Small Stream Fly Fishing Techniques & Tips (Complete Guide)

Fly fishing small streams presents many challenges that can be very different from its larger stream counterparts. But heading to these waters with the right approach will help you reap the unique rewards they offer.

The small streams and creeks do offer a great angling experience.

Along the small streams, anglers will find a different world. Instead of crowds, they can find solitude; instead of fellow anglers, they find wildlife, instead of cottages, they find woods. The streams and creeks offer a paradise that river fishers seldom see.

Creeks are tremendous fisheries, too. Cubic foot for cubic foot, most small streams hold a much higher number of trout than rivers do.

It makes sense that the creeks teem with fish. Headwater streams are a lot cooler than larger rivers are. A high percentage of a creek’s water is freshly-emerged groundwater. Trout is a cold-water fish, and trout are well suited for life in a small stream.

Tips for Small Stream Fly Fishing

fly fisherman fishing in river

Fish the Foam

I used to only fish the tail of a pool typically; the tail yields a big fish or two. But I struggled when the water levels dropped, and water temperatures increased. Why because I remembered fish need oxygen, and faster water creates oxygen.

And even in cooler weather, fish still hold in the faster water if there’s quality subsurface structure. The good thing about fishing the riffles is that the fish have to decide whether to eat very quickly. They don’t have the time to be picky.

Stream Thermometer

When I started fishing, I used to attribute my success to sheer luck. Although many factors determine whether you catch fish, a primary component of success is the water temperature.

There are no guarantees in fishing, but the water temperature hits 70 degrees in a mountain stream. Especially during the heat of summer, trout becomes lethargic and catching fish drop dramatically.

Fly Rod Length

Choosing the proper length rod is extremely important. If you only own a 9′ six fly rod, you might want to do some shopping because you will have a tough time casting in the typical small stream environment.

Another factor for you to consider is the rod weight if you are using a stiff six weight.

You’re not going to be able to load the line on the short, accurate casts needed for effective small stream fishing. This is the only occasion where your best choice for good casting will be a 6-7 foot long, 2-4 weight rod. Most fishers don’t own a rod this size, but everyone should.

Try casting a six weight all day and suddenly picking up a two-weight, and you’ll thank me that you did.

fly fisherman wearing wading boots and jacket fishing trouts in river

Fish Your Way Upstream Not Down

If you try to walk downstream and fish for trout, you will stir up the water and significantly affect your success. One step into a muddy bank or mucky sediment, and you could ruin your chances of catching a fish for a while.

I recently watched a video where this angler placed an underwater camera in a small creek. He came back an hour later, downstream, to attempt to catch a fish on camera. The angler’s approach was announced on the footage by too muddy water. Interestingly, the trout became more active and excited when a small amount of debris came down, but the fish became spooky and fled.

Also, approaching a fish upstream means that you are approaching it from behind. This way, it is less likely for it to spot you.

Use a Short Leader

You can forget your 12-foot leaders on small river trips; they will only cause you unnecessary anguish.

I usually tie up a small 6′ leader with 4-5x tippets and leave it at that. The longer your leader is, the more ‘tree-fish’ it can catch on back casts, not to mention it will give you less control and accuracy when casting around tight obstacles.

Sometimes, even smaller leaders don’t help. It would be best if you learned how to roll cast. Roll casting is pretty basic, and you can get good with very little practice. Once you master this cast, you will find that 90% of the time, it will be your go-to option while fishing in small creeks.

Fly Choices

I can’t predict what will be hatching or the best fly for your small creek. But I have noticed that the smaller stream trout-like, the more giant flies as small flies.

Even the ones that more accurately imitate the bugs on the water. The standard explanation for this is that most small creeks don’t offer a lot of food.

So the trout are more aggressive to the options that do appear. Thus, more giant flies get gobbled just as well as smaller ones. Matching the hatch is less important since food is scarce in small streams; fish will be happy to eat food whenever it appears.

Small streams may offer smaller fish, but they also present an angler with many tougher conditions. So regardless of how big it is, a fish always feels like a great achievement. These small streams, once they are mastered, truly do create satisfaction.

You’ll notice so far I’ve talked only about dry flies. I find them to be most effective in small streams and creeks because trout here are used to seeing their food falling into the water from above.

However, small streams do host aquatic insect larvae, plus terrestrials get pulled under the surface, so nymphs are useful. Sometimes, a trout in a deep pool won’t come to the surface for your dry fly. Maybe it is just because they don’t see it and can be fooled on a nymph.

fisherman looking for a good fly to fish in the lake

Do not Ignore the Shallow

Small stream fishes are smaller in size than the fishes found in big rivers. Yes, this is obvious as it’s about fly fish in small streams. So as the fishes are smaller, they swim in shallow water.

