or sometimes less in really shallow creeks.

A foam or bubble line often drifts right over the deeper parts of the stream, and is often a good indicator of deep-water sections you want to be fishing. The foam line also tells us where the main current seams are, which brings food to the trout. Trout will sit near these currents when they are feeding, which is when we want to be showing our flies to the trout. Trout often rest in deep water, or sit under cover to avoid predators; they may not be in a positive feeding mood in these instances, and may not be inclined to our best efforts.

Pools are classic fish holding locations. When we see a deep, emerald green pool from around a bend, we often want to run up to it, start casting and catch a bunch of trout. They often hold a large number of fish, and provide life to a creek by providing valuable overwintering habitat. The head and tail of pools are typically the best locations for actively feeding trout, with the deepest and slowest part being used primarily for cover and safety. The head is a personal favourite, based on much success I’ve had in the past. The upstream inside seam is one I never pass up. It’s just too easy for a trout to lie in the calm water, and snatch up a hapless bug drifting down the main current.

Undercut banks are created when a stream’s current cuts into the stream bank, carving out a protective nook. Trout, especially browns, really like sitting in places like this because of the overhead cover and relief from the strong current. Undercuts offer great fishing, and you should always be on the lookout for them.

Rocks, depressions, woody debris, etc all provide relief from the stream’s flow. These are fantastic locations to look for trout. Water slows down when the stream hits these obstacles, so the water on the bottom, and both behind and in front of these different structures, will be slower than the water around it. This is commonly found in what fisherman call “pocket water,” that is, stretches of stream broken up by many rocks. Many creeks lack long, deep pools, but hold numerous trout because of the amount of “pockets” that offer good holding water for fish. Because of the nature of this water type, it is often found in abundance on freestone streams. To locate pockets, it is helpful to look for the dark, slick patches of water between obstacles. These will usually be the locations with the best holding water for trout, because they are deeper and calmer than the other areas around the pockets.

Trout Behaviour & Patterns

In spring creeks, trout behave, to an extent, differently than freestone trout because they can. The availability of habitat types differ, allowing trout to act in certain manners, and insects differ in species and abundances, which effects feeding behaviour.

Spring creek trout often hang out in the abundant slow water, have more time to inspect food. They can slowly cruise in comfort thanks to the streams gentle flows. Freestone trout, on the other hand, hang out beside fast water, making quick decisions when it comes to what to eat, and don’t venture far for a morsel because the current speed can cause problems.

These subtle variations in behaviour mean we hunt them in slightly different manners. Standard tactics like a careful approach accurate cast, and good drift remain true, but we still modify our tactics to become more efficient anglers. Spring creek trout require more finesse. Drifts over a spring creek trout typically need to be more delicate. You need to know precisely where you have to cast, so as not to spook your target fish by lining it. If you pull your cast off the water too soon after a drift, a trout will either see the disturbance or feel it, and they’ll be gone. Spring creek trout will often take flies slowly, requiring more patience.

A freestone trout will react quickly to your presentation, meaning you don’t need to lead the fish by very much — a couple feet is plenty under most situations. Likewise, the cast can be picked up as soon as your fly has drifted past the trout, because the ripples and turbulence will hide your action.

You can usually get closer to a trout sitting in a freestone stream. The broken water will keep your silhouette from looking like a solid image. The fish will probably not be able to see you very well, and the rushing, constantly surging water will hide many of your movements. Spring creeks are typically smooth and clear, so these fish will see you more easily. Stay low, avoid excessive false-casting, and don’t make any unneeded movements that could send your trout scurrying for cover.


Thankfully, no matter which type of stream you want to fly fish, the gear is going to be at least similar. Sure, you’ll want to adjust a bit maybe, but you don’t need to go out and buy a fancy new rod just because you want to try fishing a spring creek instead of the freestoner that flows through your favourite campground.

For most creek fishing, a four- to six-weight, seven- to nine-foot fly rod with a floating line will work. If that’s what you have, perfect. But of course you can specialize. (And what fly fisherman doesn’t want more gear, right?)

Spring creeks offer a bit of a paradox, and you’ll need to decide for yourself where to make any concessions. A light rod, say a three-weight, is perfect for the delicate presentations you’ll want, with the nice little “match the hatch” dry you’re fishing. But spring creeks often offer better chances at large trout, and a three-weight isn’t the best choice for hauling Big Bertha out of the logs.

