Small Creek Savvy: Eight Essential Habits Of Highly Effective Anglers

November 2020

I have been a small creek aficionado for many years how.  I love the solitude and absence of boot marks, the beautiful surroundings, and, of course, eager fish.  More and more anglers are gravitating this way as the bigger, famous rivers like the Arkansas, Gunnison, and South Platte in Colorado get ever more popular and crowded.  I cringe when I see a post by a fisherman on the so-called Dream Stream holding a nice rainbow…with a half dozen other anglers as a backdrop.  Small creek fishing definitely has its delights, but also some special challenges.  Here are a few key tips on small stream angling I have learned over the years, most through the  school of hard knocks, that I hope will pay off in more fish and more satisfaction for you.  Just leave a few of the finny beauties for old codgers like me!

#1:  Carry Two Rods…Or Three

On my early days on small creeks, I would carry only one rod rigged with a dry/dropper combo rig.  I did reasonably well with it and thought since these streams were fairly shallow, I didn’t need to dredge the deeper holes with nymphs below split shots.  I also didn’t want the burden of carrying an additional rod.  But then years ago I got schooled on one of my favorite creeks, a high-country meadow water.  I was fishing a pool at a big “S” bend and had caught several decent fish, a couple on the nymph and one on the dry.  Smugly thinking I had fished it thoroughly, I started upstream, but as I rounded the bend and peered into the deepest part of the pool, I could see a half dozen fish finning in the depths.  Several, hugging the bottom and actively feeding, were bigger than anything I had caught.  Reluctantly I clipped off the dry/dropper, a pain in the arse, and rigged two nymphs under a BB split shot to get down to the school.  On first cast I lured an 18” brownie on a stonefly followed by a double on the stone and a trailing caddis nymph.  Lesson learned!

Now I always carry two rods/rigs.  It can definitely be an annoyance carrying a second rod, but I have learned a couple of tricks that can reduce the aggravation.  First, how best to carry that second stick?  One simple option is to carry the two rigs in your hand then set one aside on the bank while fishing the other.  However, and almost inevitably, when I lay one rod down and fish upstream I end up having to trudge a fair piece back downstream to retrieve it.  In fact, several times I have had to spend a quarter hour or more trying to find it among the tall shore line grass and bushes all the while turning the blue sky bluer with my self-recriminations.  Instead I figured out after trial and error to slide that second rod down inside my waders and tuck it under my wader belt to secure it.  Importantly, to prevent the bottom fly from snagging on the inside of my waders when I tuck the rod in, I secure it on one of the circular vents on the outside of my reel instead of using the rod hook holder .

Using The Hook Holder For The Second-Rod Tuck Is A Recipe For Snagging The
Inside Of Your Waders
A Better Appoach Before Tucking Rod In Waders

It’s also important if you are right handed to carry the second rod on your left side (and vice versa if left handed).  You will still have to be cognizant of that rod extending six feet above you in the air so that you do not snag it with the fly line or leader of the rod you are casting with, especially if the wind is blowing hard. Also, watch out for those overhanging tree limbs. 

Initiating The Second-Rod Tuck
Slide Rod Down And Tuck Inside
Under Wading Belt
Successfully Executed Second-Rod Tuck

Another condition where a second rod can be a game changer is when the trout are feeding actively on the surface but hugging the shoreline or hiding beneath undercut banks.  In such instances, getting a float within a few inches of the shoreline may be the difference between success and failure.  However, with a dry/dropper it can be maddingly difficult to pull off because even if the dry alights perfectly tight to the bank inevitably the trailing nymph dropper will catapult a foot or two further into the grasping streamside vegetation.  Naturally it often won’t come loose thereby ruining the run if you wade out to retrieve it, unless you choose to break it off which means wasting time to re-rig.  When I am on a stream where such conditions are prevalent and I expect a hatch, I carry a second rod with only a single dry fly tied on, a set up that is far easier to cast close to the undercut bank.  I will fish this rig first followed by the dry/dropper for clean up.

Another option I as using increasingly when going out with a fishing buddy is to take three rods—one with a dry, the second with a dry/dropper, and the third rigged with two nymphs.  We alternate with one of us fishing and the other sitting on the bank with the two remaining rods.  We then trade-off back and forth as we work upstream.  This is also a very relaxing way to fish and learn more about the creek through patient observation plus affording the opportunity to crow on your friend when he blows a strike

#2:  Leave No Stone Unturned

It’s just human nature when you arrive on a creek to immediately start fishing, especially if you know the water.  But you’ll definitely increase your catch if pull the reins back a bit and wade in downstream of the first good run or pool and turn over rocks both in the shallows and in deeper water to see what bugs are in the water.  That lesson was driven home again this spring in April. 

