The thin blue line

Small-stream fishing calls to plenty
 of anglers

Small creeks demand finesse and careful wading. Here, Carol Oglesby works some magic on a small pool on a small stream in the West Elks Wilderness Area.

The narrow confines of Little Box Canyon on East Rifle Creek gradually open and the creek widens, offering a variety of trout habitat and challenges for the skinny-water angler.

The small stuff.

We hear about it several times in our lives, mostly as in “Don’t sweat …”

It comes almost as a barb, a bit of smack talk for something that should exist unnoticed, below our threshold of attention.

But instead of disregarding that advice, now is the time when anglers should do just the opposite.

Big rivers are OK, and it’s unlikely you’ll ever see a movie called “A Trickle Runs Through It,” but summer and small-stream fishing seem destined for each other.

Especially in Colorado, where small streams abound, flowing brightly from elevations where the air is fresher, the water cooler, the fish more lively.

Fishing writers have been waxing eloquent on small streams at least since the mid-1400s, when Dame Juliana Berners wrote her “Treatyse of fysshynge wyth an Angle.”

More recently, author John Gierach is among those modern writers who have devoted entire (small) books praising small-stream fishing.

Small streams, Gierach writes, “give you the best of everything that fly fishing is about — trout, of course, being one of the many things.”

Montana-based writer Tom Reed, who spent several years honing his stream-fishing skills while living and working in Gunnison, says in his book “Blue Lines: A Fishing Life” that small streams “call you home, call you to the heart, to the source.”

“I have seldom been on a small stream without wanting to climb upstream to its source, to see the ground in high country where the stream is born,” Reed says.

That titular reference to “blue lines” has for its headwaters at least two sources.

Reed says he first heard the term while fishing a pocket-sized stream in Wyoming’s backcountry with Chris Hunt, national media director for Trout Unlimited and like Reed another alumnus of Western State College in Gunnison.

Reed and Hunt, who explored small waters around the West for his book “Shin Deep: A Fly Fisher’s Love for Living Water,” had been banging around a brush-engorged tributary of the Greys River when Hunt turned to Reed and said, “I love blue-lining.”

Queried about his comments, Hunt replied, “You know, fishing those blue lines on the map, those thin blue lines.”

The second source comes from the late Pennsylvania State University professor Howard Higbee, who over 30 years personally charted and hand-drew Pennsylvania’s 45,000 miles of streams, each one a skinny blue line, on a map he published in 1965 as his “Stream Map of Pennsylvania.”

The professor is gone but his map lives on, with blue-lined editions for all 50 states.

For Gierach, Reed, Hunt et al, a small stream may be defined as one you can easily cast across and can wade in hip boots, and is way too small for any sort of boat.

Hunt even based his book “Shin Deep” on one of the premier qualities, where waders are not only unnecessary but unwelcome by those attracted by the caress of live water around their legs.

A small stream, says Reed, has “personality,” with “fast water and slow, but each of these stretches is short enough not to be boring and full enough of structure to have character.”

Finally, perhaps the best thing about fishing small streams is being unencumbered by the arsenal of assorted fishing paraphernalia hanging from your over-stuffed vest or crammed in a tackle box the size of a small chest freezer.

A spool or two of tippet, a handful of flies in size 12-16 including a go-to nymph pattern, perhaps a small streamer/wet fly pattern, and two dry-fly patterns is all you will need.

And you won’t need a map. Just drive until the road ends and start there.


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