10 Tips for Fly-Fishing Small Mountain Streams

Written by: Jared Zissu

Even little trout can teach an angler important lessons on stealth and technique.
Photos by Jared Zissu

Although I have been struggling to catch trout on the Battenkill, my small-stream game has been improving. One thing that keeps me so motivated, focused, and seriously addicted to the sport of fly fishing is the challenges that it offers. It is a sport where you never stop learning. Every single time you go fishing you learn something new. You may not realize you are learning anything, but you are getting a little bit better.

Here are a few things I have learned so far fishing small mountain streams in Vermont:

  1. The farther you travel from the main roads the better the fishing will be. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s honestly true. Today, I traveled an extra 10 minutes into the woods, and on my first cast, WHAM!
  2. Be very careful when approaching any pool. The more times I fish these small streams, the quieter my footsteps become. Sneaking up on a pool and hiding behind big rocks will increase your chances dramatically.
  3. Make the first cast count. About 80 percent of the time, you will get the fish’s attention on the first cast. Make sure it’s a good one.

My Fellow intern, Ian, retrieves his fly after a 40-foot hero cast into a large pool.
  1. Fish more than just the big pools. The first few times I fished small streams, I focused all my attention on the biggest pools, doubled-hauling my 2 weight rod and trying to make that 40-foot hero cast. This will end up doing more harm than good, and you will usually spook most of the pool with your fly line.
  2. Keep your fly line out of the water. Especially when you’re fishing small pockets and pools, if you can high-stick and just keep your leader in the run, it gives the fly a much more natural drift.
  3. Be patient. Sometimes, giving that fly a few extra seconds to drift into the back end of a pool will trigger a response. Even if the cast isn’t great, let the fly sit for a few extra seconds. If a fish goes for the fly, you will usually have a second shot at it, so hit it again then move on.
  4. Don’t be afraid to fish two flies. If you find yourself fishing a deep pool, don’t be afraid to throw on a small nymph as a dropper. I like to use something with a little weight that has a shiny bead head. Usually will drop it one to three feet off a bigger dry, such as a Stimulator. You can also tie on a second dry, such as an ant imitation.

I caught my biggest brookie earlier this week using a Copper John Nymph dropped off a Stimulator.
  1. Pinch your barbs! You don’t need to be using barbs on these poor little fish. Not only will you be able to set the hook more efficiently, but you can retrieve your fly easier.
  2. Bring bug spray and a pair of polarized shades. Unfortunately, bugs love to live in areas where there are fish. (Or maybe that’s the other way around.) Anyway, don’t let the bugs ruin an afternoon of fishing, so be prepared. The polarized sunglasses are crucial for following your fly on the water. I recommend amber lenses, for low-light conditions.
  3. Leave the hook in for a photo. If you do want to get a photo of your fish, your best bet for getting a good snap will be by keeping the hook in the fishes mouth. Not only can you keep the fish in the water while you prepare your camera, but if it flops out of your hand you will have a second chance to get the shot.

Jared Zissu is a former Orvis Social Media intern. He’s also the mind behind Flylords on Instagram.

14 thoughts on “10 Tips for Fly-Fishing Small Mountain Streams”

    1. Small stream fishing, my favorite type of fishing!

      Great recommendations. A couple comments:
      1) I agree, you must smash barbs or fish barbless.
      2) I am not a fan of leaving a hook in to get a photo. I prefer using a small catch and release net, keeping the fish in the water and getting that hook out ASAP. Then snap a photo.

      I have lost (accidentally killed) only two fish (that I know of) in the last 5-10 years. Both of them were small stream brookies. The first was a nice fish my 13 year old caught last summer at the end of a six mile hike. Turns out, the hook barb was not smashed and it somehow got lodged in the lower jaw of this eager fish – don’t know exactly what we hit but it bled like a stuck pig and we were unable to revive it. The second was a fish that my 10 year old caught just last week from under a willow bush in a 4 foot wide stream. When handling this beautiful fish for a photo, I dropped it from about 1-2 feet high. We retrieved the fish quickly, but the hook which clearly had been in the corner of the fish’s mouth was now in the exact same lower jaw position as the fish from last year and we got the same result. This hook was barbless, allowing it to dislodge and then re-hook the fish in a disasterous anatomical location.

      Lesson learned: no barbs and no dropping of fish.

      1. Great tips. Spot on. I love the small water. My only comment is about the trout photo. I get wanting to get that picture. They are beautiful. I finally convinced myself that it is better for the fish to just skip the photo completely. I know what the trout looked like anyway. Better for me to get the fish back in it’s home, safe and sound, and as stress free as possible.

        Thanks for the great tips.

  1. I love fishing with my Tenkara rod in the small streams of the Pocono Mountains. This area of Northeast Pennsylvania is full of them. You have to love crawling through mountain laurel and rhododendron.

  2. I love fishing these small brooks….especially for native brook trout. One thing I prefer is a longer fly rod with a shorter leader. I find it much easier to cast and control line with the longer rod. The reach helps prevent drag and I can also dap with it better. Of course, this is only true if the stream has a more open canopy. I also find that you’ll catch bigger trout on nymphs than on dries……no surprise here. I often fish a smaller bead head with a small indicator about a foot up. I prefer this over using a dry fly since I can cast and move without worrying about keep the dry fly up.

  3. I learned to fly fish on a small stream
    In Los Angeles We learned stealth was very important
    If you could see the fish they could see you
    I used a 9′ rod with a 7.5″ leader & 3′ #6 or 7 tippit
    Rarely did the fly line hit the water. I read every book on where
    Where to find trout Knowledge is your best friend !
    Barbs are a no no. Their jaws are very soft & bleed out
    Fast if hooked in the jaw When setting the hook do It softly
    A fast set may send it in the bushes behind you
    Happy fishing & remember your there to have fun !

  4. All this info has proven true for me. I mostly fish small streams in the Eastern Sierra. In my mind they are the most beautiful.,catching a fish (mostly is secondary) but no mater how many times a fish even turns on a fly-my heart skips a beat . I never feel closer to God than in those moments.

  5. I’m very new to fly fishing, but last week caught my first rainbow, what a thrill. Being from the east coast. Of NC I don’t get to go often. I really enjoyed the tips and comments. Will gladly accept any advice, and will gladly share what little knowledge on salt water fishing I have should anyone ask. Great forum , from great people( fun loving fishermen)!!!

  6. What a excellent fish. Fishing is a very famous game for angler’s. Generally we like to catch big fish from middle of the saltwater sea. As a angler we know about fishing process how to best way to catch big fish. So it is important thing that choose the best boat for fishing. We know that about a good fishing boat is very costing sometime we unable to buy our suitable fishing boat. Don’t worry if you want to take fishing adventure you can rent your choose able fishing boat.
    Thank you very much for sharing this post really it is efficient for us.

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