Tom Rosenbauer’s Top Tips for Finding Your Own Small Trout Stream

Discovering a new stream is exciting, whether it pans out or not.
Photo by Phil Monahan

We trout fly fishers yearn for a stream of our own, a place visited by only a few other fly fishers each season, where the tight feeling in your chest when you round the bend to check if anyone is in your favorite pool could be banished. You can find such a trout stream and it might be closer to home than you think.

There are no more secret medium to large trout streams. These trout streams lie exposed to easy fly casting, publicity, and tradition. Small trout streams are where you’ll find a stream of your own. I’ve learned a few tips to finding trout streams you can have virtually to yourself. The easiest to find are the smaller branches of major trout streams. As you climb up the trunk and into the narrower limbs, crowds and other annoyances like canoes and inner tubes dissipate. Your chances of finding a huge trout decrease, but most often the sheer number of trout per square foot of stream increases dramatically. Adult brook trout and other species of trout can thrive in a pool the size of a large coffee table as long as at least part of this pool is over two feet deep or one edge of the pool has a log or rock they can use when danger threatens.

I often drive along one of my favorite trout streams with another fisherman and casually ask, “Would you fish that?” “Naw, looks too small and brushy” is the usual answer, and I put on my best poker face (which the Wednesday night crew will tell you is not too good) and agree. It’s almost axiomatic that trout streams like this look shallow from the car, and it’s not until you get off your butt and wade them that you see how deep the pools are, and you see that by working directly upstream you can get as much as a 30-foot cast, which is more than you need on a tiny stream. I have also found that by hiking upstream or downstream on these trickles, you can find where the streamside brush and the size of the pools open up. One such river near my house looks impossibly small from the road, but if you bother to hike upstream 50 yards you’ll find a waterfowl pool that is 50-feet wide and 6 feet deep. It holds plenty of trout, as long as the skinny dippers haven’t frightened them for the day.

A light rod and a few flies are all you need.
Photo by Phoebe Bean

You don’t always have to go to the very top of the system, of course. Sometimes you’ll find a small tributary that no one bothers with well down in the course of a famous river. Here’s a tip: Skip the first hundred yards, as most people try a few casts off the main river and then give up. Persistence will pay off. Don’t rule out irrigation ditches, either. Trout get sucked into irrigation systems and some of them are almost like spring creeks. One of my best evenings of trout fishing in California was in an irrigation ditch in the Fresno raisin country.

A word of caution: Little streams look notoriously fishy at high water, and the realities of mid- and late-season water levels can be disappointing. Just walking the banks won’t tell you much unless you happen to hit one at a rare time when there is a hatch of insects and the fish are rising. Small stream trout are remarkably talented at hiding their presence, seeing or sensing you long before you can see them and bolting under the nearest flat rock or log, rather than bolting upstream through a pool where they can be spotted. When I was a kid, I found them either by poking along the undercuts in meadow streams with a stick or (gulp) worming them. Better yet is to fish them in prime time—late May to early June in the East and before or after runoff in the West.

When you do find one of these gems, leave your tip-flex or fast-action rods at home. Casts are very short, often just a few feet of fly line. You need a full-flex action to straighten the leader with these short casts—plus it’s just more pleasant when you feel the rod bending.

You’ll sometimes find wild browns in your brook-trout stream in Vermont.
Photo by Phil Monahan

Superfine Glass rods or a classic bamboo rod are the sticks designed for this kind of fishing. Do you need a super-short rod? It really depends on the size of the stream, and whether you have room behind and in front of you. With meadow streams, you can get away with an 8-foot rod and sometimes need one to keep your casts out of low brush along the river. In some mountain streams, trees don’t grow right up to the banks, so you can get a 20- or even 30-foot cast behind you as long as you are casting straight upstream. But when you venture into the true wooded gems that most people walk by, you’ll be happier with a 6-1/2 or 7-foot rod that will fire a bushy dry under streamside brush with ease.

23 thoughts on “Tom Rosenbauer’s Top Tips for Finding Your Own Small Trout Stream”

  1. What kind of a trout is that in the photo by Phil Monahan?
    It doesn’t appear to have the wormlike markings of a brookie, it doesn’t appear to have the red stripe of a rainbow and it is more marked than a brown often is.

