The Lure of Fly Fishing Creeks

fly fishing creeks

Fly fishing creeks – that’s what I plan to do this weekend. My podcast partner, Dave, and I will make a five-hour drive and spend a couple of days on the water. But where will we go? A five-hour drive to the northwest will take us to several creeks loaded with 8-14 inch browns. A five hour drive to the northeast will take us to a river where we have a chance of landing 18-22 inch browns.

I hear the creek calling.

Why am I so fond of fly fishing creeks — or “cricks” as my friends and family in both Montana and Pennsylvania call them? I have been pondering that question the past few days:


One of the first places I learned to fish for trout was on Cole Grove Brook near Smethport, Pennsylvania.

I was eight years old, and my Uncle Ivan taught me the art of dropping a worm in this tiny, brush-lined creek to catch brookies. A few years later, I threw Mepps spinners in the Big Thompson River (trust me, it’s a small creek) in Rocky Mountain National Park. That’s also where I got my first taste of fly fishing and caught my first brookie.

Then there is the little creek near Orville National Forest campground in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

I was in high school when my brother and I stumbled across some kind of mayfly hatch (I’m guessing) one evening and pulled out trout after trout on a Royal Coachman. There is also the mystique of Elk Creek near Augusta, Montana. During our college years, Dave and I had some terrific days on a little stretch of this creek not far from where if flowed out of the Scapegoat Wilderness area.

Whenever I’m on a small stream, I get nostalgic. I revisit these creeks and spend some time on them in my mind.

Into the Wild

Fishing creeks tends to get me into more wild places than fishing the larger rivers. That’s not always the case. My favorite stretch of the Madison River in Montana is in the Beartrap Canyon, and my favorite stretch of the Yellowstone River is in a remote place in Yellowstone National Park. They are big rivers. But they are the exceptions.

It seems like more often than not, fishing creeks gets me off the beaten paths and deeper into the timber or further into the mountains.

I remember running into a coyote in the thick forest surrounding Cole Grove Brook in northern Pennsylvania. I also remember catching a 12-inch brookie out of a beaver pond in the Bondurant National Forest south of Jackson, Wyoming, while a cow moose grazed about 75 yards away.

When Dave and I fish a creek in the Driftless region of southeastern Minnesota this weekend, we’ll fish until we come to a rock cliff where the creek flows out of the mouth of a cave.

If you like wild places, make the creeks your destination.

Less Pressure

This is a corollary to the previous point.

Wild places can mean less pressure.

One July day, when the drift boats seemed to be bumper-to-bumper on the Yellowstone River in Montana’s Paradise Valley, I drove up the West Fork of Mill Creek — several miles above where main Mill Creek emptied into the Yellowstone. I fished a stretch in the Absarokee-Beartooth Wilderness Area a couple hundred yards from where I shot my first bull elk. I used a Red Humpy, and every cast resulted in a fierce strike by a plump 8-10 inch Yellowstone cutthroat trout.

I doubt that anyone had fished this stretch of creek in years. It was a couple hundred yards down a steep ravine off of the trail.

As a general rule, expect that bigger rivers that hold bigger fish will attract bigger crowds. The streams that flow into them will receive a lot less pressure. So head to the creek to get away from the crowd.

More Action

Generally, smaller creeks mean smaller fish but more action.

Last summer, I fished the Fall River in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. Don’t let the word “river” fool you. It’s a small stream that winds through a meadow after emerging from a canyon. It seemed like every cast resulted in a strike on the Elk Hair Caddis I was drifting along the undercut banks. I didn’t catch anything over eleven inches. But the two dozen trout I caught were all fighters.


Part of the appeal of a creek is the finesse required to fish it.

Perhaps that comes from the days when I used an ultralight spinning rod and sneaked up through the weeds to peek into the hole where I was going to cast my offering (that sounds better than “cast my worm”).

As much as I love my nine-foot, six-weight rod, I find joy in taking my eight-and-a-half, four-weight rod and crawling up to a bank where I will make a short cast to fish an six-foot run along a bank. Fishing the small creeks require more stealth, smaller leaders, and softer landings on the surface. Even streamer fishing in a creek is more delicate. It’s not the same as lobbing a weighted Woolly Bugger on a mighty river.

I’ve lived a few minutes from the Yellowstone, the Madison, and the Missouri in Montana. I’ve had some terrific days on them. But, the creeks still call me. The “cricks” do too. I simply can’t resist their lure, and I hope that never changes.

S2:E34 Fly Fishing Spring Creeks

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Fly fishing spring creeks is a snap for those of you who cut your fly fishing teeth on the gorgeous eastern or midwestern creeks of the United States. We didn’t. We learned to fly fish on the freestone rivers in the West. You can imagine the shock to our system when we started fly fishing spring creeks. In this episode, we offer four hard-earned lessons from our learning curve to catch trout in spring creeks.

