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The Eddy Line: Small streams hold large rewards

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Now that runoff is over, our small streams are an angling option offering some solitude for those anglers willing to put in some extra effort. PHOTO BY PATRICK STRAUB


You’ve heard of the famous rivers—the Madison, Yellowstone, Missouri—but have you heard of the many small creeks that are also home to plenty of wild trout? Maybe or maybe not. And, you may never hear of them because that is the way it is supposed to be. Good things come in small packages, right?

Small creeks are the hidden gems of our local waters, but fishing them requires a few adjustments to your angling attitude and your angling tackle. Here’s some help. 

Look on the light-side. A 9-foot 5-weight may be the best rod for the Madison, but if you plan on going to smaller waters, get more out of your fishing by fishing a 3- or 4-weight. A smaller rod will allow for better accuracy in the tight quarters of small creeks. Length can vary, but an 8-foot 3- or 4-weight rod is a versatile option for nearly all of our local creeks. 

Learn leaders. Understanding leader length and size will help you. You will you lose less flies to bankside bushes and you will find it easier to get a better drift. Follow a few simple rules—if you are fishing a large fly, fish a shorter leader, even as short as 5 or 6 feet. If you are fishing a small fly you can fish a 10- to 12-foot leader and get long drifts, but, be sure your casts are accurate or you will be picking your tiny dry fly out of the bushes often. 

Earn your rewards. Small streams can offer exciting fishing on a more intimate scale. Increase your chances of having an even more secluded experience by burning off some calories. Walking an additional 15 minutes from the parking lot can pay big rewards

Map it out. For those anglers willing to put in a little extra work to earn some small stream rewards, be sure to keep quiet when it comes to spreading the word to other anglers. And for good reason—many of the creeks worth fishing cannot handle large amounts of angling pressure. Because maybe you were never told just how good the North Fork of the West Fork of Nunofyadamn Business Creek, you have to pull out a map and learn a new place the old-fashioned way by figuring it out on your own. 

Embrace simplicity. I learned to fly fish on a small creek near Bozeman. As a middle school kid my size 10 Royal Wulff would catch the hungriest trout in the riffle first, then several fish later I might get lucky and catch the big one. Small creeks allow you to forget about what a lot of trout fishing has become—two fly nymph rigs fished with weight below an indicator. Get back to the roots and cast a single dry fly and fish the way Lefty Kreh intended. 

Do not neglect streamers. There are times when a dry fly just won’t work—if there is no hatch or the water is a bit off-color. When that occurs try something new and fish a small Wooly Bugger or your favorite streamer pattern in a size 8 or 10. Expect to make long casts and often fish from the middle of the creek, stripping directly back toward you. After you make your presentation cast, keep holding the line with your line hand because often times the biggest fish in the hole hits your fly immediately. 

Be cautious of critters. Many small streams are in backcountry areas or areas with plenty of willows and marshy habitats. Backcountry streams, especially those in Yellowstone National Park, can be frequented by bear, and marshy streams can be home to moose. Don’t fish in fear, but be aware and consider telling people where are you headed and what time you expect to be home. 

The stealthy anglers are the happy anglers. Small streams can hold plenty of fish, but, not for the clumsy anglers. Small fish may be unaware of your presence, but big fish grow big because they elude predators. When fishing small creeks move slowly and act more like a hunter than an angler. 

Practice the golden rule. Many of us fish small creeks to experience some angling solitude. There will be a time when you encounter another angler on your favorite little stream. When that occurs give them plenty of space and leave them lots of water before you begin fishing. Or, consider calling an audible and venturing elsewhere. 

For many, the appeal of fly fishing lies in its simplicity. Tying on a single fly on a light weight rod and stepping into a creek you can cast across is at the root of many anglers’ first fly-fishing experiences. Getting back to those roots can be intrinsically rewarding. 

With the end of runoff and the heart of summer here, the options for fishable waters are large and varied. Now is the time to embrace a little angling simplicity and self-discovery on your favorite little small stream, just keep your success to yourself. 

Patrick Straub is a 20-year veteran guide and outfitter on Montana’s waters and has fished the world over. He now writes and manages the social media for Yellow Dog Flyfishing Adventures. He is the author of six books, including “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Fly Fishing” and has been writing The Eddy Line for seven years.

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