    1. I suspect you mean the first image sine the 2nd is identified as a brown. The 1st is a native male brookie. I caught them a boy in a brook in central Mass. that wan’t usually more than 4-5’across. Natives have very pink flesh – almost sockeye salmon like. Google ‘native brook trout images’ to confirm.

    2. Absolutely a brown trout. I am a fisheries biologist and have handled many like this. No question.

    3. It’s a young brown trout. The trout in photo #1 by Phoebe Bean is a brookie, identified by white on leading edges of pectoral fins.

  2. in the winter, i spend an inordinate amount of time on google earth, looking for small mountain streams and wishing it was july. come summertime, i’ll make a drive as far as i can get into a wilderness area or national forest, then hike the rest of the way, just to scout out a decent piece of water. it doesn’t always work out in my favor, but i fee like i’m always seeing spots for which many anglers won’t take the time to search. to me, that’s what its all about…

  3. It’s not “almost” axiomatic that small streams look shallower than they are, it’s a scientific fact. When you study the path of the light rays through a water surface, you’ll see that EVERY body of water looks shallower than it is unless you’re looking directly down into the water. The more oblique the angle that you look at the water, the more shallow it looks. The clear water of many deep-woods trout streams adds to the illusion, by making it easier to see the bottom.

  4. Found a stream not to far off a interstate fwy near LA, full of little trout, it was great until our drought wiped it out. Maybe it will be back some day . Big “C” got me for awhile but I’m going looking for a new one this summer. Wish me luck

  5. I’ve found that small stream fishing is a more personal, downright intimate, experience. It forces you to Slow Down and learn the Stream bed topography to an extent overlooked in larger waters. Look twice…three times before moving your feet. And by revisiting these little gems in different seasons and weather / water conditions I feel like I develop a relationship with the water.

    Small stream fishing is a noble and educational vocation.

  6. My twin brother and I have had great fun locating small unknown trout waters in southern California. This involves reviewing google and topo maps , reading old trout survey reports on the internet, and using shoe leather to locate and explore potential locations throughout the LA metropolitan area. After several years, we have located some great little streams, and still have many more potential locations to explore- there is always great anticipation when we try a new location – almost as much fun as catching fish!

    1. Chuck,
      I am not sure if this gets posted or is a PM so I will speak a bit in code. I live in North LA county, almost in Ventura. I fish FF,MC,PC and WFSG. I hope these ring a bell. I have one spot I would like to try but hesitate to go by myself. I would enjoy meeting up with you and sharing some local fishing lore.

  7. I have been fishing the baby streams since I was a kid and have scored some big browns, cut throats and brookies in some tiny bushy places no one wants to tackle. My father in law who has passed used to make me flies to use in the Bishop area. So much fun!!! I am 76 and just bought a new orvis fly pole, as my bamboo one lost its tip while in storage. Can’t wait to use it. I have been known to jump in after them if they try to hide amidst the tree roots. All fishes beware lol.

    1. Joanne, So sad about the ruined bamboo rod tip. probably got put away wet. If even a drop or two water it will ruin the rod finish over time. Actually one of the main problems of yesteryear when everyone fished bamboo, was that the rod bag would be a little damp, especially at the bottom. The dry rod would be put away, and the following season brought out to discover it had to be refinished. Some of the rods I get to restore are so bad that the rod bag is rotted in spots, has holes, and the guides are rusted too. The good news is that the section(s) are readily repairable. I do hope you didn’t throw it away…?

  8. Thanks Tom for the great advice and the tips for fishing a small trout stream.
    Not enough of us take the time to do it.

  9. Years ago I found such a small stream when I lived in another city. It was 3 exits from the city line and the freeway actually went right over it at that exit. Despite the ridiculously easy access, nobody fished there. Main reason was that it was really small, only a few feet across in some spots, and became a rather well known stocked trout stream about 15 miles further down. It ran through a county park there, where the hatchery was located. One day at high water, when it was not fishable down in the park, I thought why not try it? I parked literally just off the exit ramp and began following the upstream because it went toward a housing development and wasn’t as brush choked. I caught several brown trout 7 to 10 inches over a couple hundred yards, then had to stop when I reached the first homeowners yard. The guy did wave though! Imagine having that literally right in your suburban backyard!

  10. Hi, I worry about the survivability of very young small trout when they are caught and released. They seem so delicate…are there any good tips on how to ensure they are not harmed and can be released safely? Of course barbless hooks, no nets, minimum time out of water…anything else?

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