FISHING ON SMALL STREAMS
When it comes to fly fishing, I love it all. I certainly have my favorite spots, favorite flies, rods, reels, rivers, streams, and so-on. So, it’s with no small amount ofconflict that I dare say my favorite kind of fly fishing is in small streams. That short little statement is incredibly difficult to put on paper, simply because I really do love all aspects of this little thing we all share, and to say one is better than another, well, it feels like I’m cheating on it.
I especially enjoy chatting with other fishers to hear stories of their favorites. It never ceases to amaze me how every person I’ve ever talked with about fly fishing has a completely different perspective on what makes it special to him or her. And it’s not as if their perspectives are at opposite ends of the spectrum from each other, in fact, many of them are very similar, but not one has ever been the same. The glory, as they say, is in the details. Each aspect has a different meaning to each person.
My first experience fishing a small stream was in the Snowy Mountains, just outside of Laramie, Wyoming. I don’t remember what the name of the stream was. I have it marked on a map somewhere; heaven only knows where that somewhere is though.
I camped up in the mountains at a primitive campground. I had my favorite little rod with me, a Cortland 3wt, and fished from pool to pool up that stream with a size 12 renegade dry fly. There were no fish rising, no hatch, just cool slow moving water that would trickle down from one pool to the next.
I sat there for a while, perched on a rock, absorbing the fulfillment of the dream of ‘fishing out West.’ Just the scenery was worth the trip. My love affair with small streams started when I began fishing.
I made a short cast upstream to the next pool, put a quick mend in my line to get it out of the current and there was a little splash, not a rise, but a splash. I lifted my rod and felt the little fella’ tugging on the end of the line. I almost couldn’t believe it. It wasn’t much more than the length of my hand, but the colors on that little brook trout were more intense than anything I had ever seen. I let it go and tried again, splash! Fish, after fish, pool after pool, I fished until I had my fill of fishing, and even kept a few for the frying pan, and they were incredibly delicious fried in butter on an open flame.
It was so very different from the trout fishing I had done before. The trout fishing I had experienced was very technical; everything had to be just so, drift perfect, tippet thin, fly just the right size, you know the story. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy that too, but I really enjoy the days where I can just go out to a small stream where the fish are not so stinking picky. I can tie on some 4X tippet, and a hopper, caddis, Klinkhammer, or Adams, or whatever, and catch fish after fish on a 2 or 3wt rod.
I suppose part of the draw is that I can catch dozens of trout on a dry fly. Over the years of fishing all sorts of different waters, there’s still something very satisfying about making a cast to watch your fly drift haphazardly downstream with the hope of a trout rising to feed on it. I suppose the real reason is the inherent excitement I get watching trout take a dry fly, you have to admit that there is just something about it.
Another part of it could also be the solitude found on most small streams. That’s something special in its own right. My adolescent trout fishing years, and much of my adult years, were spent elbow to elbow, so having a stream to myself is something I truly cherish. It’s very different than fishing some of the bigger, more famous rivers, even though they don’t seem very crowded when you’re on them. Nevertheless, it’s a treat to spend most of a day on the water and not see another soul solitude at its finest.
Then, there is the combination of the equipment I use that makes it so much fun. Short, lightweight rods that bend with even the smallest fish, dry flies that get chewed up beyond what you’d think a trout would rise to, and waders that seldom get wet beyond mid-calf.
I have a beautiful little 6 foot 2wt TFO that I love to fish with. Its first fishing trip was on the Au Sable River in Michigan (I broke my Cortland). It makes the perfect small stream rod. I also have a whippy 8 foot 3wt that is quickly becoming my go to small stream rod. The pure joy in fishing either one of those rods is that they are both a pleasure to cast, any fish feels big, and hang on when you do hook into an 18 incher!
I’ve found that the trout in small streams seem to be less picky than ones that see more fishing pressure. I was fishing with my wife earlier this summer, just after we got married. I tied on a Royal Coachman for her to use. By the time we were done fishing there were only a few wraps of thread holding a wing and a little bit of hackle on. She was still catching fish! I like to say that they are more opportunistic feeders. In my mind they don’t have time to come up, look a fly over, do some research, and then decide if it’s edible. I think it’s because smaller streams don’t always support the amount of insect life that bigger rivers do, so the trout are naturally less selective and will eat anything if it looks anything like food. I wonder if they watch Andrew Zimmern on the Travel Channel? His motto is: If it looks good, eat it.
