Small Streams – Timing It Right
Scottish international angler and Greys ProTeam member Martin Stewart reveals his tactics and flies for tackling small rivers.
I’m not shy of fishing the big freestone rivers that we have in Scotland. The quality of the fishing really does spoil us on rivers such as the Tweed, Clyde, Tay and Tummel. However, one of my passions is fly fishing small streams. There is a huge difference between the approach and skill set for smaller streams compared with big rivers.
When approaching a big river you tend to head straight to the sexy-looking water with nice boulder-like features that you know will hold fish, or you are mostly looking for telltale signs of a big, expansive, medium-paced stretch for rising fish. The only things that might possibly get in your way would be the water level, wind or possibly a high bank behind you. Smaller rivers, however, have a lot more obstacles and features to get in your way!
Your approach to a smaller river has to be different from fishing larger freestone rivers. Fish will be more aware of your presence and the chances are that most of the fish, depending on location, are completely wild and have never been fished for. So, effectively, fishing becomes hunting and with this in mind stealth plays a massive part in success on these rivers.
My approach is always from a downstream position, fishing upstream so as not to spook fish. It’s amazing how close you can get to brown trout or grayling by sneaking up behind them. I believe that the downstream approach, unless that is your only option for better presentation, only limits your chances of catching fish in these types of surroundings.
Travelling light and having everything at hand will help when it comes to releasing the fish. Note that the net
magnet, spools leader, forceps and fly patch are all close to hand
The use of camou has its advantages but you don’t need it. Just make sure that you blend into the background with drab colours. The use of kneepads comes into play big time. Not only do they save your knees but they come in handy when there are areas with lower water levels that hold fish, or streams with overhanging branches that require you to get low to avoid spooking fish. So fishing on your knees will give you a higher chance of success. Also knee and shin pads, like the motocross ones that I wear, protect your waders from bankside vegetation.
In terms of rods used, I do like my 9ft or 10ft 2-wt but I can’t seem to shy away from the Greys Streamflex Plus in a 3-wt where I can use the setting at 9ft 6in for almost everything. If I feel that I need that extra reach for nymphing I can add the extension, taking it to 10ft.
I tend to fish everything off the fly line with a 15ft leader. You might think that 15 feet is a bit lengthy for small streams, and in some cases it is, but it means I can vary my techniques. I attach a micro ring at the end of the leader where I can attach tippet for dry-fly and duo fishing. If I reel the fly line onto the reel then the leader can perform as a French nymphing setup, where a coloured indicator can be added from the tippet ring if I need to. If I feel that nymphing is going to be the main technique then I will use a Hends Camou French leader. They are fantastic for fishing light weighted nymphs. I would also opt for the 2-wt rod with the Camou leader because they perform better with the softer action.
Locations And Methods
A stealthy approach from downstream working your way up to the likely fish-holding area will help avoid
spooking the trout
For me, small streams are all about pocket water. Where there’s a feature there are fish. I tend to go with a Stimmy setup first of all. For those who don’t know what Stimmy nymphing is, it’s almost like the Klink and Dink method (a dry fly with a nymph underneath), but I tend to use a large Stimulator-type dry with a small nymph underneath (I keep my coloured indicator on so that I can quickly change to double nymph). The method is to drop your flies into the pocket without having any of your leader on the water in a high-sticking action. The only thing that should be on the water is the dry. I tend to make the dry hit the surface to get a reaction out of the fish. I also have the flies in the water for no more than three seconds at a time, trying to induce a take. It can sometimes take a couple of casts in behind or around boulders to get a reaction.
If I feel that more fish are coming to the dry then I can fish double dry fly, and if everything is coming to the nymph I can take the dry fly off and go to a double-nymph setup. All this is performed off the leader with no fly line used.
