Small Stream Tactics – Part 1

For the last few years I’ve focused on small trout streams. In my rambles I’ve stumbled on a thing or two.  I suspect none of what I’ve learned adds anything to the fly fishing canon. But perhaps some of it will be new to a few folks. Or maybe I’ll remind you of something that you’d learned for yourself  but had forgotten somewhere along the line.  As always I don’t mean to  “expertize”- only enthusiastically share some thoughts and tactics that I’ve come upon.

Also, I have realized that if I wait until my thoughts on the subject are completely organized, and until I can present a complete A to Z – then I will never write anything.  So rather than a more orthodox, and linear approach I’m just going to present things as they come to mind.

Success on small streams is built with three major building blocks: 1) Reading Water 2) Stealth 3) Casting Prowess. Each one of these is interdependent and intertwined with the others.  There are, of course, plenty of other factors – such as strike detection, hook setting, fish playing and landing… that are quite important as well.

A Tip on Reading Water

Today’s tip is related primarily to reading water – but also touches upon casting and stealth – as these three are often difficult to untangle.

On the streams that I frequent I’ve had days of good success and days of less success. Often it is not clear what the difference is – water temperature? light level? water level? Who knows? I don’t.

Some days – fish are very apparent. If water is clear and low enough, you’ll see the fish. Maybe you only see them after you spook them and they fly upstream in panic – but you see them. They’re sitting in the soft spots behind rocks, or along current seams, or in the tails of pools where the water begins to shallow and food is easier to grab as it drifts by.

But somedays the fish are not apparent. There are days, when I fish a familiar stream and the fish seem to have vanished. Why? I don’t know. I won’t pretend to understand the whims of trout.

But now I know where they’ve gone – well at least some of them. They are under the rocks. 

I have found that often I can pick up more fish if, rather than focusing on those easy to cast to “typical” fish lies I focus on casting tight to the instream and stream bank rocks and boulders.

And not just tight to the rocks, but under them.

Take a look at the diagram below. What I’ve tried to illustrate is a portion of a small stream where most of the stream flow is squeezed between a couple of rocks. These could be instream rocks like I’ve shown or they could be rocks that are part of the stream bank, or a combination. They may be large car-sized boulders or maybe just rocks the size of a basketball.

Let’s assume that most of the stream is flowing between the rocks, and that it’s that section between the rocks that is the deepest part. There is some flow around the rocks too – but it’s shallow and slow.

casting fig 1

Let’s Talk About Those Three Fish

Fish a & b: The fish located at points below letter “a” and “b” are in the same basic lie – but under opposite rocks. They are both tucked up under the edges of their respective rocks. Most often you will never see these fish. Even if you spook them they’ll usually just sit tight and hunker down. The fast current being channeled between those rocks will often dig out nice little fish homes under those rocks. These trout can just hang out in complete secrecy and safety and grab the occasional tidbit that floats past. Often the water between the rocks can be pretty fast and turbulent – but up under that rock’s edge, tight to the rock, the fish can find relief from the flow.

The easy cast is to cast just upstream in the center of the flow and let your fly drift down the middle between the rocks. You may be tempted to do that a few times and think that any interested fish are going to come out and grab the fly. Maybe. Maybe not. Sometimes fish will come out to a fly drifted down the middle of that current, or even near the rock. But sometimes they won’t. This is where deliberate casting and casting accuracy are very important.  Often a stubborn fish or two can be had by casting to the points marked with the red “x” at points “a” and “b”.

What you want to do is try and cast upstream of the “under rock lie” and either to the left of it in, the case of “fish a”, or to the right of it, in the case of “fish b”.  By casting upstream and to the left of “fish a” you are allowing your fly to sink and be pulled under the rock. If you cast too far toward the middle – the fly will not go under the rock and the fish will not take it if he’s not in a moving mood. Of course with a floating fly you’re not going to let it sink – but nonetheless the idea is the same. In the case of a dry fly you want that fly to be hugging the rock.

Inches can make the difference. If the fish are holding tight and not moving – inches can be the difference between a take and no take. Don’t be happy until you get that fly where you want it. Be very deliberate. 

Your cast and line may need to go over the rock. Line control is important.  When you cast, keep your line off of the water – ideally you will cast so that only the fly and tippet hit the water. Try to keep your line off of the water. If your line does land on the water, lift your rod tip so that the line is off of the water as much as possible. The thin tippet will sink much more readily than the thicker level line. If too much line is on the water drag will prevent the fly from sinking as much as it could.

Fish c: Fish “c” is a little different. Sometimes, but not always. There will be a nice hidden lie at the front of a rock. There is sometimes a pocket scoured under the front end of the rocks too. Maybe it is directly in front and maybe it’s also along the side which is out of the main flow. Usually you won’t be able to tell if there’s a pocket there or not. But it’s worth a cast or two. It will be a blind cast. Which is a slight disadvantage – but you will have the advantage of stealth. If there is a fish sitting there – it will never see you coming.

So the short story is to be deliberate about your casting. Focus on accuracy – go for the tough cast. A few inches can make the difference between your fly getting in front of a fish or not. Think about where a fish may be and where  you need to cast to get the fly in front of its nose. Sometimes small stream trout will move to a fly – but don’t count on it. Sometimes they will sit tight under cover.

2 Comments on Small Stream Tactics – Part 1

  1. troutrageous1 // March 2, 2015 at 7:55 PM // Reply

    Reading water is definitely one of those skills one picks up over time. I’ve been fishing for a while, but sometimes I still feel blind, posts like this help a ton. Seeing water and situations through the eyes of others can be enlightening.

  2. Thanks Mike – small streams aren’t too tough – but even so I was finding that fish were (and are) outsmarting and hiding form me. Once I got more deliberate and focused on accurate casting to the tight spots I was finding at least a few of those hidden fish.

what say you?