Tips for fly fishing Montana's small streams
As the snow flies during the winter months here in Montana it is easy for the mind to wander to warmer days spent exploring the intimate water that we fly anglers hold near and dear to our hearts. Perhaps a sense of exploration pulls us toward fly fishing Montana's small, off the beaten path waters... Maybe the typically high numbers and fast action of eager fish… Possibly fishing a stream where a 16” trout is a trophy…
Regardless of why we as fly anglers periodically choose these smaller angling venues there are a few things worth keeping in mind when fishing small water. At Montana Angler we offer a number of private access, small water options that can make for very memorable fishing days.
Match your fly rod to the conditions
Most of our small stream fly fishing in Southwest Montana is done by fishing dry flies or smaller dry/dropper rigs to fish that are on the smaller end of the size spectrum. The sheer numbers of fish that we typically expect to catch in small streams make up for the lack of size. A great way to make the most of the smaller fish is to fish a lighter and softer fly rod. The widely accepted “standard” trout rod is a 9 foot, 5 weight. Hook a 6” trout on your 9 foot, 5 weight and fly-fishing quickly becomes fish-flying as you’ll likely toss the little guy into the bushes behind you on the hook set. Downsizing to a softer and shorter rod suddenly makes for a fun, sporty fight with even the smallest of trout.
One of our favorite small stream rods is a fiberglass, 7 foot, 3 weight. Our friends over at Tom Morgan Rodsmiths make a number of excellent rods that are perfectly suited to smaller water angling and their 7’, 3 weight is second to none. The slower action of the glass rod loads up with even the shortest of casts and will bend deeply when a small fish is on the end of the line, allowing the angler to really feel the fish during the fight. A double tapered fly line is perfect for the small stream rig as well. Casts on a small stream are rarely longer than 30 feet, and are typically within 15’. A double tapered line will load the rod quickly and will roll cast in tight quarters as well. A fringe benefit of choosing a double tapered line for your small stream setup is that after a season of use you can remove the line, turn it around, and then you’ve got an identical taper on virtually unused line at the back end.
Shorter, stout leaders are typically adequate for small stream fishing as well. The smaller, eager fish are rarely leader shy, especially in rougher pocket-water type of streams. Fishing the shortest and heaviest leader that is practical is both beneficial to the fish and to the angler. The fish benefit as it doesn’t take as long for the angler to baby the tippet, thus landing the fish quickly, and returning the fish to the water without unnecessary stress. The shorter, heavier leader is also better for the small stream angler as fewer flies are lost in the ever-present bushes and trees that seem to line the streams at the most inopportune times.
Flies for small stream fishing
Again, a big draw to fishing small waters is that the fish numbers and constant action typically make up for the average fish size. Choosing flies that can handle the abuse of being struck time and time again with as little maintenance as possible is a key factor in small stream fly selection. Buoyant dry flies that are tied with synthetic materials like foam, rubber legs, and poly yarn will always hold up better and float longer than natural materials after being eaten time and time again. Typically, small stream fish are less picky eaters as well. Basic “general attractor” patterns excel, whether it’s a dry or nymph pattern. Beadhead nymphs typically do better in rougher pocket-water streams as they drop quickly in the water column and the added flash of the bead likely gets more attention from the trout.
Small stream, large variety of holding water
In much the same way a large river tends to hold fish in certain types of water, a small stream will also hold fish in varied locations, they just tend to be in closer proximity to each other. A number of casts and different drifts can be achieved before moving to a new casting locale. “Leave no stone unturned” is a great philosophy for fishing small waters. Every break in the current whether it’s a shelf, seam, log, boulder, undercut, foam line, anything suspicious, can hold a fish. One bend or run in a small stream can have a dozen or more targets to probe before moving on. Cover the water thoroughly before moving upstream, you may surprise yourself at how many fish can be in different spots, all within reach.
Casting in tight quarters
Some holding water in small streams can look incredibly promising however getting a fly in the water can be a challenge sometimes. Brushy banks, overhanging willows, and log jams are all examples of casting obstructions that an angler may encounter on small water. Getting creative with one’s casting can be the difference between hooking that trophy trout behind the log that’s under the bushes versus going home having only caught the eager, easy to catch, little guys.
When faced with difficult casting situations the angler must remember that the fish don’t care how you cast. They just care that you get your fly in their feeding lane. No matter how unorthodox the cast may seem, what does matter is that it works to get your fly to the fish. The classic “bow-and-arrow” cast is a fine example. There is really no casting involved with the bow-and-arrow, the angler simply holds the bend of the hook with a short length of leader out the rod tip, bends the rod, and “slingshots” the fly into the water. Another somewhat ugly but effective technique is to use the “water-load” cast when faced with no casting room. Simply put, the angler lets the fly drag downstream and then uses the water tension pulling against the line to flip the fly upstream into the holding water.
Remember, the fish don’t care how you cast, they just care that you get the fly to them, especially in small streams.
Another advantage to the occasional small stream day is that you can leave the typical “everything-but-the-kitchen-sink” mentality at home. Most small water fishing can be done with one or two fly boxes and a couple necessities. Taking a full hip pack or vest is usually unnecessary. It’s refreshing to travel light and just bring a fly box with an assortment of general dries and nymphs, a couple spools of tippet, nippers, floatant, and hemos.
Most small stream fishing is typically a summertime game, so wet wading is usually a great way to keep cool on a warm day as well. Good, slip resistant wet wading shoes, lightweight pants, and a sun shirt are perfect for a few hours of small stream angling. The added mobility gained from not wearing waders will be appreciated if any fast, bouldery water is encountered as well.
Give big rivers a break
A final argument for spending some time exploring Montana’s small stream fly fishing options is that small water can be the best option during the hottest times of the summer. Our hot summer months can sometimes lead to river closures to protect the fish if the daytime water temps get too high. A great way to get outdoors and still get a fishing fix while the big waters are too warm can be picking a small stream on the map and just going exploring.
Most every stream in Southwest Montana holds trout and some absolute gems are out there just waiting to be discovered. The highlight of any small stream fishing day is finding that extra large fish that’s inevitably lurking somewhere in the stream. An 18” fish on any river is a great catch, however in a small stream that 18”er could be the fish of a lifetime.
At Montana Angler we offer guided fly fishing trips on the largest variety of water in Montana, including dozens of small stream options!