Small is tough
Fly fishing small streams can be frustrating or rewarding
It’s been said that small-stream fishing has a life and attitude of its own, an attitude that anglers either compliantly adopt or go home frustrated, vowing never to return.
There is a unique methodology and philosophy to small-water — rods, lines, flies, techniques — that appease some anglers and irritate others.
“Sometimes you’ll see guys out here with their brand new $700 rods and $300 reels and all that new fishing gear, anxious to catch their first trout,” said Boulder resident Tom Leifer, standing a few steps from a fast-flowing freestone creek curling through the rolling country east of Boulder. “They’ll try it here once, get frustrated when they don’t catch anything, and never come back.
“I like it like that,” Leifer said, with the satisfied laugh of a man who recently caught a 22-inch brown trout from those very waters. “It leaves more room for me.”
Small-stream fishing isn’t exactly rocket science, since there are plenty of rocket scientists who can’t fish small streams.
It’s also been said that learning to fish a big river is easiest if you break that tangle of flows into a series of smaller rivers (call them streams, if you like).
Of course, if you already know how to fish a big river, you also know it’s possible to convert that knowledge into success on a pocket-sized stream.
Most of the tricks you use on the Colorado, Yampa and Roaring Fork rivers can carry over to something narrower than your sport utility vehicle.
But even those anglers who consider themselves experts on bigger water often give up on small streams, and it has nothing to do with talent.
It’s the mental games that cause the surrender.
“They just don’t get small streams,” said Gordy Reese of Boulder, who obviously has no problems pulling big fish out of unlikely streams. He recently caught an 18-inch rainbow from the same stream Leifer caught his 22-incher.
Well-known angling author John Gierach, who for years lived near and fished a small stream a few miles away from where Leifer, Reese and I were standing, wrote several books about fishing undersized streams, including his aptly titled 1989 classic, “Fly Fishing Small Streams.”
In that book, Gierach said, “Fly fishing for trout in small streams is no harder, or easier, than fishing for them in rivers and lakes, but I think it’s noticeably different, maybe even to the point of being a separate discipline within that sport.”
That entails recognizing the obvious: Leaving at home the chest waders, 6-weight rods and 40-foot casts and replacing them with hip waders (or just wading boots or tennis shoes, in season), 2- and 3-weight rods and short leaders and tippets.
Reading the water may be easier, since there’s less of it to read. But that means stealth is of utmost importance, and it doesn’t hurt to have a pair of knee pads for sneaking around fishy streams.
But less water means the fish are more adept at hiding from predators and you. If you are careful and cautious, you can watch the fish feed. Otherwise, you watch them scatter.
And when it comes to fly selection, it’s accepted that small-stream trout are less-picky than their big-water cousins. Unless a major hatch is blanketing the water (which happens less often in small streams), a good-looking fly will catch fish just a well as the exact replica.
You can read Gierach’s book for some timeless advice on catching trout from small streams, but it still is a matter of developing the attitude and discipline for fishing pocket water.
The longer you fish small steams, the more you will adapt, the better you will become. Someday, you’ll “get” small streams.