Fly Fishing Small Streams for Trout

Last Updated on October 2, 2023 by Kyle Whitley

fly fishing small streams for trout

When you think of fly fishing, I think most folks will think about fishing small streams. Fishing small streams are where I first got my experience fishing for trout. Fly fishing small streams for trout is something every angler should try. We will take a look at what you need to do to be successful at fly fishing small streams for trout.

Small Stream Fishing Lessons

Small stream fishing teaches us how to be stealthy when fishing. If we stand out too much, fish will likely notice us. Therefore, if anything else needs to be learned, it must begin with learning to approach a stream quietly and unseen.

Trout usually face upstream, so their eyes are positioned to have a 35-degrees blind spot behind them. Stealthy approaches to small streams involve approaching them from downstream.


Headwater and feeder creeks are small bodies of water that flow into larger bodies of water. Typically, they don’t have the size, depth, or volume of lakes, so they’re vulnerable to extreme temperatures. During hot weather, these smaller bodies of water may experience rapid changes in their water levels.

Many fish biologists refer to small streams as “temperature streams.” Fish populations tend to peak in late spring and early fall. During the rest of the year, especially in summer, they’re likely to be very low.

But that’s not always true. Some small streams are quite productive, especially in cooler months. These are generally called “coldwater streams,” They comprise a portion of the habitat base of many species, including rainbow trout.

Coldwater streams are different from small streams in several ways. First, they usually don’t flow into large river systems. Second, they’re not necessarily smaller versions of larger bodies of water. Third, they’re fed by snowmelt, glacial melt, and groundwater seepage rather than rainfall.

small creek or stream running through a field


Trout in small streams are incredibly attentive to their surroundings and are highly sensitive to external stimuli. When trout sense danger, they immediately flee from the source. If you’re fishing near water, keep an eye out for anything that might cause a disturbance.

When looking for holding water, keep an eye out for riffles. These create visual cover from above, but they’re usually not deep enough to hold large fish.

Fish often uses overhanging boulders or trees as hiding spots where they practice ambush tactics.


Typically, fly presentations are between 10 and 20 feet in length, with the leaders being held above the water’s surface. This allows anglers to use lighter tippets such as 3X. When an aggressive fish darts out from beneath the bank to snag your fly, you can use a heavier tippet to prevent it from doubling back into the depths.


If you’re fishing for trout, turbidity is another thing to keep an eye out for. Small streams may experience muddy spates after rain, but large rivers often turn murky when they start running fast. Clear-flowing tributaries near lowland lakes can provide trout relief from silty water.

Even if it isn’t raining, rainbow trout and cutthroat trout can gather in small streams during spawning. During this time, they usually try to find a place to lay eggs. They may choose to stay in one location for several months. The fish will leave the stream when the weather warms up again and move into deeper waters.

Streams smaller than ten CFS usually run through local geology that favors their unique characteristics. These include specific pH levels and other physical properties favorable to particular insect life forms. However, if you’re looking at a stream larger than ten CFS, its flow rate will likely be too large to favor any aquatic life form. Instead, you’ll probably see a mix of fish, amphibians, insects, and plants.

Small streams can have a very abundant size of the insect population. When this happens, stream residents are usually fat because they feed on insects. Downstream, bigger rivers hold surprises for fishing.

small stream running through a field with tree branches on the bank



The third physical factor that is often overlooked is the wind. For anglers, the wind is usually considered the bane of fishing because it makes casting difficult and increases the likelihood of losing flies. But on smaller streams, wind can help you cast better.

Insects that develop on large bodies of water will be found throughout the body of water. There are millions of them floating downstream every single year. When the wind blows, the insects move faster downstream, making it easier to catch trout.

In addition, the size of the insect population is much greater in the water column than on land. This means that even though the total number of insects entering the stream is relatively low, the number of insects per unit area is very high. Thus, the concentration of insects is much greater in the middle of the main flow than on the banks.