I observed while fishing that whenever there is a little section of surface water, never ignore that. Most probably, it has a whole slew of hungry fish for your little fly.

Flies Should be Down Quick

In between your shorter drifts, swift fire casting, and smaller water pockets, most flies don’t get much time to sink. But, regardless of you nymphing or fishing a dry dropper rid, you need your nymphs to be down real quick.

Or else, your flies could begin floating over the fish heads and get food near the bottom.

So instead, do you know how you will make your flies sink swiftly? It is something easy; whether you are fishing a single or double nymph rig, add two of the split-shot weights to the line. And if you are fishing a dry-dropper rig, try using a bead head nymphs as much as possible.

This way, you can get your flies to sink swiftly on the water.

Be Creative while Casting

Casting becomes tighter as you fly fish in a small stream. There are times when you don’t have a little bit of space for a back cast. In this regard, you need to figure out a different way to get your flies into the zone.

On the least level, make yourself useful for roll casting. However, if you want to reach the higher level, then try the arrow and bow cast. These are the perfect tactics to get your fly to reach tight spaces, and this also eliminates the risk of tangles or snags.

Avoid Wearing Bright Colors

Do you know, fly small fishing streams is everything related to stealth. In my experience, I never saw a ninja walking near a stream in an orange or pink jumpsuit.

My point is not to make you shop for clothing like camo or ghillie suit for fly fishing. You should try clothing in dark and dull colors or go in a simple white dress in actuality.

Dressing in mute colors is a lesson from the most competitive anglers whose only purpose of life is to hook as many fishes as possible in quite a short time.

Also, it is a common thing among most of the anglers that they go for grab worn. It is a favor to wear odd for anglers.

fisherman holding net and fly fishing in river

Types of Fish You Typically Find in Small Streams

  • Common Shiner (Notropis cornutus): This fish is one of the most common baitfish types and is almost exclusively stream dweller.
  • Brook Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis): This fish specially belongs to freshwater in small streams. It is native to eastern North America.
  • Creek Chub (Semotilus Atromaculatus): This is a small minnow found in freshwater streams. It belongs to the eastern US and Canada.
  • Fallfish (Semotilus Corporalis): This is a chub of the family Cyprinidae, and it is the largest species native to North America. You can find it in small streams of freshwater.
  • Bluntnose Shiner (Notropis Simus): This fish has ray fins and is located in Mexico and the US. Its primary habitat is freshwater streams and lakes.

Brook Trout

The brook trout is also called the speckled trout. It is a beautifully colored fish with yellow spots over an olive-green back. The spots along the trout’s back are stretched and almost wormlike in shape.

The brook trout’s color transitions from olive to orange or red, with scattered red spots bordered by pale blue along with its sides. Its lower fins are orange or red; each has a white streak and a black streak. Its underside is a milky white, and brook trout usually reaches 9 to 10 inches.

Brown Trout

The Brown Trout was first imported into the United States in 1883 from Germany. It was stocked in the Pere Marquette River, Michigan, by the U.S. Fish Commission in late 1889. Since then, the species have been stocked in virtually every state. MacCrimmon gave dates of first stocking in each state. In most regions, the species were stocked in the late 1800s or early 1900s. Texas and Alabama introduced them after 1970.

The brown trout (Salmo trutta) has a reputation as the wiliest opponent a river angler can face. Whereas a brookie or a cutthroat will often attack flies with gullible abandon, browns are usually more discriminating.

Creek Chub

Creek chubs have a thick body and a broadhead. Their mouth is large, and the upper jaw’s back end extends beyond the front edge of the eye. They also have a small flap-like barbel that is often hidden in the groove between the upper jaw and the rest of the head, slightly in front of the upper jaw’s back.


The fallfish has a very similar body shape as the creek chub. But is more laterally compressed and has a more pointed head. Its back is dark olive, brown to black in color, and its sides are silvery to a white belly.

The scales are large, with 43 – 50 along the lateral line. Young fallfish generally have a distinct mid-lateral band. They also have a dark pigmentation (crescent-shaped) on the anterior edge of their scales. The average length is usually around 5 inches, but the fallfish can grow between 10 and 15 inches.

Eastern Blacknose

The Eastern Blacknose dace are found across the southeast portion of Canada. Then it goes down along the United States’ east coast. It is a dark brown to olive on its dorsal surface and a silvery-white below.

The darkly pigmented lateral line separates the two shades. In the breeding season, males develop darker pigmentation and an orange lateral line. Blacknose dace live in rocky streams and rivers where they feed upon small invertebrates and microscopic biological matter and provide forage for larger fish.

Dace Bluntnose

The bluntnose minnow has a stout half-ray in front of the usual 8 rays on the dorsal fin. The scales that are on the back between the head and dorsal fins are small and squished together.

