Trouts Journal

12 Tips for Fly Fishing Small Streams

Ivan Orsic / Jul 21, 2023

Days spent on a small creek with a three-weight, a box of bushy dry flies (and maybe a dropper or two) are undoubtedly some of the best days you can have. Not just in fly fishing. In life.

There is nothing quite like tucking a precise cast under a willow and into a pocket, letting the dry fly dance in the soft water, and watching an 8-inch fish absolutely send itself at said fly with reckless abandon. For those of us who are drawn to the visual aspect of the sport, a good day spent on small streams really can scratch that itch.

In the name of more good days, we're going to talk about a dozen of ways you can step up your creekin' game and catch every fish in the trickle...


Unfortunately for us vanity casters (myself included), there is absolutely no need to throw big, nasty tight-looped bombs in a small creek. Fish are generally holding in small pockets or short runs which means your window for presentation is...both small AND short.

You need to maximize the amount of time your fly (or flies) are in the proverbial zone. A long cast will only allow the current to pull the fly line downstream and yank your fly out of the target zone.

So, do yourself a favor, and choose precision over power. Make a short cast, put that fly in the zone, and keep it there (naturally) for as long as possible. Your drifts should be short in length, but as long as they can be in duration.

As much as possible, I look to limit my cast length on small streams to 10-15 feet. This allows me to present to the target fishy area, keep most of the fly line off the water, minimize drag, maximize the duration of my presentation, and hopefully increase my chances of whacking yet another aggressive small stream trout.


Tip #2 goes hand in hand with Tip #1. The short cast inherently helps to minimize drag. But, it's still important to focus on reducing drag as much as possible after you make that short cast.

In most small streams, there is plenty of pocket water to be had. That means there are a lot of intersecting and opposing currents to deal with.

Keeping as much fly line off the surface of the water is paramount if you're looking to keep the fly in the zone. Don't be afraid to keep your rod tip elevated. High stick it!

Keeping your rod tip high will also allow you to quickly put a solid (but not overly forceful) hookset on a fooled fish.


Tip #1 leads to Tip #2...which leads to Tip #3. Need help keeping the fly line off the water? Simple. Use a longer rod.

Now, we're not talking about a 10 or 11-foot euro rod, but don't count out an 8 or 9-foot fly rod on some of your favorite small creeks.

That extra reach will help keep your fly line off the water allowing you to present your flies in the zone for longer. Bingo. Bango. Bongo. That should equal more fish to hand.


As a function of their position in a watershed, small streams are generally found at higher elevations. As a result, trout have a smaller period of time to really thrive and put on weight for the year. As a result, small stream trout are generally pretty opportunistic eaters AKA they aren't shy.

Now, while they might throw their body at a big, bushy dry fly with reckless abandon, that doesn't mean they don't have a reasonable survival instinct.

Vibrations, shadows, and unnatural objects will certainly send a small stream trout into the depths to hide. To avoid that, you have to make your first cast count. The more subpar casts you put on a fish, the less likely they are to eat the well-presented fly.

Small stream fish aren't used to being presented to time and time again like some of our more popular tailwater trout. So, get it right the first time or move on to the next pocket.


We all do it. We all get a little bit lazy with our positioning and try to make up for it by making a longer cast or more complicated presentation. Sure, sometimes a good angler can get away with this. But, why not put yourself in the best position to succeed?

In small streams, where precision is key, the drifts are short, and the potential for overhead snags are plentiful, putting yourself in the right position to make a cast and presentation will separate the great from the good, the good from the average, the average from the bad. Like every high school coach yells until they're necks are red and the veins are bulging, "MOVE YOUR FEET."


When I'm fly fishing small streams, I'd much rather be fishing a single or double dry fly rig. But, sometimes the fish aren't looking up as much as they should be. Instead of throwing on a nymph rig and plopping an indicator in that juicy run, make sure your whole rig is "edible."

First and foremost, that unnatural-looking indicator will set off a small stream trout's alarm bells that things aren't quite right. Secondly, you never know when you'll entice a small stream trout to attack a big bushy attractor fly.


As we noted above, short casts are key on small streams. If you pair a 9 or 12-foot leader with those short casts, chances are two things will be making your life a little less enjoyable than it should be.

(1) The loop-to-loop connection of the fly line and leader is probably catching on the top guides.

(2) Your fly rod most likely isn't loading because not enough of the head is through the guides.

Both of these phenomena will make delivering an accurate cast with minimal false casts a bit of a fool's errand. A 7.5-foot leader is a great starting place and don't be afraid to shorten a 7.5-foot leader a bit more. Remember, short, accurate casts are the name of the game in the small stream arena.


Some anglers have a tendency to post up on a run for long periods of time. Small streams are not the place to do so. Be deliberate, be thorough, throw quality casts in every nook and cranny, but only one or two.

Rarely will the 20th cast bring a small stream fish to hand. So, instead of beating a short stretch of water or a single pocket to death, make your good casts and presentations and move on to the next likely piece of holding water. STICK AND MOVE.


Of course, you should play the hits. The seams, structure, banks, runs, riffles, pools, and the like, will all hold fish in small creeks. But, don't neglect the shallows and some of the traditionally less fishy water.

Small stream trout are BUILT DIFFERENT and aren't opposed to holding in some unlikely water.


Stealth is a major key to success when fishing small streams. Now, I'm not asking you to army crawl your way up to a likely bit of holding water. But, I am asking you to be mindful of where your shadows are casting and how many steps you're taking (especially in the creek).

Yes, the fish are eager to eat, but as we mentioned previously, they're also wary of abnormalities. Small stream trout are a little bit paranoid and will dart into the depths at the mere suggestion of an aerial attack.

As a general rule, you want to fish upstream, keep your shadows off the water you're fishing or about to fish, and minimize the number of steps you're taking in the water.


I'm not suggesting that a super realistic, technical dry fly or nymph won't catch fish in a small stream. However, as a general rule, small streams are the time and place to use the flies that make a fish impulsively think..."MAYBE THAT'S FOOD."

Creek fish only have so much time to inspect your offering. They don't have enough time to inspect the number of tails your mayfly imitation has.

The more types of food that fly looks like - the better. You need flies that kind of look like food. Flies that convince a fish quickly that it could be food.


As the old saying goes, "If you ain't twitching, you ain't trying." Okay, okay, okay. You caught me. That's not an old saying.

But, dang it, if you aren't getting any positive feedback from fish, add a little life into your fly (or flies). Give it a little twitchy twitchy.

Oftentimes, the slightest twitch can be the trigger a fish needs to make a move on your fly.

We hope this helps you get ready for your next trip to the high country. If you have any additional questions about anything fly fishing, feel free to drop by either location - Denver & Frisco, give us a shout at 877.464.0034, live chat with us on our website, or shoot us an email.

Shopping Cart


Free shipping over $50.00

Shipping & taxes calculated at checkout

Checkout View / Edit Cart


Sold Out