It almost always takes me a little while to select which fly I’m going to use; not because I’m trying to match the hatch, but I have to decide which one I think looks the best. I usually start with an Adams Klinkhammer tied on a size 12 curved scud hook. I don’t know why that is, it’s just a fly I really enjoy fishing.
On two occasions this summer I caught the same trout twice in the same pool within minutes of releasing it. Being caught didn’t seem to bother them at all, especially since they took the exact same fly they were caught on before. So, I played around with my ‘less selective’ theory late this summer. Each day I went out I tied on a different fly to start with. It didn’t matter what I used, I caught fish. The section of the stream I was fishing has rainbow and brown trout in it. A few miles upstream are the brook trout, but I haven’t made it up there yet, not because I don’t like fishing for brookies, it’s just that the fishing where I have been fishing is so good time after time, why change spots just yet?
I’ve heard some fishermen have labeled brook trout as “dumb” fish. I have to question the rationale behind such a statement, mostly because in all my fishing this summer, I didn’t catch a single brookie; they were all rainbow and brown trout. Do you ever wonder why it is we would think that? I do. My thoughts lean towards the fact that maybe it’s because we’ve become so accustomed to struggling (or we think we have to struggle) to catch the ever elusive trout that we almost lose our appreciation for a day of great fishing. Or maybe we try to impress others with our tails of how hard we fished all day to catch just one. What ends up happening is instead of saying to ourselves that it was a great day we try and justify all our previous struggles by calling the fish we were catching “dumb.” Really, if you think about it, all fish are dumb because there isn’t one out there that is capable of cognitive thought or deductive reasoning. I know, I know; try and tell that to someone who’s spent the best part of the day casting to the same fish without any luck.
I can tell you that my dad had a day like none he’s ever had in all his years of fishing when I took him out on my little home stream. In fact, I couldn’t talk him into the drive to a reservoir close by that is known for turning out ten pounders. He wanted nothing to do with it, talk about fishing in the moment.
Now there’s something I’m certainly guilty of; not appreciating where I am when I’m there. Some of us seem to have this, ‘bigger is better’ theory and completely miss the grandeur of where we are and what we are doing when we’re doing it.
I used to get lost in the dream of being somewhere else catching bigger fish. It didn’t really hit me upside the head (like it should have) until my first trip to the Au Sable River in Michigan. Not that it’s what many would call a small stream, but when I finally got my head around the fact that I was fishing the “Holy Water,” and paused long enough to take it all in, the enormity of it, I finally found true contentment in just fishing. After that I fished as many tiny little streams as I could while I was up there. What a time I had!
When I moved back to Missouri to open a practice with my dad it was back to Bennett Spring State Park and combat fishing. I actually never felt like I was in competition with anyone there, well maybe against my brother, but that’s something different. Even though I wasn’t on a secluded, empty stream, I still had a profound appreciation to be fishing. I had fun, and managed to catch a few fish too.
I have since relocated myself to north central Montana. Not exactly what most would perceive as a classic trout fishing destination, only I can’t help but celebrate that fact that fifteen minutes from town I have at my disposal some of the finest trout fishing I have ever experienced. I have two lakes and miles of stream to choose from. I can use my float tube, pontoon, or wade. I knew I’d found my little slice of heaven after my first fishing trip to that stream, and it just keeps getting better with each outing.
Since moving up here I’ve been lucky enough to fish a few of the bigger rivers that I’ve dreamed of fishing. I will admit that it’s intimidating to be standing on the bank, staring out at a large expanse of water wondering what to do first. I sat down with my cigar and just watched for an hour or so before I thought I’d figured anything out. I caught fish, and loved every minute of my fishing. My point is that it’s not that one is better or worse than small stream fishing, it’s just different. To me it’s something to celebrate, and I do. I still have my bucket list of rivers I want to fish; they’re all the classic trout rivers, but if you were to offer me a trip to some small unknown stream I’d jump at the opportunity. I often tell people I talk to that I have a hard time justifying travelling several hours to fish a river when I’ve got such good fishing just outside my door.
John Gierach penned a story on how he would fish anyone’s St. Vrain. It’s about fishing a stream that someone invited him to fish with the understanding that the stream wasn’t anything spectacular, and neither were the fish, it was just good fishing, my kind of fishing; my favorite kind of fly fishing. I’m sure that not every small stream out there fishes like the ones I’ve fished, but if they’re anything close, well, you’ll just have to go out for yourself and make your own conclusions about how much fun it can be.