How to Fly Fish for Trout in Small Streams

Fly Fishing Expert Rylyn S. gives 7 simple pointers to follow for fishing trout in small streams this season that will have you getting bites in no time!

A trout being released into water.

Photo by Jack Charles

When I first started fly fishing, I was too stupid to know any better. I remember wading through the water like I was setting decoys for a duck hunt as shooting hours quickly approached. Heck, where I grew up fishing, the trout could care less if I stood next to them. We were amid anglers using corn, stink bait, and other fly anglers who matched the hatch with the notorious squirmy wormy.

Small streams are much more technical than what most anglers make them out to be. When I started fishing the Missouri Spring Creeks in the Ozarks, my fly was more in the trees, briars, and shrubs than in the water. My goal was to get my fly from where I was standing to where the fish were—well, at least where I thought they were.

The closest spring creek to my home in Southeast Missouri is nestled on the corner of what I like to call the Gateway to the Ozarks. According to the Missouri Department of Conservation, a significant wild trout population is located there (so I thought). After months of frustration and doubting my fly fishing ability, that water was my best teacher.

With my time spent sermon prepping for Sunday on the water and the frustration of those spooky trout, here are a few things I learned along the way.

1. Trout Are Not Always Looking Up

Trout underwater.

Photo by Oleksandr Sushko

Let's face it, we all like an excellent caddis hatch on the river. Those moments are the memories that will forever be ingrained in my head. But, here on a small stream in Missouri, I witnessed the most significant trico hatch I have ever seen in a small section of the creek. Right before dark, tricos crashed and spun on the water's surface. But, surprisingly, only the creek chubs and shiners came out to play.

Fishing dry flies are rare on small streams. Aquatic insects are super important, but you will not always get the mayflies to come to play. Nymphing will be the most consistent way to catch trout on just about any small stream in the United States. There was even a time when I had to put my ego aside and pick up Euro nymphing. Although very effective, it wasn't for me. There will always be a new way of trout fishing, but I like to stick to the basics.

If there is a hatch, by all means, match the hatch; otherwise, stick to the subsurface. Will you catch fish on a dry? Absolutely! That will be when you stop and ask yourself: did that really just happen? But you will also be happy that you stuck with nymphing, as 90% of the time, small stream trout feed below the surface. A midge, prince nymph, surveyors, small stoneflies, and various wet flies are my go-to's for small water.

Just like dry fly fishing, it is all about the presentation. Where does the presentation come from? Your cast, of course! Think of the strike zone when casting. You want to get that nymph into that strike zone as quickly as possible, which is why Euro-style nymphing is super effective. To get the best drift for nymphing, you will need a cast that will allow your flies to hit the water and sink to the bottom before the line or leader at the surface of the water begins to travel downstream.

2. Fish the Big Four

A stream running through a forest.

Photo by Zack Smith

There is nothing like fishing pools where you can typically pick off some sizable fish. My big four locations on a stream are riffles, eddies, pools, and structure. If you stick to those four, you will be successful. My suggestion here is to travel (more on this below) and not spend all of your time in one location because just you see fish. If you see the fish, they probably see you.

As water levels drop here in Missouri (or really anywhere), think about oxygen. Fish need oxygen just like we do. Faster water creates oxygen, so that is where the fish will always be. Fish like to be next to or in the faster water, even in colder temperatures and cold water. Also, fly selection isn't as crucial in the faster water as they have to make a quicker decision and typically aren't as picky.

Look for those pockets and slack water as they will be the most productive. Pockets are consistent for holding trout because they are places where feeding trout can eat efficiently without wasting energy. Pockets are easy to find. Look behind rocks, logs, and even in the slower water beside banks. Think of them as a staircase in the water column with a riffle - pool - riffle. Like the obvious pockets behind submerged rocks and logs, there are also pockets above these locations as the water swells and diverts around obstacles.

3. Think Hunting, Not Fishing

A man fly fishing in a river.

Photo by Chris Sarsgard

When hunting with my dad at a young age, I remember wearing boots two sizes too big for me on the opening day of deer season. The infamous phrase was always, "you'll grow into them." My dad quickly regretted that when multiple times, he would turn back on the trail with an angered face holding his pointer up against his lips, shushing me. Just as deer can hear you coming down the trail, so can trout. Yes, even if you are out of the water.

It is all about your approach. Let me say that again…it is all about your approach. Pick your spots ahead of time and travel to these spots on land off of the bank. As a matter of fact, I will often wear camouflage to match my surroundings. Too much? I think not!

