Fly Fishing Techniques for Catching Trout in Small Streams

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Small Stream in Colorado

Finesse techniques are the name of the game in small streams. Short, soft casts behind structure, dead drifted nymphs through a seam, and accurate casts to rising fish are just a few of the techniques anglers must possess. Trout in small streams are spooky. Keep your movements smooth and short. 

Few things in life are as good as fly fishing a small, clear mountain stream filled with wild and native trout. No, these streams don’t always hold massive fish, but they offer access to trout in their purest form. You’ll have to be your best to get the trout to fall for your fly. If you can land trout in small streams, you can land trout anywhere. 

Your Approach is Everything

Nothing makes me more excited than fishing a small steam for trout. I have to force myself to slow down as I reach the edge. 

If my excitement took over, I’d storm up to the edge, find the first fishy-looking area, and cast my fly. In that time, I have likely scared away numerous fish and put all the fish in the area on notice. 

If the small stream has clear water, you must be extra careful. Any sudden movement or shadow puts the trout into hiding. Watch your shadows and how close you get to the water. Fish that see a large object above them that looks threatening shut down and hide. 

Sometimes, I sit in the weeds while planning. I don’t want to make my presence known at all. I’ll sometimes start fishing 5-10 feet away from the water while still in the weeds. This allows me to cover both banks without spooking the fish. 

Keep your footsteps soft, noise levels low, and shadows away from the surface. The more cover you provide yourself, the better your chance of not spooking fish. 

Find Holding Areas

When I reach a stream, I walk up and downstream for 15-20 minutes. I want to locate all of the fishy areas before I start casting. Any area that looks like it’ll provide safety and access to a food source is all I need. Small streams don’t have all the features of large rivers, so trout sit in places you may not assume. 


You’ll find fish if you can find a pool in a small stream. Due to the limited holding areas in small streams, pools are the best-case scenario. Pools are water sections with minimal current and more depth than the rest of the stream. 

Fish pile up on the pool’s front side, waiting for food to drift into it. Cast your fly 10-15 feet above the pool to allow it to drift naturally into the front. 

As the fly drifts downstream towards you, strip in the slack, and raise your rod tip. The less slack you have in the water, the easier it is to strip set when the fish grab it. 

If you don’t see fish rising, throw nymphs and streamers. The weight of these flies helps the flies drift naturally towards the bottom of the pool into the mouths of waiting fish. Regardless of when you’re fishing for trout in streams, pools always produce fish. 

If the front of the pool isn’t producing fish, don’t be afraid to work the middle and the back. Dead drifting flies through the pool is a good place to gauge interest. You’ll occasionally see fish flash at your fly, giving you an idea that it’s at least interesting for them. 

If the dead drift with nymphs and streamers doesn’t work, become aggressive. Tie on a streamer, cast it above the pool, let it drift into it, and start stripping towards yourself. Trout chase small fish out of pools all the time. They’ll chase your streamer. 

Danny standing in the small stream in New Mexico fly fishing.
Small Stream in New Mexico


Small streams have a whole lot of eddies. Eddies are small bends in the river containing slack water for the fish. These eddies act as miniature pools. Dead drifting and swinging flies through the eddies is the best way to fish them. 

Cast above the eddie and let your fly work its way around it. A naturally drifting fly through the eddie is exactly what the fish want. You don’t have to give it much action because the current takes care of most of it. 

Remember, keep as little fly line in the water as possible. Start at the beginning of the eddie and work your way downstream. You’ll cover more water and give yourself a better chance of not spooking fish. 

If needed, get aggressive. Start stripping flies out of the eddie to see if any trout want to chase them. Fish eddies, morning, afternoon, and night


Seams are also easy to find in streams. These small areas of slack water and slower current exist everywhere. However, in streams, seams are small. You don’t often get a 25 or 30-foot seam to fish. It may only be 5-10 feet. 

When you see these calmer waters, cast 15 feet above them to ensure your fly has a natural appearance when they enter the seam. Keep as much fly line out of the water as possible. High-stick your way through the seams and wait for the fish to strike. 

I like to start with heavier flies and work the bottom. The current is the slowest at the bottom of the stream. From there, I work up the water column with lighter flies until I find the depth the trout want. 

Small stream in Wyoming
Small stream in Wyoming


Pockets are also common in streams. Short sections of slack water behind rocks, logs, and other structures make for ideal trout-holding places. Cast your fly along the side of the structure closest to you. When fishing pockets in streams, you want control over the line and fly. 

Start by casting upstream, letting your fly drift alongside the structure and into the pocket. Your fly reaches the pocket before your fly line, so be prepared to strip set before your line gets to the pocket. 

If drifting your fly directly into the pocket doesn’t work, keep it a few feet away to see if the fish want to chase after your fly. 

Have a Plan 

Once you find the holding areas, you can create a plan of attack. 

Unlike rivers and lakes, small streams aren’t great places to cast your flies anywhere and hope you land fish. The first mountain stream I fished looked perfect, but I ruined far too many holes by casting in the wrong places and wading through the water to get to my next spot. 

Now, I make a plan of where I’m going to stand and move as I cover the stream. 

Know the location of the fishy holes, where you’ll cast, and where you’ll stand. Once you finish your plan, you can start fishing. A plan cuts down on any unnecessary or distracting movements. 

Danny standing in the Small stream in Arizona.
Small Stream in Arizona

Make Short Casts

Don’t try to cover the entire stream from one area. Long, 25-foot casts up or across stream aren’t necessary. You’ll ruin multiple holding areas if you try covering all the water in one shot. Pick a spot, make your 10-15 foot cast, work your drifts, and move on to the next spot. 

When fishing small streams, don’t expect to pull ten fish from the same hole. You’ll find a few fish and then move to the next spot. Short casts keep you protected and don’t spoil all the rest of the water. 

Plus, accuracy is vital when you’re fishing small streams. The shorter the cast, the higher the chance of accuracy. The more perfect casts you have, the more fish you’ll catch. 

I’ve had plenty of casts in small streams with only a few feet of fly line. I let my long leader do the work and barely got into my fly line. The less fly line you have on the water, the less distracting it is for the fish. 

Your leader is thin enough that fish won’t spook when they see it. 

Small stream in Colorado
Small stream in Colorado

Match the Hatch

Determining what the fish want to eat is vital for success in small streams. Even though the water is small, it’s likely teaming with life. Look under rocks and logs for the nymphs that the fish are eating. 

If they’re feeding on the surface, try and catch one of the dry flies to see if you can match it to a fly in your box. 

Other times, the fish may be eating smaller fish or crustaceans. Finding exactly what trout want to eat gives you the best chance at landing them. 

Don’t stay married to one pattern. Be experimental to determine what the fish want. 

Sometimes, I’ve done my best to match the hatch, and it still doesn’t work. If this is the case, I’ll find my most obnoxious attractor pattern and use it. Sometimes, you have to stand out more than you think. 

Cover Water 

Small streams are the perfect places to cover a ton of water. If one pool isn’t producing, don’t spend all day trying to get a fish from it. Move on to the next pocket, seam, or eddie. The more water you cover, the better your chance of finding fish. 

It doesn’t take long to cover water in streams. Start downstream and work your way back upstream until you return to the start. 


Small streams are my favorite water to fish. It presents a ton of challenges that I love. Small streams force anglers to be accurate with their casts and know exactly what they’re doing before they do it. Small streams are the perfect place to start if you enjoy strategy and finesse-style fishing. 

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