Tools of the Small Stream Trade

Small Stream Fishing

photo by Brad Eaton

I like small streams and I cannot lie—despite all that makes them difficult.  The sore legs from walking on so much terribly uneven, thoroughly beavered ground.  The bankside grasses so high you’ve got to part them like a curtain to see the stream.  The soft skid of your boot encountering a cow pie.  And all those opportunities a fast fish has to get away from you: elodea or watercress or a cutbank, often all three.  Given current weather patterns I’ve got about another two weeks on the smallest of the small streams before they get cathedraled in weeds and tag alders.  But in the meantime I’m still fishing them, sweating upstream and down, crushing the bankside mint until the valley smells like a julep.  This season I’ve had the pleasure of acquiring a few new favorite tools to make the most of my time on small water.

Sage ESN 3110-4 and RIO Euro Nymph Line

While European-style short-line nymphing (aka Czech or Polish nymphing) originated on larger mountain rivers with long, swift runs characterized by broken water, the small stream angler can also be successful with the practice when creeks stain up after a rain event.  Conveniently, high water also dislodges crustaceans on spring creeks—and nothing gets down quick like a tungsten scud, a great pattern for fishing this technique (weight them so they ride hook point up).

One tool I used extensively this past spring was the Sage ESN rod in an 11 foot 3 weight.  It’s terrifically light and very sensitive—a quality more often talked about with conventional bait cast and spinning rods.  Short-line nymphing is very much a touch game—wait too long before setting the hook and you’ll either miss the fish or foul hook it, often in the belly.  While Sage and other companies also make a ten foot model, I like the 11 feet for small stream fishing since it allows me extra distance (for stealth) and also helps me better manage tall bankside grasses, since the small-stream short-line nympher will almost certainly set up on the bank.  Line-wise, RIO’s Euro Nymph Line has the benefit of both extra low memory and stretch—it’s easy to manage out of the reel, and the lack of stretch will shorten the touch-bite learning curve for anyone who didn’t grow up jigging for walleye (like I did).

Speaking of jigging, here’s a short-line nymphing tip: always make multiple passes through each fishy slot before moving on—one near the bottom, one in the middle column, and one moving back and forth between the two with some movement.  Purists beware: you’re jigging now.

New Zealand Strike Indicator Tool and Umpqua Red-Hot Power Taper Leader

During normal summer water flows, small-stream nymphing takes on two different forms: high-sticking plunge pools and riffle water in a direct upstream direction for active fish and suspending micro-nymphs through long, still pools for motionless pods of passive fish.  Let’s start with the latter.  In the small streams I fish—mostly the Driftless and those of Central and Northern Wisconsin—fish spend the middle part of the day in long, flat glades where a delicate approaching to nymphing is essential–otherwise you’re better off taking a nap.  The most delicate adjustable indicator I’ve yet fished is the New Zealand Strike Indicator Tool, composed of wool from sheep bred more or less for the purpose of suspending a nymph with maximum stealth and delicacy at maximum distance (you’ll want to carry a pair of small, cheap blunt-tipped scissors with you in order to help trim the hair to your desired shape), though I’m sure they make some good lamb kebabs as well.  The indicator is a cinch to attach to your leader via the pin and sleeve provided, and adjusting it won’t curl your midsection into a pig’s tail.   Depending on how you cut and treat the wool, what you’ve essentially got is an indicator that casts like a size 12 foam hopper but it just as adjustable and buoyant as a trapped air indicator.  Unlike trapped-air indicators, however, you need to treat these as you would a dry fly, with some gel to start and then a powder desiccant.

Conversely, there are times when fishing small streams—highsticking the tiny but fishful buckets of plunge pools—where an indicator reveals itself to be an unnecessary chaperone, since the drag they create can mess with your connection to your flies.  In these instances I’ve found Umqua’s new Red-Hot Power Taper Leader is a great tool.  It’s color-contrast butt and midsection allows you to track your fly not only by watching the tip of your fly line (which is going to move differently in current) but by watching the leader itself—a refinement that will help you get a clearer sense of what the business end of your rig is doing as it makes its way through the bucket.

Leland New Zealand 389-4

My friend and Wisconsin trout and smallmouth guru Tim Landwehr likes to compare streams in the Central part of the cheese state to those of New Zealand.  Fittingly, I’ve found Leland’s New Zealand Spring Creek rod to be an excellent technical, small-stream fly rod for my fussy water.  Leland does some of the curating for you with their rods—you won’t find the full gamut of line weights and lengths, but you will find individual rods designed for specific applications (this is the only 3-weight in this particular series of rod).  This stick hits a sweet spot on a number of levels—in length (a lot of quicker 9-foot three weights feel like 4 weights to me, which kind of defeats the rationale of going with a 3 weight, so this rod’s 8 foot 9 inches feels true to form), and the action, which I would put at just a tick above medium-fast (slower 3 weights, while delightful on placid evenings, can make for a frustrating day when any wind whatsoever kicks up).  In my mind, the main advantage of a 3-weight rod on small water is a psychological one—it shrinks you down and puts you in the right mind set for diminutive water.  If you haven’t checked out this series, it’s also pretty interesting aesthetically—think modern power and feather-weight construction with old school bling, right down to the ferrule inserts.  Then there’s the cork: check out the link and you’ll see it’s a three-weight with a mini full-wells handle that feels righter in the hand than I expected.

Scientific Angler Sharkskin

With the exception of the Czech-nymph set up, this I’ve been fishing with SA’s second-generation, triple textured Sharkskin line, and have been really, really pleased with it.  More than a great casting line, it’s texture makes for a line that floats higher in the water (good news for the roll caster) and jumps out through your guides when stack mending (it’s a very, very low friction line).  Mistakes and general imprecisions are magnified on small streams, where you don’t often have several feet of throw-away water to correct a drift gone bad.  If it fits your budget, a little extra control and a little extra precision can increase the percentage of quality presentations during the course of a day on small, technical water.  SA suggests these lines will last twice as long as conventional lines—stay tuned to a year from now when I reach a verdict on that.

One of the great things about small rivers is that the tactics are generalizable—you can fish big rivers like small ones, but not vice versa.  Whatever your water, there’s gear out there to complement your progression towards greater precision and control on the stream.