Small Stream Therapy
Neil Grose is better known to most as a professional trout guide and for his articles on advanced fly fishing techniques - such as "Loch Style" an "Nymphing" .His roots though, and one of his favourite places lay in small streams. Perhaps this article will encourage you to escape to this paradise.
There is an element of mysticism about fishing small streams. It is innately therapeutic listening to the
cheerful little song that the water sings - as you slowly meander along unkempt banks peering after the sprightly little fish that live in there.
The expectations that are placed on highland lakes to produce fish of a large size are absent here, the challenge is different, the reward not measured in meat nor numbers, simply in a good day, a lesson or two learnt; true fishing therapy.
Many anglers today ignore the small streams, dismissing the smaller fish as "not worth catching', or only places for beginners or those of poor skill. The truth can often be the opposite, these little fish can drive you insane with their fickle feeding habits, frustrate you as they disappear before you can get a cast at them, and ridicule you as they steadfastly ignore your best presentations. Yet on other days every fish rises to your fly and gulps it down, every glide holds a fish or two, the trees miss your fly on the backcast, and you wonder at how the ills of the world fade with each bend in the river. We ignore these places at our peril, there are joys in these little streams that our lakes cannot hope to match.
To present a concise description of what a small stream is would defy logic, I guess anything wide and deep enough to hold a trout up to something less than the Amazon. Different anglers will have different conceptions of what size a small stream is, if you feel it's an intimate place where two anglers are one too many, then you are probably there. Rivers that come to mind for me are the top end of the St Patricks with its marvellous tributaries on the Camden and Diddelum, the top reaches of the North Esk and South Esk, the Piper and surrounding tributaries near Lilydale, the Cascade up in the Star of Peace, the top reaches of the Ringarooma and the Maurice, the Weld, the upper reaches of the Meander, the Supply above the farmer degraded section, and on the list goes. Almost every tributary system of the major streams will hold hundreds of kilometres of these diminutive playgrounds.
It is often said that good stream anglers make excellent lake anglers, but it takes a brilliant lake angler to be a good stream angler. Much of this sentiment is based around "reading the water', if the intrepid stream angler can predict the best of lies in a stream, then often they can often do likewise in the still waters. Much of what constitutes streamcraft, or reading the water has been covered in just about every publication on trout produced. You can be lulled into a false sense of complexity with stream craft; on the small streams follow the KISS principle, ie, Keep It Simple, Stupid.
To put the theory of stream craft in perspective, adopt a few simple rules. Think like a trout, remember the food is brought to the trout on the current, the best trout will always be near cover, and keep a low profile yourself, nothing ruins a days fishing more than spooking all the fish before you get a shot at them. And finally, the three P's of stream fishing, presentation, presentation, and presentation. Anglers who can land the fly lightly with the minimum of fuss will always be successful. Therefore the basics for angling these jewels are best kept simple. If you are able to adopt a fishing system which accommodates a basic series of flies, some casting tricks, and a simple leader set up then you are well on your way to relaxing and pleasurable outings on the streams.
My small stream fly box has exactly 5 patterns in 2 sizes each. Three types of dry fly, two types of wet flies. The flies are as follows, each with the dressing and a small photo.
First preference on any day is the dry, in fact I have fished entire seasons on the streams without ever knotting on a wet. In the small streams the trout are ready takers of all things floating, and a good nondescript dry is an excellent prospector for those fish which are not seen prior to casting. It doesn't seem to matter too much what the stage of the season it is, simply fish the dry in the part of the day that has the most comfortable temperature for you. The wet flies are used when rises are hard to come by, or if the fish just will not rise off the stones to take a dry. A good technique when this happens is to strip the brown nymph flat out down the current, this often produces savage strikes when the dry fishing becomes rather dour. You do need to strip rather fast though!
Hook; Kamasan B 405, in sizes 12 and 14
Tail; Brown calf tail, with the tips aligned in a hair stacker.
Body; In three parts, 1st peacock herl, 2nd red floss, 3rd peacock herl.
