The Art of Small Streams


A few years ago a friend of mine, the poet Josh Edwards, wrote something I’ve been turning over in my head ever since: “Small islands are largely themselves.” What I love about the phrase is the promise of transformation it speaks to. It’s an idea that the small stream angler—and I mean the really small stream angler—can use as a way of entering into the surprising expansiveness that can come while fishing diminutive water. If you let it.

I myself go back and forth between fishing fairly good-sized water for fairly good-sized fish, and plying narrow coulees for smaller, differently spectacular specimens. The year’s first foray into tiny water is always a rediscovery—at times a difficult, painful one—of how to get into the small-stream state of mind. I was reminded of the challenge just last week, as I kicked off the Wisconsin trout season on a small, meandering coulee. Four weight in hand, it was the first fishing I had done since a January musky trip to Tennessee, where I threw flies a good deal larger than the fish I hoped to catch that day. I got out of my car and decided to walk downstream through deep snow to observe the water and plan my strategy. I walked for one hundred yards, two hundred, three hundred. But I saw nothing. I spooked no fish and, furthermore, saw no water that screamed “fish me.” In fact, there wasn’t a single spot where I could not see the bottom. I would have kept on walking downstream in search of what I deemed more fishable water, but some other anglers had put in, blocking my march. I was forced to turn around and fish through the four hundred or so yards of tiny, clear, shallow water I did not, could not believe held fish.

Slowly at first, I started to get my eyes. It takes your eyes a few minutes to adjust to the dark. It can take hours—or days—to adjust to a small stream.

Fishing a small stream, which is just another way of saying fishing upstream, is like reading a book backwards. You study the end to better understand the beginning. You are unraveling a mystery in reverse. You are on the hunt for something you can’t quite place. Until you can.

Your rod is your tool of inquiry, your mechanism of divination. There is one thing, and one thing only, that must be true about a rod for small stream: it must be one rod.

Not two.

Not three.

Let it be a 3 weight, 4 weight or 5. It doesn’t matter. When you’re carrying a hammer, as the saying goes, everything looks like a nail.

It’s a game of adjustment and compromise. A dab of putty on the line to suspend a nymph, an extension of tippet, a shrinking of butt section. You’re getting close. It’s not about having the right tool for the job. It’s about making your tools—rebuilding leader, refurbishing flies, working with floatants and weight—as you go.

Fishing a small stream is a progression toward refinement and an act of faith that something will be revealed. A small stream teaches you how to fish it, and at what pace.

And then it happens. It always does—there comes a moment at which the river starts to make sense to you. It’s is no longer looking as small as it did from the roadside. The next run up you fish a stone the size of a kid’s basketball because the river deepens a few inches behind it.

And there’s a fish there.

Keep fishing and at a certain moment, if you are doing it right, a small stream becomes a big stream. It becomes all there is.

For me on that day, that moment came when I found myself staring at a pod of gleefully midging fish, trout snouts poking and prodding the film, in water that was maybe two feet deep. I know I had my small stream eyes because, even at that distance, I could see the adult midges they were plucking and plinking mid-skate from the surface. From a pool no larger than a twin-sized bed, I caught some 40 browns. None of them huge, all of them magnificent. For an hour and a half I cast and caught with my breath half held. My whole world was me crouched behind that run. It was a thousand yards wide if it was a foot.

What I love about small stream fishing is how it feels like a metaphor for the enterprise of fly fishing itself—an acceptance of limitations and a narrowing of focus that reveals, paradoxically, possibility where none seemed possible.

I have only topped my waders twice. Once at dusk in a good-sized smallmouth bass river. The other time on the narrowest stream I had ever fished in my life, so narrow you could, in certain places, have made a footbridge with a skateboard. On the day in question I had turned a sharp corner and was flush upon two spectacular rising brook trout. No, not rising—leaping. Leaping as freely as trout leap in a world too small for brown trout and too tight for anglers, their own little kingdom, so small that when they landed they sounded no different from the frogs kerplunking from the bank, more blip than bloop. I needed to get close enough for a bow and arrow cast, but I also needed to keep my center low, so I fell to my knees and stalked them. Every minute or so I crawled another six inches forward. I grew close. One more push and I’d be at firing distance. I saw a nice, soft pad of water cress calling for my left knee. I lifted, moved forward, and lowered myself down.

I kept lowering.

Turned out it was a cloud of watercress masking a one-foot drop in the stream bottom. Not deep water by any means, but for a guy on his knees falling forward it was enough to dunk me. Drenched with freezing water I sprang to my feet, coughed up some spring creek and started laughing. From this vantage point, standing upright for the first time in hours, the stream seemed even tinier. Had I really fished through all that?

I had.

The river had taught me what it wanted me to do. And I had done it.

Small streams are largely themselves. And then some.