Listen to our episode “Fly Fishing Spring Creeks”

Great Stuff from Our Listeners. At the end of each episode, we often include a feature called “Great Stuff from Our Listeners.” It’s the last portion of each episode, where Steve reads one of the comments from our listeners or readers. We enjoying hearing from you, and appreciate your advice, wisdom, and fly fishing experience.

What kinds of rivers do you fish most often? Did you learn to fly fish on spring creeks? What did we miss in this episode? We’d love to hear from you.

Here are some related podcasts and articles that we’ve published on fishing the wild places:

    Fly Fishing Streamers on Smaller Creeks

    Fly Fishing the Wisconsin Driftless

    Gary Borger on Fly Fishing Spring Creeks

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Before You Buy Your First Fly Rod

If you’re new to fly fishing, purchasing your first fly rod can be as bewildering as buying a car. There are so many variables to consider.

Besides, if you ask five friends for advice, you may get eight different opinions. It’s easy to get frustrated. Or even to feel stupid. Don’t. Selecting a fly rod should not resemble choosing a health care plan.

This should be fun!

Making some key decisions before you start shopping, though, will help you make an informed, confident purchase. It will also keep the fun in the process. So here are the decisions you need to make.

Price Range

How much do you want to spend?

If you’ve never fly fished before, a starter rod in the $100-150 range will serve you well. Less is more.

If you’ve fly fished enough to know that you really want to pursue this, then I’d suggest spending a bit more — perhaps in the $300-600 range. Buy a fly rod you will still enjoy using in two or three decades.

I purchased a Winston rod (see below) a few years ago, intending to use it for life. I paid good money for it (although the price I paid then looks quite reasonable now). I don’t regret the decision. At some point, you’ll want to buy your “fly rod for life” (unless, of course, there is a significant breakthrough in technology). If you’re ready to do so, then get a higher-end rod which fits your budget. But if you’re still experimenting, spend less.

Note: The mid- to high-end rods typically have a 25-year or lifetime guarantee. This means you can get your rod repaired for about 10% of its cost if you step on it in the dark and snap it in two (which I’ve done).

Brand Preference

I apologize in advance for leaving out some fine manufacturers. But here are some options:

On the lower end of the price range, some good options include Redington, Temple Fork Outfitters (TFO), St. Croix, and Cabela’s. For mid-range to high-end rods (in quality and price), I’m a big fan of Orvis. Sage makes a fine rod, too, and I was all set to purchase one until I picked up a Winston Boron IIx which was made in Montana. Loomis is another fine choice, as is Scott.

Don’t fret over the difference between a high-end Orvis or Sage or Winston. Choose the one that feels right.

Rod Size

If you’re fly fishing for trout in the big western rivers like the Yellowstone or Bighorn, a nine-foot, six-weight will be a good all-around rod. It’s big enough to handle streamers and make long casts in windy conditions. Some swear by a nine-foot, five-weight. That’s fine.

To me, it’s like the difference between using a 30.06 or a .280 Remington for deer. Either will do the job. If you’re fly fishing the spring creeks of Wisconsin or Pennsylvania, an eight and a half foot, four weight will be more appropriate. It’s a bit lighter and more delicate for those smaller streams which require more gentle casts.

Some fly fishers swear by an eight-foot rod for smaller stream fishing. One question to ask is, “Where will I be fishing most often?” If “smaller spring creeks” is the answer, then go with a smaller rod size.

Type of Action

A mid-flex or a medium action is the place to start.

This designation means that the rod flexes or bends in the middle when you cast your line. This makes it versatile (good in most conditions) and forgiving (not too temperamental). A tip-flex or fast action rod bends closer to the tip. The stiffness of this action gives you more power — especially on windy days. It is better for longer casts, but beginners sometimes struggle to get a feel for it. A full flex, or slow action rod, is easy to cast. But it’s better for short distances. You’ll have to work harder to get the line out on long casts. It’s like pedaling in gear 3 on a ten-speed bike as opposed to gear 9.

The pedaling is easier, but it takes a lot more effort.

If you can make (or at least think about) these decisions ahead of time, you’ll be in a better position to make a choice when you enter your local fly shop.

Yes, unless you’re an expert, buy your rod at a local shop.

You can often try casting different rods to see which one works best — and you’ll get a little bit of help with your casting, too. The guys and gals at your local fly shop will also help you choose the right reel and the right line to go with your rod (yes, more decisions).