This pattern is true of most freshwater habitats, including lakes, ponds, reservoirs, and rivers. And because the terrestrials that enter small streams are typically concentrated near the bank, small-stream fish are generally strongly oriented toward terrestrial cues such as ants, beetles, and grasshoppers.

fly fishing a mountain stream while standing on rocks

Equipment for Fishing Small Streams

You don’t need fancy equipment to catch fish in streams. I’m partial to a short, slow-acting, lightweight pole between six and seven-foot lengths. It’s easy to handle in thick brush. The five-weight line is good enough for me.

A new six foot six inch four weight will cost about $100.00. And it’ll get you into fiberglass, one of my favorite materials. You can also find bargains in the used section of any fly store.

Reel and Line for Small Streams

Get the best quality reels you can afford. Most fish you’ll be reeling in won’t ever get on the line; it’s just a line retainer. Get a floating line that matches your pole. These loads quickly, and if one part gets ragged, you can easily reverse it. I also carry tippets of 5X and 6X.

Other Fly Fishing Gear

A fishing vest is an essential part of the outfit for anyone planning to spend quality time fly fishing. If you’re starting, consider investing in a good one to protect yourself against the elements.

You’ll also want to keep your phone close because you never know when you might need to call someone about your next spot or check the weather forecast. Finally, bring along a small landing net to protect your catch until you’ve had enough fun to take care of it.

Clothing for Fly Fishing Small Streams

Wading in shorts is great for fishing small streams. You’ll end up getting wet and cold, and you won’t be able to see what you’re catching.

Instead, wear a pair of waders. They’ll keep you dry while keeping you comfortable. Plus, they’ll help protect you from ticks.

You might need to hike long distances depending on where you find your small stream paradise. For these hikes, you’ll want to wear light, supportive shoes equipped with tungsten-studded soles.

Use common sense and wear layers. Layering is a great idea. Hats and sunglasses help too. Polarized sunglasses are the way to go for eyewear.

The best thing is that you likely already have most of this stuff if you have fished for trout.

Flys Needed to Fish Small Streams

If you love fishing, you’ll find plenty of action in the streams around your area. Dry fly fishing can be great fun, especially during the summer months. You should try out various techniques, including droppers, nymph rigs, and wet flies.

A good starting place would be to stick with smaller insects, such as caddisflies, stoneflies, and mayfly larvae. For larger trout, you might consider offering them a mix of natural food sources, such as minnows, crayfishes, and leeches.


Small trout in streams are curious about any flies introduced into their environment. There are times when fishing a dry section without getting any interest—but when offering them a wet pattern or small-water bug, they’ll go after it.

I enjoy carrying a few small soft-hackle patterns and some tungsten-bonded micro Woolly Bugger size 10s. These can be fished either jigged or strip-fished. This basic box will cover your needs in most small-water scenarios.

There you go. Your basic small stream fly box is complete.

Where to Find a Good Stream to Fish

Streams are often overlooked when looking for recreation opportunities. But finding a stream isn’t difficult once you know where to look. A good place to start is by looking for small streams along roadways or hiking trails. These streams run parallel to the main waterway, spotting them easier.

If you find one, use an atlas to help locate smaller streams. You can also check out the USGS National Hydrography Dataset. This free resource contains information on every river, creek, pond, lake, wetland, spring, and dam in the United States.

You might not have heard of “spring houses”; these “spring houses” allow cool water from the underground seeps to the surface. This is a good thing to find for streams you plan to fish during summer.

When you find a good fish stream, you might want to keep it to yourself. If you an avid angler like myself, then you too, don’t like to give up your honey holes. If you catch too many fish, you could disturb the ecosystem and cause problems downstream.

How to Fish Small Streams

Anglers often overlook small streams because they don’t offer the same variety of fish species found in larger rivers and lakes. However, some basic tactics will help you catch trout in smaller bodies of water. For example, finding a good spot to cast out might take longer, but you could easily hook up once you do.