I was on one of my favorite streams which I knew had slews of caddis nymphs and some mayflies.  But fortuitously I took another look.   I bent over and picked up a couple of rocks just below the first good run.  I was surprised when they revealed some meaty stoneflies clambering about. 

Succulent Surprise Stonefly

I had used stones on this creek in the fall, but not early in the year. I rerigged my nymph outfit with a Twenty-Incher nymph and proceeded to catch more on the stone that day than all other flies in my arsenal put together–and also the biggest.

I have also learned to be on alert when approaching the creek through high grass or other vegetation. I’ll often see a “hatch” of grasshoppers or other terrestrials that make up a good portion of the diet of small-stream trout and rig accordingly.

Keep your eyes open for a bird called a Dipper, AKA American Water Ouzel, as well. Dippers dive underwater and feast on subsurface bugs. If you see one flitting along the shoreline of a pool, give that water a thorough going over.

The Dipper Is A Good Sign Of Abundant Subsurface Insect Life

#3:  Look Before Leaping

Just as important as turning over rocks to see what might be on the piscatorial menu, is to have patience and sit on the bank or stand quietly downstream of that first pool or run to see if any trout are rising or flashing below the surface before unfurling that first cast.  Almost inevitably, particularly in the warmer summer months, you will see something rise or swirl near the surface, giving you a chance to size things up and have a good target to begin with.  This is actually a good strategy for every pool as you work upstream.  Take a minute to relax and observe.  It will pay off as it did in the pool below.

#4:  Kneel To Conquer And Other Stealthy Moves

Stealth is always important when on the water, big or small, but even more so on creeks.  Holding lies are often shallower and the water clearer than on bigger rivers, which means the trout are much more likely to pick up any motion, even far downstream below them.  I am continually amazed on small waters like Archuleta Creek, a tributary of Cochetopa Creek near Gunnison, how fish 50 feet above me at the tail end of a pool will catch sight of my slightest movement and proceed to scatter like they are fleeing a five-alarm fire,  jetting into the next county while alerting their brethren. (For a peek at the challenges of little Archuleta Creek, see my blog article:  https://hooknfly.com/2016/08/26/double-your-pleasure-double-your-fun-day-1-on-archuleta-creek-near-gunnison-co/ )

The Number One Rule for wading small streams is to keep a low profile.  Sometimes it is best to stay out of the water altogether and cast from dry land, except this can backfire if the bank is elevated several feet above the water as it often is and you are actually more visible. The best option will often be casting from a kneeling position. 

He Kneels To Conquer

And sometimes to get into the best spot for kneeling and casting I go down on all fours and crawl slowly into position, hoping no one sees this maneuver and calls the local mental ward to come retrieve an addled septuagenarian on the loose.  The important of kneeling in successful small stream fishing is one reason I like Cabelas Dry Plus waders that come with foam cushion pads in knees.  Those sharp stream rocks can be painful on the old patella.  In other instances where kneeling is not possible, it may mean hugging the bank lined with trees or tall bushes to break up your profile.  In other cases the best approach may be to cast from behind bushes on the shoreline as shown in the video below of fishing a small creek beaver pond. . 

Other stealth measures to keep in mind include avoiding casting your shadow on the water whenever possible and refraining from wearing brightly colored clothes that don’t match the surroundings. (In the photo above, my fishing buddy was wearing an orange jacket for safety purposes as it was hunting season, and we had heard rumors Dick Cheney had come down from Wyoming and was in the area. Under normal circumstances orange would not likely be a stealthy choice.)

#5:  Target These Overlooked Spots

You might think that creeks and streams being so small that it would be hard to overlook promising spots.  In many cases the most productive lies will be evident, usually found at big bends in the creek where the holding water is deeper or behind big rocks or other structure in the stream that break the current and provide good hiding places and quieter water for the trout to dine in with minimal effort.  But there are several other sweet spots that are often skipped over.