There is a dark spot of pigment on the first two or three dorsal rays about midway up the fin. Bluntnose minnows tend to have a rounded head with a slightly sub-terminal mouth (ending below the tip of the snout).


The common shiner is silvery colored (sometimes bronze) and has an “olive back with a dark dorsal stripe.” The common shiner is a freshwater fish that can be found in North America. Adults inhabit rocky pools in small to medium rivers. They can usually live to be around 6 years old.

They are considered to be sexually mature by 7.4 cm. Breeding males will have a pinkish tint over most of their bodies and small bumps or tubercles on their heads. In comparison with other Notropis, the common shiner’s head, eyes, and mouth are large.

Golden Shiner

Golden shiners are a deep-bodied minnow species with a distinctive golden olive-silver color. Their fins might appear from a golden brown to an orange-reddish in color.

Older fish often tend to have a more golden color, while younger fish appear more silvery. This species has a distinctive scaleless strip on the underside between the pelvic fin and the anus.

Fathead Minnow

The fathead minnow is a stubby and heavy-bodied fish. They are usually olive to gray above, which shades to straw color or white on the belly.

However, there is also a red version that is sometimes called “rosy reds.” Adult fathead minnows generally average only to get 2-3 inches in length. It is a very popular baitfish, and its distribution has without a doubt increased.

Largemouth Bass

They are found in lots of rivers, lakes, ponds, reservoirs, and streams. Adult largemouth bass prefers to feed on small fish like perch, sunfish, and minnows.

However, they are also known to eat crayfish, insects, frogs, and small aquatic birds. They are also known to take larger flies, streamers, and nymphs.

Tessellated Darter

Tessellated darters eat crustaceans and small insects when they are small, gradually shifting to larger insects as the fish get bigger. Male tessellated darters guard nests of fertilized eggs until the fry are free-swimming.

They have been observed to engage in alloparental care of the previous nest inhabitants’ eggs. Alloparental care is also associated with increased male reproductive success in this species. Males frequently engage in filial cannibalism (consumption of their own offspring).

White Sucker

The white sucker is a long and round-bodied fish. It has a dark green, grey, copper, brown, or black back and sides and a light underbelly.

The fish also has the typical features of primitive Cypriniformes fishes. Things such as a homocercal tail, cycloid scales, dorsal, pectoral, and some pelvic-fin rays.

When fully grown, it can reach lengths between 12 and 20 inches long and weigh anywhere from 2 to 6 pounds. The fish’s suckermouth with its fleshy lips is located in the inferior position at the bottom of its head.

Because the fish obtains its food from bottom surfaces, these fish are commonly mistaken for different types of suckers and redhorse. But they can be distinguished by the complete lateral line system that contains 55-85 small scales.

Longnose Sucker

This species has an elongate, torpedo-shaped body that is almost round in cross-section. Its head is moderately long, broad, and is rounded on top, while its long snout ends in a rounded point. Its mouth is ventral, positioned well behind the snout’s tip, and its lips are large.

Slimy Sculpin

Mouth and snout: Terminal and very wide, with bands of fine teeth in bands on upper and lower jaws. Snout rounded to blunt and dorsal-ventrally flattened.

Body patterning, color, and scales: Mottled with irregular blotches, dark brown or black on a brown background with a cream or whitish belly. No scales, but a few fine prickles anteriorly just below the lateral line.

man fly fishing for trout and salmon in autumn river

Some Frequently Asked Questions

What is better, fly fish upstream or downstream?

Frequently, the upstream is easy and effective for dead drifting of dry flies. It is because you are behind the fish or downstream. If you are in the blind spot behind, it will make you get closer to the fish.

What is the weight of a fly rod for small streams?

The most common rod eight for small streams ranges from 2 to 4 weight. The best rod would be a three-weight rod. This is fine to cast the right size of dry fly, and it has good strength for landing the 12 inches brook trout that you may get in a day.

How will I fish streamers in small streams?

When you want to float the streamer, the best technique is high sticking. It would be best if you began with casting upstream and then raise the tip of your rod to pick up the slack as the fly reaches.

As you see fly going past you, swiftly lower the tip of the rod to get your slack feed into the drift.

What is the difference between fly casting and lure and baitcasting?

Fly casting is different from other types of casting because of the physics involved in it. It involves casting in the line, and the fly follows along for riding. Besides, spin and bait casting makes you cast the lure or bait and let the line follow along for riding.

Final Words

A small stream makes fly fishing quite fun. It takes you to the variety of landscapes between the volumes of fishes you catch.

However, it demands a unique fishing technique that boosts your creativity. So get up with your fly rod in some dull color dress and go to any small stream for your fish hunt. Probably, there are a lot of fishes waiting for the fly.

Bob Hoffmann

The author of this post is Bob Hoffmann. Bob has spend most of his childhood fishing with his father and now share all his knowledge with other anglers. Feel free to leave a comment below.

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