Wing; White calf tail, stacked and split
Hackle; Brown Hoffman saddle, at least 4 turns on each side of the wing
Red Tag Royal
Hook; Kamasan B405 in sizes 14 and 16
Tail; Red wool
Body; In three parts, 1st green seals fur, 2nd red seals fur, 3rd green seals fur.
Wing; Dark dun Hi-Viz, tied split and upright
Hackle; Brown Hoffman saddle, at least 4 turns on each side of the wing
Hook; Partridge 12ST size 18 and 20
Tail; Black hackle fibres, tied short
Body; 2 thirds red lurex
Thorax; Black seals fur
Wing Post; Dark dun Hi-Viz
Hackle; Black Metz, four turns.
Hook; Kamasan B 175, size 14 and 12
Tail; Brown hackle fibres, tied short
Body; Brown seals fur rib, fine copper wire
Thorax; Brown seals fur, over 4 turns of lead wire
Wing case; Black crow or cormorant
Hook; Kamasan B 160, size 12 and 14
Body; Black seals fur over 6 turns of lead
Wing case; Black crow or cormorant. Fluff out the seals fur to look like legs, etc.
Generally speaking, if these flies can't catch fish on any given day, then there are no trout in the river, or someone is fishing upstream ahead of you. All these flies are fished upstream, and allowed to drift back drag free. There are a myriad of other techniques for fishing larger streams that entail other flies with movement and fishing downstream instead of upstream, though they seem out of place in the small streams.
Some people are probably wondering where the red tag is. I don't carry them, although I do have them in my guided fishing fly box for the lakes. I dont like the red tag much on the streams, it doesn't float as well as I like, and I can't see them either, although I readily concede that the trout can. It's a confidence thing really, I have other patterns that I like much better, so I use them. It's a bit like the Mrs Simpson, I have never carried one, let alone used one, yet others would surely die without them! It does really come down to confidence, if you dont like it, dont use it.
While in the highland waters I feel distinctly underdressed if I don't have three flies on my leader, in the small streams it is one fly only. Overseas there is a tradition of fishing multiple flies in streams of all sizes, and while I have found those techniques to work exceptionally well in larger waters, I prefer to keep things simple in the skinnier parts of water ways. One fly floats better, it is easier to get drag free drifts, and is the simple truth is known, the fish will see the one fly as easily as two, anyway. The same applies to the little wets, a strike indicator is rarely necessary, you can either see the fish, or failing that, simply grease the leader to within 12 inches of the fly, strike when the leader draws down, or moves in any way.
The simple trick with fly fishing the streams is to keep the fly exactly where you expect the fish to be. In the larger waters fish the edges of the current, along any undercut banks, and in the back eddies. In really small streams of less than a metre in width the fly really only has to be on the water, most of these fish are on the lookout for anything that hits the drink. To give an example I sometimes fish a tiny stream in the North East called the Minnie-Jessop, which is a tiny tributary of the Cascade river. On warm summers days I have seen trout move to the fly before it even hits the water, often two at a time. The real challenge in this stream is to actually get the fly in the water, catches of over 30 fish would be the norm, all released as a matter of course. This stream and many others like it have an attraction greater than mere numbers of fish, it is a magnificent way to while away an afternoon, flicking a dry into every nook and cranny, usually with a nice slurp as the result.
With streams of more significant flow fish the bubbly seams along each rapid or riffle, and cover the water meticulously, you need that fly to drift over every likely lie before you move on upstream. It can be a nice enough day just manipulating the fly over the ripples and runs, a good take a definite bonus. With these small streams it is of vital importance to approach with a low profile, and to fish those flies straight up the stream. This means a little amount of wading, although a pair of gumboots is often sufficient to keep your feet dry. To fish across the stream would be nigh impossible due to the bank side vegetation, not to mention a fly in the bank side shrubbery every time you pick up to recast. Short casts are the procedure here, to cast too far would in all likelihood spook a lot of trout. A good manageable casting length is around 15 feet of fly line, plus leader, to cast any further is inviting trouble from fly hungry trees!