Sometimes fish won’t be in those sexy-looking pockets, though. It all depends on the weather conditions and fishing pressure. You might find that if the temperature increases, the fish will move up into the neck of the runs where the flow is really hard with very little depth (often inches deep). This water is very often overlooked but I can assure you that fish can lie there quite comfortably. I would stick with double nymph in these areas, with a heavier nymph on point to get you down to the feeding depth straightaway.
Any other areas on the river, such as longer glides, I would be fishing the duo with a small nymph underneath a sighted Klinkhamer or Balloon Caddis.
The best times to fish small rivers are a few days after rain when the river is still slightly high and holding
colour. The fish won't have fed properly and will be keen to take a well-presented fly.
When it comes to flies for small streams you don’t have to be an aquatic expert to catch fish. I go to these types of rivers knowing that the majority of rivers in the British Isles will hold some form of caddis and baetis. If you go with variations of Caddis, Olive and Pheasant Tail Nymphs tied up in different sizes and weights you won’t go far wrong. I tend to fish the Pheasant Tails tied in sizes 16 to 20. Weighted beads are important with these small nymphs. If it’s a size 16 I will use a 3mm bead, size 18 a 2.5mm and size 20, 2mm and 1mm beads. I also change the bead colour in areas that might have been fished prior to your trip or you know it’s a river that gets fished regularly. I have found that spooky fish will go for Pheasant Tails tied with white/ black or rainbow-coloured beads when gold/copper or silver aren’t working. It does pay to have a variation to your nymphs. It’s just a case of persevering on the day.
The last thing to persevere with is the presentation, especially while fishing nymphs. You have to figure out if the fish want them totally dead-drifting or if they want movement. Most of the time when nymphing on small rivers I fish totally upstream at a slight 45-degree angle to the left or right of me. When trying to create movement I induce the nymphs by striking for a recast before they reach my position in the water. About 80 per cent of fish I catch in these pocket water areas come to the strike or lift of the nymphs. It can be absolutely deadly.
General-purpose nymphs should be all you need for success on the small rivers. Give them a go this season!
Finally, you can fish small streams at any time of the year in all conditions and still catch fish. However, the most exciting rod-bending days I have had on the smaller rivers have been a couple of days after heavy rain, where there still tends to be a couple of inches in it above average heights. It sometimes doesn’t matter which dry or nymph you have on in these conditions. These fish haven’t fed properly for a couple of days and they tend to act suicidal to a well-presented fly. Also, if there is still a hint of colour in the water, fish your flashier flies. One nymph that stands out in these situations is a Hare’s Ear Nymph tied with Angel Hair in as a tag. It can be devastating on the induced take!
Instead of hanging up the rod for the day after heavy rain, why not give the tributaries to your normal river a shot? I think you might be surprised at what you could catch.
The Flies -
Hook: Dry fly hook, sizes 16 to 20
Bead: 2mm Tungsten bead
Tail: Red cock hackle fibres
Thread: Red nano silk
Body: Cock pheasant tail
Rib: Copper wire (match colour to bead colour apart from white)
Thorax: Hare's ear
Hook:Curved nymph hook, size 16
Bead:3mm tungsten bead
Thread: Brown Nano silk
Body: Tan or green rabbit
Rib: Black or brown small wire
Hackle: Brown partridge
Thorax: Hare's ear mixed with peacock dubbing
Hook: Dry fly hook, size 10 or 12
Thread: Brown Nano silk
Tail: Elk hair
Body: Orange rabbit
Body Hackle: Red game cock feather
Rib: Small red wire
Wing: Elk hair
Thorax: Hends No45 Spectra Dubbing
Hackle: Grizzle cock feather
Hare's Ear Jig
Hook:Jig hook, size 16
Bead: 2mm tungsten bead, gold or silver
Thread: Brown Nano Silk
Tag: Violet Angel Hair
Body: Orvis hare's ear Ice Dub
Rib: Small Red Wire
Thorax: Hends Spectra Dub - No45
Greys ProTeam and Scotland Team Member
M: 07456 499897