Tuesday, December 31, 2013

An ode to Small Streams

One of my small joys is fishing while getting away from it all. Crowded parking spots along well-known named trout streams repel me. There is a saying that most fishing occurs within a quarter mile of an access point. I far prefer to take the preverbal “Path Less Traveled” (with an apology to Robert Frost), and hoof it a bit to find seclusion. Who wants to fish in a crowd, or listen to a string quintet on a noisy street anyway?  Fortunately, here in Wisconsin there are nearly unlimited possibilities to lose oneself in a small trout stream and have that kind of intimacy and seclusion.

This often brings me to water that is seldom fished; small spring creeks, remote stretches, and even water with no name. There is a common perception that such waters only hold small trout. Although this is incorrect, if they did indeed hold only small fish, I would still fish them. However, in the small tributaries of tributaries I often ply, a footprint is a rare thing, and most of the time, I may know the intrepid angler that made it. Because the water is not walked through and sees much less pressure, often the fish are of a larger size than the bigger downstream waters. The fish are confined in a small frame. Their living room, dining room, kitchen, and bathroom are all right there. Often they may have never seen a fly, and may be a sucker for a little inspired creation of fur and feathers delicately suspended on the surface.

Cover is essential. A blade of grass, a depression caused by a small log, a branch, a slightly undercut bank, a shady spot under a tree with some increased depth; all must be explored with the fly. The possibilities are endless, as is the vast amount one will learn when slowing down and fishing small. These days I seem to seldom look at familiar waters the same way. I wonder instead of what I passed up and missed all these years when I thought that a stretch of water held no fish.

Small streams are intimate. We get to know them like a fine wine savored. We take them in small sips and taste, smell, hear, and understand their characters and nuances. It is not unlike examining a fine piece of artwork for hours. In the end, one truly knows the object or the stream on a personal level. This can be only done slowly. If one moves with the same speed using big steps that we would on bigger water the trout will disappear as if by magic.

Like painting on a small scale, one must avoid big sweeping brush strokes, but instead practice precise understated control. Less is more. The canvas may be small, but the subject immense. While the complex currents and power of a big river are like a Mahler symphony, small streams are like complexity within simplicity, like a Bach Fugue. Like intimate listening, one must close one’s eyes, become one with the stream, and achieve a symbiosis of sorts with the water and nature. If not, one may not hear the hidden notes spoken by the trout.

The biggest hindrance in small waters is in both the precision of the cast needed and the inevitable obstructions to casting. One must have a plan on each cast. Where the backcast goes, how the forward cast is to lay, the target, and the end-game plan if the fish is hooked all must be foremost in one’s mind. Although long rods do have their place in small stream fishing, a short rod will allow one to more easily avoid tangles while placing the fly in the proper place. There is a reason that the rod Hardy built for the Paris casting competitions was 7’. It became one in a series named the “C.C. De France”.

In addition to a short rod in the 6’ to 8’ range for a 3-5 wt line, the rods flexibility becomes critical. The trend in the past ten to fifteen years is for rod manufacturers to chase each other for the fastest and stiffest taper design. That is a big help if one is fishing the Yellowstone or Missouri, but when sneaking a 20 foot cast through red dogwoods to land under a clump of overhanging grass on the bank, we need the rod to bend. I was handicapped for years with the wrong rods, and only when I discovered full-flexing rods did I see the possibilities of intimate waters. The rod must be able to load with just the leader out: it must be able to perform a bow-and-arrow cast: to roll-cast: it must be able to perform at 40 feet as well. Above all, it must be accurate. Using a 9’ 5wt rod on a stream the width of a sidewalk is analogous to trying to hunt squirrels with a 12 gauge shotgun.

Casting becomes like a game of miniature golf: steeple cast over the canary grass, fire the cast forward with a left hand reach, roll and spey cast, sneak into position and use a bow-and-arrow cast to place a streamer above a tiny log jam. These skills can only be required as one finds them necessary. Each situation in stream is different. Every turn is a study or a puzzle requiring an elegant proof.

I like to approach these streams using a dry fly. In the small setting a size 14 caddis, or a # 18 Blue Wing Olive takes on a new presence in defiance of their size. A size 12 Erik’s Catskill looks like a two-pound medium rare tenderloin. I will nymph when required to, but scale down the size and weight. Nothing puts down and scatters a wary brown trout like a thingamabobber landing on the water with a ‘Plop!’

 Exploration is a joy: part of the reward is getting there. That means no GPS, no book or internet post telling you which rock to stand on, no well-worn footpaths. It means a scratched face, sinking into a rabbit-hole, and getting your boots muddy. Someone once said “A day that I come home without my boots muddy is a day wasted.” I like that. Perhaps add a flask of fine scotch for a sip, a nice place to sit and reflect and listen to and watch the water, a packet of crackers and a fine cheese, and my day is complete.

The small streams are there. There are everywhere. They are the space between the notes. One just needs to find them and listen. Oh, and bring your small stream trout rod too.


  1. Small streams are the best! Perhaps you ought to add an extra week to your trip out here next year... I can think of more small water cutthroat creeks withing two hours of the Red Shed than you could fish in a year.

    I've noticed you have a penchant for Goddard Caddis, which is a good thing since so do our cutthroat.

    And bring that cane rod again. Cutthroat are noticeably more agreeable about giving it up to the bamboo...

  2. Erik.

    Nice post really. I too fish small stream. Take a look sometime?


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