With leaders, the simplest is to buy a good quality tapered leader of nine feet, with an end tippet strain of between 4 and 6 pound, and a spool of the same material, as soon as the taper becomes too thick, knot on a new length of tippet and continue on. The best knot is the three turn surgeons, or water knot. Don't worry too much about leader thickness, more often it is best to go to six pound, it gives a little extra oomph pulling flies out of trees.
It pays to grease the leader to within a foot or so of the fly with both wet and dries, if the dry is being pulled under then grease the leader right to the fly, in the broken water this shouldn't deter the fish.
There are a few casting tricks well worth learning for use on the creeks. The roll cast is perhaps the most versatile cast you can have in your armoury, people who have attended one of Peter Hayes" casting days have the perfect technique for this. Quite often the intrepid angler will not be able to get a decent back cast, a roll cast is the only way you will get into 50% of the available water. Getting under the overhanging scrub can often be a real pest, I think I must have lost 10 tackle stores full of flies before I learnt an American cast, called the upside down cast. Basically this cast is upside down from a conventional cast. Instead of throwing the loop over the top of the tip ring, this cast is a side cast with which you flip the tip up at the end of the cast, making the loop under the fly line as it passes the rod tip. Point this under the overhanging bushes and the line lays up under the branches, and then falls gently to the water, rather than getting tangled or snagged.
Many of the bigger fish are under these places pigging out on beetles, you can winkle them out with a cast such as this. Don't over do it though, this is positively a short range cast only. One thing anglers should definitely do and that is to learn to cast with your opposite hand. This opens up so much water. Seems a shame to have two hands if you can't cast with both of them. Practise this one at home, as an interesting offshoot of doing this is that it will invariably improve your "normal" casting. Always push the boundaries with your casting, better casting always means better fishing.
Discussions on casting are usually followed by what tackle is best, primarily what rod is best suited to the given situation. I really love fishing small streams with short rods, a 6'6" SAGE LL #3 is my favourite toy, although every angler should remember that technology is no substitute for ability. The fish in these streams don't care what rod you have, so fish with something you enjoy using. Many good stream anglers are still using short fibreglass rods, and I know of quite a few who use their cane rods more often than not. I am the first to recommend state of the art rods for serious lake fishers, but in these little streams a nice short soft rod is all that is required.
Line weights in the two to five are perfect, it doesn't really matter too much with line taper, weight forward has served me well. Good quality lines are worth their weight in gold, and will last a lot longer than cheaper ones, so bear this in mind when considering purchases. Reels should be sturdy and functional, and able to with stand the occasional knock and dunking. Apart from that, push a small fly box in one pocket, a spool of tippet in another, some floatant and go fishing. Leave all the gadgets at home, travel light, and get in tune with these lovely intimate waters the way the fishing gods intended them.
It seems almost unnecessary to talk about trout conservation in these little waters, as they are considered to be well populated, however, what appears on the surface is not always so. In many of these streams it is very easy to clean out whole sections of river. Bob Cooper and I have caught and released many fish in sections of our favourite streams, only to return a few weeks later to find that some one has kept all the fish we released, basically de-stocking the water until the next spawning season. These fish have no "hero" value, and are not prime table fare, so catch as many as you can, but please release them, they are too precious to be only caught once. To make releasing fish easier squash the barbs on your hooks - you wont lose many fish and really, it doesn't matter if you do.
These fisheries can be as delicate as some of the western lakes, they need to be looked after. Overlook these little streams and a great opportunity is missed, they are as addictive as any mayfly hatch, or as intriguing as polaroiding the flats out west. On these waters there are no crowds, no aluminium hatches chasing the mayfly hatches, no outboard's nor busy boat ramps, only peace and quiet and the smell of the bush. Each to their own, but if the fishing gods said I had to choose one place to fish into eternity, then the small streams are where I would go. Quickly!