A six-weight is a good choice for muscling large trout, but not for protecting light tippets or casting delicately. I own lots of rods, and I’ll sit down and mull over the options before selecting the right tool for the job, balancing as best I can the pros and cons of a rod when it comes to presenting the flies I intend on using, the size of trout I can picture catching, and how far I’ll need to cast.

Freestone creeks are most often less fickle.  Casts on these creeks are typically short and the fish small, so you can use a lighter rod with fewer consequences than you could on a spring creek. Little three or four weights are really fun on these waters. That being said, I’ll usually use a rod just because I like it. If your favourite rod is between seven and nine feet long, and four- and six-weight, it’ll probably be good enough.

For me, the best all-round creek rod weight is a number five. I own several of these rods, ranging from eight-foot bamboo rods with smooth moderate actions to nine-foot graphite’s that are best described as bullet fast. Each has earned its place, and each gets used regularly. As far as lengths go, an 8.5-foot or nine-foot rod is probably the best all-round choice, and also easy to find in a fly shop.

I was recently fishing a small spring creek in Saskatchewan’s Cypress Hills, and I really wanted to use a light rod. The stream was diminutive (only six or so feet across most of the time), and I really wasn’t expecting to catch anything over maybe 12 inches. Luckily, I convinced myself not to use a three-weight, but to use a nine-foot number-five. The fish weren’t coming up for a dry very well — I think I got a couple. I resorted to using two heavy nymphs, with two split shots and an indicator in a deep run and I caught several trout from 12 to 16 inches. I wouldn’t have had a chance casting that rig for any length of time with my tiny three-weight. Five-weights can cast dries, dry-dropper rigs, nymph and indication rigs, and moderate sized streamers with ease and accuracy — I want to be versatile on the water. You should fish your region, decide what you like to do technique wise, then make a good informed decision on a rod before shelling out a few hundred bucks on expensive kit.


Small stream tactics are usually pretty basic. Where permitted, I’ll usually start the day off with a dry-dropper rig, of different combinations depending on the stream and time of year. Choose flies that will represent something the trout have seen over the last couple weeks (stones in early summer or hoppers in late summer, with a small mayfly nymph all season, for example). For me this is the best tactic. Often enough the creeks are so shallow that you don’t need to go very deep with heavy nymph rigs, and this short 18- to 24-inch dropper is enough to get subsurface takes from the fish. I will use a nymph rig in deeper runs or larger creeks, and in this case I’ll usually use an indicator. This rig is fished upstream, or up and across.

Perhaps the most underused small stream tactic is streamer fishing. I love streamer fishing. If I’m brown or rainbow trout fishing and having a rough time of it with dry-dropper rigs, this is the next bet. A sculpin pattern fished either upstream or down and across is a great way to get big trout to show off their ambushing nature. On small water, you don’t need anything but a floating line, split shot and long leader.

I hope this short piece has opened your mind to the wonderful array that small streams offer. For further reading on this topic, I’d suggest Small-Stream Fly Fishing by Jeff Morgan, Fly Fishing Small Streams by John Gierach, and Fly Fishing Western Trout Streams, by Jim McLennan.

Good Fishing.


  • ROD: 7-9 foot, #4-6 rod
  • LINE: WF or DT floating line
  • LEADER: 9-15 foot, 3-5x leader (including tippet)
  • TIPPET: 3-6x tippet
  • ACCESSORIES: Waders, boots, vest/pack, raincoat, hat, good quality polarized sunglasses (with a shade of brown/amber or rose tint), bear spray

Fly Selections

  • Yellow Stimulator, #8-14
  • Chernobyl Ant, #8-12
  • Elk Hair Caddis, #12-18
  • Adams/Parachute Adams, #12-18
  • Parachute Light Cahill, #14-18
  • Green Drake, #10-12
  • Hares Ear Nymph, #12-16
  • Pheasant Tail Nymph, #12-18
  • Copper John, #12-16
  • Black and Brown Bow River Bugger, #6-10

Selected Regions

  • The area in and around Fernie, BC, and the Crowsnest Region of Alberta have widely acclaimed cutthroat and bull trout fishing, with streams like the Livingstone River and Upper Oldman being popular choices.
  • The Rocky Mountain House to Sundre region of Alberta offers many streams with good brown and brook trout fishing. A prime example is Stauffer Creek.
  • The Cypress Hills in southeast Alberta and southwest Saskatchewan offers several spring creeks, such as Battle Creek, with trout fishing. There are creeks with rainbows, brookies and browns in the area.

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