I find that using the fast water as a hiding spot is the best way to shield yourself from the fish. Walk slowly. Think about a deer entering the water to cross; deer do not slosh through the water but rather, take their time. I think that being in the water just a little allows you to best position yourself to where the trout will be. It is all a matter of having a straight-on presentation where your fly line system is in the same current drift. Sometimes you only have one shot—no pressure.

4. Don't Kevin VanDam it

A fish with his lip hooked on a fly.

Photo by Jack Charles

One of the most significant habits to break is those you bring from your time in big water. If you set the hook on a 20" brown trout like a small brook trout or stream-bred rainbow trout, there may not be much left on the other end. Small trout will give subtle strikes, and you must match the subtle strike with a subtle hook set. Small stream fishing requires some type of conscious effort to not overdo it.

Your goal should be to pull the fly enough to set the hook, all while not pulling so hard that the trout is lifted out of the water. No fish should land behind you on the gravel bar. This isn't the rapture! Have a plan before ever getting into the water so you will not overset the hook.

5. Leave the Thingamabobbers at Home

Two fishermen walking by a river.

Photo by Torbjorn Ekelund

The best way to clear trout from a hole is to bomb it with a bright neon indicator. Don't get me wrong, I love some Oros and Airlocks, but there is a time and place for those. Unfortunately, they are not welcome on the small streams. The simplest way to nymph small streams is to tight line your fly with a long rod (you can even do this with an 8' - 9' fly rod). You will be able to position your fly and dead drift exactly where you want it, without the drag of the indicator.

Instead of the large indicator, you can use two things, the dry-dropper setup or a less conspicuous indicator. My preferred method has to be the adjustable dry-dropper setup. There are many ways to do this, but my preference is a sliding clinch knot system with knots above, and below the hopper/dry rig. This allows me to control the nymph depth going from hole to hole. To me, this is the most straightforward system to master unless you like tying your own flies, and I have had a lot of luck with this system.

Two popular discreet indicators are the New Zealand Indicator System or small stick-on indicators like these. Both are very lightweight and sensitive, which makes them perfect for smaller stream systems. This is where I would start if you are a beginner.

The small stick-on indicators are the easiest of the two as you simply stick them to your leader. The downfall of these is that they are for single use and are pretty hard to adjust once you have them stuck on your leader and tippet system.

6. Think About Your Gear

Fly fishing gear in a net.

Photo by Alex Smith

Many anglers will tell you that a shorter rod is always the best for smaller streams. Unfortunately, that is not necessarily true. A smaller rod will work great in tight quarters, but you will trade one problem for another. Shorter rods make mending more complex and could cause too much tension on the rod tip depending on the fly rod.

My preferred fly rod is the Douglas Upstream 7'6" 3 weight paired with an Orvis Battenkill 1-3 weight fly reel and the Rio Creek Trout WF3F fly line. Various weight rods can be used, as this is my personal favorite. Every fly fisher has their preference, but the gear is super important when fly fishing these delicate ecosystems.

Other essential gear worth mentioning are a stream thermometer and silicon or rubber-lined net.

A primary component to success out on the water is the water temperature. Trout are super sensitive to water temperature and become lethargic and stressed during high temperatures. We want to protect our natural resources. One way of doing that is packing up and going home when the waters are above 67 degrees. The best temperature for catching trout is anything under 65 degrees. If fishing at 65-66 degrees, use a heavier tippet that allows you to fight and release fish quickly.

Silicon or rubber-lined nets also protect our fish from losing the protective slime. This slime helps keep parasites, bacteria, and fungi from growing. The thin, knotted string and nylon net bags remove a lot of slime. A rubber or silicone net will put less stress on the fish and increase their chances of survival. Our goal should be to protect these locations for future generations.

7. Just Do It!

A man holding a fish in water.

Photo by Hunter Brumels

Looking back on years of frustration, I remember many times when I just wanted to throw in the towel. Thankfully, I was constantly reminded that this is why it is called fishing and not catching! Do not be discouraged when you do not catch anything. Just know when you do, it will be rewarding. Take these tips and use them. Start small and be patient. With time on the water, everything will come together for you. Here at Curated, we provide free personalized recommendations. If you are struggling to get started or want gear help, do not be afraid to connect with one of our Fly Fishing Experts. We would love to help! Tight lines, friend.

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Written By
Hey There! My name is Rylyn Small. I am a High School Agriculture and FFA/Outdoor Teacher that teaches fly-fishing, angler education, hunter education, veterinary science, agricultural welding, and woodworking. I am also thankful to be the Coach for the EPHS Bass Fishing Team where we compete in the...

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