We’ve all heard that bigger is better, right? When fly fishing for trout, that is usually the case, unless you are talking about the size of the river or creek on which you are fishing or plan to fish. I’ve been blessed to fish the world-over and catch a variety of species—from Golden Dorado to Giant Trevally to Tigerfish—but when it comes to fly fishing for trout, I will choose a small creek or river over the bigger rivers every time.
Why so? You may ask would someone who has been to the proverbial fly fishing mountain top many times, take small when they’ve had big. And, that is exactly the point, I’ve been there and done that so I can say with absolute certainty, that the great things in fly fishing come in little packages. Here are some of the reasons why fly fishing small creeks and rivers are so important to me.
When standing in small creek, feeling the rush of water against your legs, the world around you is narrowed down to you, the water, the fish, and what you need to accomplish to catch a trout on a fly. The playing field is leveled—there is no boat to help you get to the fish and the only way to get to the next spot is to walk. The sights and sounds are amplified because you are now a visitor in a trout’s home environment. Your movements—either by wading in the stream or casting too far or too soon—may all be detected by a wary trout.
Learning curve is much steeper
Anglers who spend more time walking and wading smaller waters become better anglers quicker. Having been a guide for over 20 years, I’ve seen anglers improve dramatically after a day of small water walking and wading when compared to a day spent in a boat. On a creek you have to cast at least 30 feet. Your hands have to work together constantly—your line-hand and rod-hand work in tandem ensuring you manage the drift of your fly and the slack in your line. And you have to set the hook entirely on your own. In a boat, the rower can row away from your fly so you don’t really need to be a good caster, they can row till the cows come to ensure you get a long drift and they can even set the hook by quickly back-rowing.
When fishing small creeks and rivers you need to walk from spot to spot. For many anglers this active approach just feels better than standing or sitting in a boat all day. Spending a day walking over rocks, stepping over trees, and bending around boulders or banks is not only good for the soul but good for the body.
During the summer, many of the mountain streams offer a cool water respite from heat so common on the larger, lower elevation rivers. These smaller waters might require a little hiking or walking to access, but the reward is often worth the extra effort. Anglers who explore and enjoy some of the cooler mountain streams might also find the fish do as well—trout want cooler water temps and often migrate upriver to find lower water temperatures.
Dry fly and streamer fishing often rule the roost
If simplicity is desired, fly fishing smaller creeks and rivers often mean you can forego the two-fly tungsten bead head nymph indicator, drag-and-plop, clunk-and-go rigs that so many boat anglers fish these days, and choose single dry flies and single streamers. Going simple doesn’t mean you may catch fewer fish, in fact it means you may catch more because you’ll spend more time fishing and less time untangling and re-rigging.
Small creeks and rivers always serve up something new
Because each bend of a creek or small river is different, new things are learned throughout the day. From one day to the next, the fishing is slightly different. The sun may shade a bank or run in the morning but not in the afternoon, causing you to adjust where you place your fly—in the shade or not in the shade. But, because you are standing in the creek and not floating by, you can do both to see which works.
Recently I guided an angler who notched his 40th year on his metaphorical fly fishing belt. For years he’d hired the same outfitter on a well-known central Montana tailwater. On this popular tailwater he’d caught ridiculous amounts of big brown trout on little dry flies—accomplishments to be proud of indeed. After the two of us wrapped up a week of fishing on a variety of spring creeks, small creeks and rivers, his parting words were “I’ve learned more and caught more in these five days than I have in 40 years on the big rivers. Where have you been all these years?”
I replied, “Right here all along. Going small, when others go big.” He proceeded to book two weeks for next year.
Patrick Straub is a veteran guide and outfitter and has fished the world over. He is the author of six books, including “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Fly Fishing” and has been writing the Eddy Line for eight years. He’s owned a fly shop and was one of the largest outfitters in Montana, but these days he now only guides anglers who value quality over quantity.