One of favorites, and the one overlooked by most anglers, is what I call back eddies along the shoreline.  Back eddies are created when a strong current swirls around a bend and runs into the bank downstream, producing a small slow counter current along the shoreline and a postage-stamp sized pool often filled with foam. 

These mini-pools are often deep enough to hide a fish that will take up a position facing downstream into the reverse current.  Back eddies, because they have a lighter flow, are often favored by larger fish because the slower current will drop food conveniently in front of their faces and  also allow them to feast without having to expend as much energy as in the main current.  Just remember that the trout will be facing downstream so stay upstream of the eddy in making your cast and let the fly float back upstream to you.  Also, since getting a drag-free float can be difficult because the main current is between you and the eddy, using a high-stick and reach approach is often called for.  Another option is to climb out of the water upstream of the back eddy on the same side of the creek and fish from the bank.

Another hot spot for big fish on small creeks, hardly a secret, is the undercut bank—the real issue is mastering the technique to get within inches, not feet, of the shoreline which will often spell the difference between a strike and a skunk.  As noted above, pulling off a successful shoreline cast when using a dry/dropper rig can be challenging especially when the bank is covered with brush or overhanging grass.  Here’s a tip that can help you pull it off when the undercut bank you are probing is just downstream of a bend in the creek, as is often the case, the current eroding and undercutting the bank.  Aim your cast  above the bend and let the current carry it down and push it to the bank. In effect, you are using a little geometry to skin the cat.

Shallows are another surprising spot to target on small creeks.  The one place I have probably spooked more big fish in small creeks is in the shallows along the bank, especially in warmer weather.  I am continually surprised to find  good-sized fish, especially brown trout, lolly-gagging in a foot or less of water along the shoreline, apparently sunning themselves and feeding insouciantly.  It’s another reason not to wade pell-mell from one good-looking pool to another.

#6:  Master The Backhand Cast

Creeks are often narrow and choked with shoreline vegetation that can make casting a challenge, especially when you are trying to maintain a stealthy approach.  For example, let’s say you are on the right side of the creek working upstream.  You see some fish rising on the opposite shoreline, but if you step out away for the bank on your side you to execute a cast you will spook the trout, and the trees or other obstacles behind make it impossible to backcast without snagging.  What to do?  There are any number of specialty casts that can improve your success on small streams—the roll, curve, and bow-and-arrow are examples.  But for my money the most useful day-in and day-out is learning to throw a backhand cast across your body like Roger Federer executing a high tennis backhand.  This will take some practice before you hit the stream, but it will be well worth it. 

Credit–Fly Fishing: The Lifetime Sport

There are a number of excellent articles and videos on line that will have you casting like a pro in no time.

 (http://www.lovetheoutdoors.com/fly-fishing/Te-Z/Type-of-Casts.html; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4rJqcM7MFdw)

I also find the sidearm cast is another of the most useful on small waters, especially valuable when you are trying to get your fly under the ubiquitous overhanging vegetation, where a normal overhead throw will end up in the branches. It is also useful when the wind is whipping.  I approach this cast like a sidearm hurler in baseball, keeping my arm and rod and thus cast low and parallel to the water.  This low angle will allow you to slide the fly underneath those grasping pesky branches or below the bank and out of the wind.

#7:  Fish Out Every Cast

Often on a big river the trout stick close to home and don’t have as much time to examine a meal carefully.  But on some smaller waters with less current, particularly meadow creeks, they have more time to examine your offering and make a decision.  The result is frequently they will follow a fly downstream and actually hit it when it has floated by you.  The moral is be patient and fish out that cast before picking up the fly.  Don’t be surprised if you see a trout coming downstream chasing it. 

#8: Make Short Casts And Keep Your Line Off The Water Whenever Possible

Getting a drag-free float is important on any water no matter the size.  But it is especially important on small meadow creeks where trout typically have more time to examine your offering.  My formula for success is to make short casts where possible and keep the fly line off the water to the extent feasible, then mend quickly to avoid any drag or use a high-stick approach to reach over any intervening current to avoid drag. 

High Sticking (Credit: Troutster.com)

It never ceases to surprise me how close you can get to the trout in a good pool with a stealthy approach and fool them when you keep your fly line off the water.

4 thoughts on “Small Creek Savvy: Eight Essential Habits Of Highly Effective Anglers

  1. Hi Chris. Love your writing, You are inspiring me to pick up my rod again in North GA. Familiar with Oyster rods? All the best, Marene

    Like

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