There is an undeniable allure to small, intimate streams. Here in the west where I call home, there are hundreds of small to really small bodies of flowing water that hold populations of trout. The attraction of these flows for me is the simplicity that they invite. I rarely wear waders or carry more than one box of flies when I am fishing a small stream. I bring the lightest rod that I think I can get away with that day (it is the wind in my area that dictates how difficult the casting will be) which usually turns out to be my 3 weight. Most fly anglers see small streams as the perfect opportunity to tie on an attractor dry fly and to carefully work upstream. This technique works just about every time. It flat out catches fish.
In my experience though, only rarely do attractor dries catch the stream’s biggest fish. I’m not sure if these big fish are naturally more cautious and hesitant when a fly lands on the water and the smaller fish beat them to it, if they have sensed that something is not “right” with the offering and leave it alone or if they are just more selective with what they consider food. Whatever the case might be, these large fish rarely give themselves up easily. Of course, when there is a hatch and you find fish already feeding, then even the largest fish are vulnerable to being fooled. If there is no definitive hatch and you want to target a small stream’s largest fish, then you will need to change your tactics. By far, the most successful kind of flies that I have found to catch large trout in very small streams are streamers.
Streamers represent a very high calorie item for trout. We know that after trout reach maturity they often become more than happy to eat minnows and “babies” of their own kind. I believe it comes down to the simple fact that one little consumed fish represents the same calorie value as literally hundreds of midges or other small bugs. I know that if I were an alpha trout I would want sushi on the menu! The other important element that I believe that streamers offer over other fly choices is the fact that they are bigger, have more flash and are almost impossible to miss when moved through small bodies of water. You can almost guarantee that trout will see your streamer in clear water and feel your streamer through their lateral line in dirty water when you fish it through the likely holding water.
There are a few ways that I like to fish streamers in very small rivers and streams. With all of these techniques I like to keep a low profile and cast from as far away from a likely holding area as possible. I’ll often spend part of the day moving upstream casting a dry fly and when I turn back I’ll switch to a streamer as I make my way to where I started.
Upstream Dead Drift: The upstream dead drift approach can be absolutely deadly at times. Very simply, you cast your streamer upstream to the head of a pool or other likely lie and let the fly tumble and drift at the same speed as the current through the likely water while keeping contact with your offering so that you can detect any takes. This technique imitates a dead or severely wounded minnow that is being pushed downstream at the mercy of the current. The sight of a “free” meal is often enough to trigger a take from a trout. I find this technique works best when the water has good clarity.
Swing and retrieve: This simple technique consists of a basic downstream cast at about 45 degrees. You can put in a quick mend to help the fly sink and to slow down the swing but other than that you let the current do all of the work. At the end of the swing, after a few seconds of hang, you simply strip the fly towards you and repeat until you are sure that your fly has swung through all of the likely looking water. This is essentially the same technique you would use on your double-hand rod while fishing for steelhead but at a much smaller scale. I have found that I get many strikes on the hang or on the first few strips at the end of the swing. This is an exciting way to fish because you can often see the fish track your swinging fly and can see the exact moment that the fish takes.
Across Current Cast and Strip: This method resembles how a streamer is fished from a drift boat on large rivers. An accurate cast to the other side of the flow – this can be either slightly upstream, slightly downstream or straight across – is followed by an erratic retrieve. The casts can be towards specific structures like large boulders, submerged wood, overhangs, deep pools, and pocket water. Basically, any spot that you think might hold trout should be covered with your fly. Because you are covering all of the likely holding water and using an erratic retrieve I have had success with this method in both clear and colored water.
Upstream and Strip: This way of fishing streamers is responsible for some of my biggest fish in small rivers and creeks. Very simply, a long cast is made above the head of a pool or likely holding structure. As soon as the fly lands on the water you begin an aggressive retrieve that moves the fly downstream faster than the speed of the current. Don’t be afraid to move the fly quickly. I have found that a retrieve that moves slightly faster than the current is the most productive but you may have to experiment a little to find what the fish want that day. I’m not sure if the hits I get on this technique are simple reaction bites or if the sight of a fleeing meal becomes too irresistible to resist, but many large fish seem to abandon their usual caution when I use this method.
I don’t use any special equipment when I use streamers in small streams and rivers. I usually carry a 3wt Echo Glass and an Echo Ion spooled with a double-taper floating line. There is really no need for a sink tip line. If you find you are not getting your fly deep enough in a particularly deep or fast section, don’t be afraid to add a split shot above your fly. This makes casting a little awkward, but your casts are seldom long. I keep my flies simple as well. I rarely carry more than a couple of patterns. In my box I’ll have some Bow River Buggers (black and olive), a few Clouser Minnows (I like grey or olive over white) and I have recently discovered the wonders of the Kreelex Minnow. That is really all that you need to carry. I’m sure that there are many other patterns that would work as well but I have never found that I needed anything else. I like to use flies that are size 8 or 10 so that I can keep my presentations gentle. Keep it simple. Simplicity is one of the great attractions to fishing small streams.
The next time you find yourself fishing a very small river or creek, give streamers a try. You just might learn that the stream holds bigger fish than you thought!
– Akasha Bopp is an Echo Pro Team member from Canada.