Here are some good tips to try:

  • Don’t get in the water unless you have too
  • Walk softly; easily spooked fish will fill you coming
  • Go upstream and fish any whitewater and seams
  • Fish the downstream runs, dangle a fly near the plunges in the falls
  • Try a dry fly with a stinger bead headed nymph to see which fly the trout like best
  • Work streamers downstream by sweeping them into current, jigging, and stripping them back to you

Casting in a Small Stream

The small stream is a great place to fish for trout, especially during the spring run. But it’s also a challenging place to fish. You must know how to cast accurately and efficiently. And you must be able to do it under difficult conditions.

Casting is often a challenge when casting into dense foliage. When I say dense, I mean thick enough to make one wonder what the hell is growing. Some people call it “the jungle.” And it is indeed a jungle. So much so that finding those tiny little pockets where the fish are hiding can become a challenge.

I learned early on that casting into the canopy was different than casting over the water. There is a lot of stuff in the air, and the water, and you don’t want to hit it.

So I developed a technique that allows me to cast overhead without hitting anything.

Casting is often challenging when angling these densely covered, small waters. The vegetation forces one to adapt and master every possible way to throw a lure. The overhead, sidearms, rolls, bows, arrows, and everything else. One must know how to accurately back-and-forth-throw and make a proper forward-and-back-throwing motion.

Otherwise, the vegetation will be littered with dangling lures! The roll-casting method will be utilized if there is not enough space for a back-and-forth motion. This is done by gripping the lure between fingers and thumbs and rolling it backward and forwards until it is released. Once fully flexed, the lure will do the work.

Fly Fishing Mountain Streams

I’d start fishing for trout on a small mountain stream inhabited by cutthroats or brookies. Such streams offer a limited amount of sustenance for their fish. To survive, they must eat whatever comes along. For the beginner angler, that means that the path to landing his first rainbow is a shorter one. He can learn to catch them without worrying about what he eats.

The surfaces of many small streams are dappled with sunlight and shadow. This makes it difficult to spot the tiny insects tied with subdued hues that match the natural ones. One quickly learns through failed hits that bugs must have a bit of extra color to stand out against the background. The wings of dunks or posts of parachute bugs are great spots to add more noticeable hues. Usually, white works very well, but dark shades might call for bright orange or chartreuse.

It’s fun to catch fish using dry flies, but most feed at depths where fly anglers do not easily spot them. As such, anglers who want to improve their skills and expand their knowledge should try nymphing. They learn that more and bigger fish will be caught when fishing from below the surface. Suspending a nymphing rig from a dry fly is a simple way to catch fish. Suspend the nymph from the bend in the dry fly’s hook. This keeps the dry flies’ orientation. Most situations require a line length between 1½ and two times the water depth. That is where the fish will look for the nymphs.


Fly Fishing Spring Creeks

Spring creeks offer an additional challenge to anglers. Fish are plentiful and much more selective about what they eat. You’ll learn to “match the hatch” if you duplicate the right pattern and presentation. And, if you get lucky, you may catch a fish without matching the hatch!

While mountain streams teach fishing, stream fishing teaches how to manage your lines. Currents and glass-smooth waters are subtle and hard to see. They want to grab your flies and pull them across the river’s surface. A cast should leave a loose lining on the river to prevent this abnormal motion. Also, mending is often needed. A mend is lifting a section of the rod out of the current and flipping it upstream or downstream, as needed, to give you extra length on the river. Sometimes you must lift the entire fly line out of the stream, leaving only the leader, tippet, and hook on the surface.

These skills are easier to learn on smaller bodies of water. Once they’re acquired, a fisherman will be ready for larger bodies of water.

Fly Fishing Small Streams for Trout: Summing it Up

Fishing for trout in a small stream can be a great experience and a great way to learn the basics of fly fishing while honing your casting skills, and possibly catching your first trout. There is always something special about those small streams where we learn to love this hobby and sport. Get out there and check out some small streams near you.


Field and Stream