Wadeoutthere Philosophy

Six Techniques for Fishing Small Streams

Fishing was slow, but I was optimistic.  The East Fork of the Sevier River is more of a small stream than a river.  The water rarely widens more than a dirt road, but it is enough.  High desert grasses and steep hills make for beautiful scenery and there is easy access along the highway.  I had never been skunked in that section and it was rare to see other fishermen in the canyon.  So far, I was alone.  It was blue skies and when the wind stopped, the sun warmed me.  A smile on my face.  Why not be optimistic?

I decided to cross the river and walk further upstream along the highway.  May as well see more river and more country while the fishing was slow. 

I could cross the stream anywhere, but no place looked good.  The far bank was a steep four foot dirt bank that met shallower water that dropped off sharply to the deeper water in the middle of the stream.  I considered I would be in the deeper, swift water along the shelf for only a few feet before I could step out on the other side.  The two stones stacked in a column just off the bank that looked like they would hold fish convinced me that this was as good a spot as any. 

Besides, the sooner I moved upstream, the sooner the fishing would improve.  I was sure of it. 

I waded out.  The water dropped off after just three yards.  I wedged one foot in the rocks before taking the next step and kept my eye on the rocks I thought might have a fish.  The water was above my waste but not for long. 

The moment I stepped up to the shallow bank I saw the color of the riverbed shift in the water below the downstream rock.  I stood frozen with one leg bent. Watching.  It was a fish.  I could see a nice sized rainbow clearly now.  I was surprised it had not swum away.

Finally, I moved my forward foot back and upstream, placing it against a stone on the bottom.  While I leaned against the current, I moved my strike indicator down the leader and began casting to the fish that it was now obvious I should have seen much earlier. 

The fish was sliding between the fast water and the small seem flowing off the side of the rock.  I cast again and followed the strike indicator as it traveled toward my target.  So close.  My fly passed by three or four times unscathed, before I collected my line and tried another fly.  Same results.  The fish floated unperturbed in the seam as I helplessly cast to him over and over. 

I convinced myself that each new fly was “the one”, but they continued to drift by so close I swore it seemed a few had bumped his nose.

Until eventually, I watched his familiar movement shift over as my fly approached and saw the take.  My strike indicator pulsed.  It was a solid hook set and a nice fighting fish.  Once I had him on the reel, I moved downstream slightly and back to the bank I had started from to net him. 

After close to an hour, I landed the only fish I needed to that day.

Six Techniques for Fishing Small Streams

I love to fish small streams for trout.  It can be rewarding for many reasons. 

READ: WADEOUTTHERE | Seven Reasons to Fish Small Streams.

Along the way I have learned the hard way that catching fish on small streams is not as easy as I once believed.  Here are six lessons to help you hook up with more trout in tight quarters.

Go Slow. 

Trout spook easily.  Whether you are wading or walking, less water means you are closer to the fish.  This makes it easier for them to know you are there.  When I walk a small stream, I try to stop more often and move more slowly.  I avoid moving right along the bank, where fish can easily see me.  Wading slowly keeps me sneaky, but also keeps me from slipping and splashing.

Keep an Eye Out. 

It is easier to catch fish if you know where they are.  Small streams can provide excellent opportunities to locate and target specific fish.  When looking for trout in the current, try to stare in one spot for a good thirty seconds or so.  This gives you an opportunity to see something out of the ordinary in the way the river is flowing.  Subtle shifts in color, or a rock that suddenly seems to sway, might not be seen unless you take the time to watch for a while. 

Although not required, polarized sunglasses really do help a ton with cutting the glare and finding more fish. You do not need anything fancy.  Until I break or lose them again, my forty dollar pair work just fine. 

READ: WADEOUTTHERE | Look Through, and Fish the Flash.

Adjust Your Rig. 

