Trouts Journal

The Small Stream Equation

Ivan Orsic / Sep 1, 2014

When I think of the all rivers I've fished over the past 20 years, all of my "favorites" have the common characteristic of being floatable in a drift boat 12 months a year. My perfect day you ask? Easy....a summer time float on a western river with good friends, a cooler of cold ones, and dry flies or streamers from put-in to take-out. That being said, and seeing as how I live in Denver, the rivers I spend 95% of my time on do not fit this category. And admittedly, as much as I'd love to, I don't even own a drift boat or raft.....but we don't have to dive too far off into this category. I hear tears and a computer keyboard don't mix well.

That being said, I still can't say enough about how much I love fishing this great state, and in particular the South Platte drainage, where I spend most of my time. The bug life, the sight fishing, the true 12 month fishing season we have, the lake run spawners, the warmwater opporunites....all truly something special. Drive a few hours from town and what lies waiting (or perhaps flowing) is something I know to be the envy of countless anglers across the country. The Frying Pan, Roaring Fork, Arkansas, Colorado, Blue, Eagle....these are places people spend days traveling to fish, plan vacations around, take time away from work to get to, beg the wife to go visit.... We here at Trouts though? We can decide to fish these rivers on a whim during morning coffee. Pretty special indeed. (And yes, I realize several of these rivers can be float fished, so let's not revert back to the last sentence of the previous paragraph.)

But yet there is still another piece of the Colorado (although almost any state could be inserted here) fly fishing equation that needs addressing as well.....small mountain streams. We here in the Centennial state are blessed with enough small stream fishing to last a lifetime. Literally thousands of miles of running water in the form of small streams lie waiting for all of us as I sit here writing this.....and I'd be willing to bet a lot of you reading this haven't visited one all summer. I know I hadn't until last weekend....but I can assure it's a goal of mine to get back to another one again before the cold shows up for good, and we all become forced to wait many, many months before being able to again enjoy these little gems in their prime.

Small streams offer many features and benefits that, even though I know exist, never seem to fully sink in until I'm back on one. To start, I'd have to say the overwhelming theme/attraction/benefit provided by fishing a small stream is summed up with one simple word....SIMPLICITY. It's easy these days to get caught up in all the gizmos, gadgets, boron-this, nano-that, flouroflex or flouroflex plus? What's high-modulous? Size 18 or 22 rs2? Regular or with a little flash? Are the fish strike indicator shy? Do I need to put studs in my boots? Do I need to know how to double haul? Now if I can just find a place to get the idea. Small stream fishing is the empitome of what fly fishing should be. Sparse (if any) crowds, hungry fish (typically very), dry flies, beautiful scenery, and most importantly, good clean fun.

Aside from my recent weekend experience on a small stream - the name isn't important, even though it's FAR from a secret - I felt the need to write this because, unlike the South Platte, small streams DO have a true "fishing" least in the way they're best enjoyed, which in my opinion is dry flies, wet wading, warm summertime temps, and a cold beer on a tailgate at the end of the day. While it may still be pleasant here in the lower elevations of this state, get up in the mountains-as I did this past weekend- and you'll realize quickly Autumn hasn't forgotten about us and is approaching fast- I actually had to put on a down jacket one evening for the first time in months.

If you're reading this and have small stream experience, hopefully one of two things is happening right now. 1) You have a slight, involuntary smile on your face as you reflect upon some of the great memories you created fishing small streams this summer, or 2) You realize you haven't made it to one this summer and need to!

If you haven't spent time on a high-mountain small stream before, add it to your list and use the following as a quick reference guide:


Rod: 00wt-3wt rods are ideal for these streams. Stick to the shorter lengths as well, 6'-8' is ideal. Tenkara rods have also gained extreme popularity for this type of fishing.

Line: WF floating line that matches rod weight being fished.

Reel: Don't feel like you need to spend big money on your small stream reel. Sage and Orvis both make a great click pawl reel that will do the job perfectly. Beefy drag systems need not apply here.

Tippet: 4x or 5x will be perfect. There's a good chance many of the fish you'll catch in a small stream have never been caught and haven't seen an angler in weeks....maybe months, and won't be tippet shy.

Flies: I would recommend having a "Small Stream" box in and of itself that's always ready to go. Fly selection is not generally as important here as it can be on the bigger, more "famous" rivers. Have a few bushy dry fly/terrestrial patterns and a beadhead nymph pattern or two (just in case). My small stream box includes the following flies: Royal PMX, Red Humpy, Elk Hair Caddis, Parachute Adams, Schroeders Parachute Hopper, Chubby Chernobyl, Prince Nymph, Copper John. Sizes 12-18. Pretty simple stuff. I feel confident I can go to any small stream in the Rocky Mountains and catch fish with this set up.

Throw some fly floatant, forceps, nippers, and a bottle of water in the pack and I've got all I need to have a 40 fish day. (Which can happen with surprising regularity on these small waters....when was the last time that happened to you on the Platte?)

Okay, so now you've read this, seen a picture or two and are ready to hit the trail running. But where do you go? In an attempt to keep from ruffling any feathers- die hard small stream fisherman all have their own "secret" spots and I'd hate to divulge too much, even if by accident- here is a list of a few easily accessible small streams to cut your teeth on. These all have fish that are typically easy to please, are within a reasonable drive of Denver, and should leave you wanting more.

1. South Boulder Creek. 2. Boulder Creek. 3. Headwaters of the Arkansas. 4. Snake River though Keystone. 5. Gore Creek. 6. Bear Creek. 7. St. Vrain 8. Rocky Mountain National Park

Another reason I chose not to dive further into listing some of the more "unknown" small streams- even though their names are printed in a Gazetteer as clearly as the Roaring Fork River- is because truthfully, they don't matter. In my opinion, small streams are something that should be explored and learned on your own. They generally all are full of fish, and if you can fish one, you can fish any of them. If an eddy, plunge pool, beaver dam, or riffle looks like it's holding fish, it probably is. And better yet, that fish is probably going to eat your fly. Finally, the nice thing about small streams is that while the easily accessible ones will certainly provide you with fish, it's almost a guarantee that the harder you work (i.e. putting a few miles between you and the road) the greater the reward you will generally find waiting. There's been plenty of times I've driven an hour and a half to a river and experienced mediocre fishing. I can't think of one time I've spent an hour and a half hiking in to a small stream and not caught all the fish I'd wanted.

Fishing and Hunting Author Tom Reed recently came out with a book called Blue Lines, in which he writes about his love for fishing small streams. The title refers to how small streams actually appear on an atlas or map- little blue lines. Reed writes about his love for looking at a map, finding a blue line he's never fished, and heading to explore it. I'd encourage you all to try the same. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised with what you find........just be prepared for it to be more than simply trout.

Below are a few more pictures from around the area of small stream fishing at it's finest....the only thing missing in the picture is you!

There' a purity to small stream fishing not found on big rivers.

I have a feeling a few trout live here.

Small stream dry fly action at it's best.

Small streams don't always mean small fish. This brown ate a dry fly at almost 10,000 feet.

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