Small trout streams greatly outnumber large ones. I mean to get a big one, a lot of little ones must come together. These simple, often forgotten, headwaters are always a blast to fish. They are full of smart and challenging trout that haven’t seen many flies, or people for that matter. Smart and challenging means difficult and fun, depending on how you look at it.
Turning difficult into fun is the Trick. Every little detail can contribute to that. The right gear for skinny water is as important as casting, fly selection, and experience, well maybe not, but it’s up there. Poles that are to large, line weights to heavy, and strike indicators that hit the water with an audible “plop” can make successfully targeting small streams difficult.
I’ve spent a lot of time stalking the less targeted and often more difficult trout native to little creeks that are overlooked for larger, more well-known, waters. The tackle or gear I use in this pursuit varies greatly from what I typically pack to target rivers or tailwaters wider than a two lane highway. Let’s simplify “gear” into a few broad categories to more efficiently break this down. There are rods, reels, packs or vests, line, indicators, and every other little gadget we now consider necessary, but didn’t own until a year or two ago.
Rods & Reels
For small water a seven foot, three weight or an eight foot four weight is ideal. A slow action rod can also help drop flies in lightly. Fast action rods are overkill, nobody is punching big flies thirty yards into the wind on a little Ozark creek or high mountain freestone. Delicate fiberglass or bamboo rods are right at home here were accuracy and stealth beats distance and volume.
The saying “reels are just line holders” is outright false most of the time, but not for a lot of the skinny water criss-crossing the lower 48. Any trout over three pounds would be a trophy for most creeks I would comfortably call "small". A reel for small water and small fish doesn’t need much backing, an expensive drag, or a popular name on the side. A lightweight reel that is durable and dependable is really all it takes.
Packs or Vests
Typical sling packs, hip packs, or vests work fine like usual, but something small and simple like a fly fishing lanyard fits the water. That sounds like some picturesque, opinionated dribble, but there is a little merit to it. Usually little spring creeks, or pocket water freestones are for after work stress relief, day trips at most. That’s why a lanyard with a small assorted fly box, some floatant, a little bit of tippet, and a pair of hemostats is perfect.
Tiny water doesn’t mean tiny tippet. Sure there are situations where some 7x
and a size 22 midge can come in handy. The vast majority of fish in little streams haven’t seen enough flies or enough line to care. That’s part of the reason they’re so fun to fish for. Anything smaller than 5x is just to small for a lot of skinny water. If a fish swims up to a fly and turns away it's usually not because it saw the line, it's because it didn’t like the fly. Small tippet is for fish that see a lot of flies and a lot of line; trout parks and famous rivers may require something smaller than 6x every now and then not “blank” creek behind work.
Always an important piece of gear. Terrestrials and dry flies are certainly effective on small streams, but so is nymphing if done correctly. Which is true almost anywhere I guess. Small streams require an element of stealth that some traditional cork or hard foam indicators don't
Yarn and soft, stick-on, foam strike indicators are a good choice because they land softly and don't cast much of a shadow while staying buoyant in turbulent water. However, both make adjusting to different depths difficult if no impossible. The small plastic “bubble” indicators are a decent compromise between the convenience of classic slotted indicators and the quieter, more stationary, alternatives. They land with a bit of a plop, but are easy to adjust and blend in nicely with natural bubbles already on the surface.
Classic floatants work the same, it's not as if the water is all of a sudden less dense because there’s less of it. Typically split shot bigger than size 4 will be overkill. The occasional blue hole may require something a little heavier, but there aren’t many of those. A thermometer is another descent little gadget to have, shallow water gets warm quick and some days it's better to just tie flies in the AC than put pressure on little trout. Lastly, having a lightweight net can come in handy when that rare four pounder appears out of nowhere and stops your heart for a split second. Not because its particularly big, but because you probably expected to see Sasquatch throwing a smooth pile cast downstream as much as that solid trout.
Small streams, creeks, cricks, whatever they're called wherever they're at, they're everywhere, and they're fun to fish. That was a lot of "theys" for a grammatically correct sentence. Anyways, the gear for skinny water is quite simple. Small equals small for almost everything; small rods, small line weights, small nets, small split shot, and big tippet, like I said almost everywhere.