When I fish smaller streams, I try to be lighter all around with my set up.  I typically use a shorter leader such as a seven foot 5X and 6X tippet.  I also use a yarn strike indicator for a softer set down on the water that will work well on most drifts.   I also end up moving the indicator up and down the leader more often to be as precise as possible with the depths I fish. Some people prefer a smaller, lighter weight rod for small streams, but I find my normal nine foot, five weight works fine, and even better in some scenarios.

Be Sneaky. 

I am not saying you should low crawl along the bank of the river to avoid being seen by crafty trout, although I am not saying you shouldn’t…  

But occasionally approaching the bank on your knees will reduce your profile while you search for or cast to trout that might bolt if you walked up to the edge.  This is especially applicable if the bank is high off the water.

Of course, the other way to avoid being seen is to cast from further away.  This may seem difficult or less necessary on a smaller stream, but it can really help you connect with fish.  If you are moving slow and see a fish or a place that looks like there might be fish, rather than walk straight up and spook them, try staying out of sight and casting from further away.  Finally, mind your shadow.  If the sun is low, creating long shadows, try to fish the side of the stream that allows your shadow to be cast back away from the fish.

Get Tactical.  

I may advocate being standoffish on a small stream to avoid being seen, but when it comes to where you put your flies – GET IN CLOSE!  The smaller the stream the more precise I try to be with my casts and drifts.  If I think a grassy undercut or deadfall holds a fish, the fly has to be exactly there before I give up.  This can lead to more snares and snags but stick with it.  Patience and practice will keep you from hanging up as much as you move forward. 

Fish don’t care if its hard for you.  They like that cover and tuck in tight, so get in there with them if you want to hook up.

Roll Cast

Not much is required to get the fly out on a small stream.  Avoid the tendency to over do it.  A roll cast is all you need in most cases.  Less snags and more time with the fly on the water.

I used to think that catching fish on a small stream was easier than a bigger river, but experience has shown me that: one – it depends, and two – I am always being surprised. 

READ: WADEOUTTHERE | You Never Know What You Will Get. 

The more I fished small streams the more I realize that it is not the trout’s behavior that changes but the environment and the margin for error that makes these techniques so useful.  And while I have had many experiences when the trout in a small stream are on the bite, I have equally as many frustrating experiences working hard to catch even a few.  I am still learning, but one thing I know is that no matter how big or small the trout steam, nothing is guaranteed, no matter how optimistic you are…Wadeoutthere.


Jason Shemchuk

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  • Reply
    Jim Miller
    December 16, 2020 at 3:10 pm

    I cut my teeth on small stream fishing growing up in Western Montana. I was fortunate enough to have a creek running through the back of our property and fished it often….and sometimes daily during the summer months.
    All 6 of the techniques you illustrated are spot on (yes, I’ve low-crawled into spots with spooky fish).
    Keep up the great Blogs!

    • Reply
      Jason Shemchuk
      December 16, 2020 at 3:32 pm

      Western Montana small stream fly fishing as a child…pretty solid life experience right there. I’m glad you found the techniques valid. Sounds like you have a ton of practice. Anything I’m missing?? Always looking to learn. Thanks for the comment. I will keep em coming Jim!


      Low crawling…Love it.

  • Reply
    Bill Ferguson
    October 20, 2021 at 8:01 am

    Jason, all excellent tips. For small streams in the East and other places where small streams that hold trout are nearly 100% in heavily forested areas, I’d add one, maybe 2 more to the list…..

    1. Check your back cast window every time you change positions. Otherwise you will lose a lot of time untangling from limbs behind you and/or a lot of flies when you can’t reach the limbs.

    2. Learn to bow and arrow cast to get flies to places that can’t be reached with overhead, or roll casting.

    • Reply
      Jason Shemchuk
      October 20, 2021 at 8:19 am

      These are excellent techniques. The back cast situational awareness is key. I’ve been so frustrated learning and re-learning this. Expect an article on this in the future…

      Bow and arrow. Yep. It works. I just hooked up with a nice bow the other day that I had to attack this way.

      Thanks for reading and for the valuable comment.


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