Whatever you do, make sure you enjoy the purchase. I guarantee that buying your first fly rod will be more fun than buying a garbage disposal or a pair of dress shoes.

3 Disciplines to Master the Spring Creeks of the Driftless

Recently a friend who lives in the American West said he had heard of the great fly fishing in the Driftless (southeastern Minnesota, southwestern Wisconsin, and northeastern Iowa).

He wondered if he should put together a trip.

I paused.

He lives within an hour of the Madison, the Yellowstone, and the Gallatin, the big freestone rivers. He fishes three or four times a month. He has hit the Mother’s Day Caddis Hatch on the Yellowstone, he has hooked into the big spring rainbows on the Missouri, he has caught the running fall browns on the Madison, and he has had those late summer days when almost every other cast with a hopper pattern surfaces a gorgeous cutthroat.

Why should someone who lives near such waters fly fish the Driftless? In short, it will put every facet of his fly fishing game to the test.

Here are just three disciplines that forced me to up my game and begin to master the spring creeks of the Driftless:

Casting in and around Trees

It’s one thing to cast with a modicum of precision and distance when your backcast has no competition. You load your rod and let ‘er rip.

It’s quite another to drop a size-18 nymph with a one-foot dropper at the top of a run in a nine-foot wide stream with branches draped over you. When I started fly fishing the Driftless after twenty years of fishing in the West, I was shocked at how poorly I cast. No doubt, I wasn’t great in the West either, but in the Driftless, I was a genuine hack.

The Driftless forced me to learn how to cast with greater precision. There is still not much art or science to my casts, but at least I am more aware of my shortcomings. Fishing the Driftless forced me to pay attention to my cast and focus on placement in the run. I’ve learned the art of casting sideways in the presence of brush and low-hanging trees.

Crawling Up to a Run

Frankly, I had read Gary Borger’s book years ago, but the whole “stalking trout” concept was lost on me. It wasn’t until I started fishing the Driftless that I realized that much of my fishless afternoons and evenings was due in part to how I approached the runs.

Just recently, I watched a fly fisher trudge upright like a drunk Sasquatch into a beautiful Driftless run and begin to cast. He stood in the middle and toward the back of the run and cast upstream, in full view of the run, the sun casting his huge shadow across over the run. He cast for what seemed like 20 minutes, and then moved on. With his giant profile, my guess is that the trout spooked ten yards before he stepped into the water. I never saw a fish rise to anything he cast.

In the spring creeks of the Driftless, you cannot ape the Brad Pitt character in the movie “A River Runs Through It.” You just can’t. Fish are wary. The streams seem to be heavily fished. And to catch them requires stealth and strategy.

If you’re catching trout in a spring creek, most likely your knees (and maybe even your elbows) are muddy. You simple cannot stumble mindlessly from run to run.

Rather, you size up the run, see the next run above or below the one you are fishing, and figure out how to maintain a low profile throughout your casts. And as you move stealthily to the next bend in the stream.

Eliminating False Casts

I like to false cast, to be perfectly honest. It’s a third-rate fly-fisher’s go-to move to gain distance and accuracy. I’m no athletic god, and my fly fishing skills are simply one more confirmation of that patently obvious truth.

With false casting, the problem is, of course, that what may work (or at least have fewer consequences) in the West (when you’re standing in the Madison River and casting 40 to 50 feet) is a sure fire means in smaller spring creeks to chase away fish. They react to the movement, dart back under the rocks, and refuse to take anything you drift by them.

The trick is to fight the urge to revert to false casting when you need it most. To cast with a minimum of false casts requires endless amounts of practice before you can shoot the line out accurately (or lob it out awkwardly) while hunched over the edge of stream on your knees.

In the end, I recommended the Driftless to the person asking about it. But he may not be as great as he thinks he is. After a few days in the Driftless, though, he’ll be a better fly fisher than he is today.

Episode 31: Fly Fishers’ Use of Public Access

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The use of public access is assumed by most fly fishers. Several years ago, however, Montana’s stream access law was under fire, and the right of being able to wade up or down river up to the high water mark, even through private property, was suddenly in jeopardy. The laws for the use of public access for fly fishers may be different in each state. In this podcast we discuss public access and the importance of taking care of what many of us may take for granted.

Notable Public Access Links

Stream access laws vary from state to state. Here are just a few links to the laws that guide fly fishers’ access to wading streams and rivers:

    Supreme Court Decision: Montana’s Stream Access Law Upheld

    Montana’s Stream Access Law

    Wisconsin’s Stream Access Law

    Colorado’s Stream Access Law

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Episode 15: Gary Borger on Fly Fishing Spring Creeks

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Fly fishing spring creeks is not like fly fishing the big freestone rivers of the American West. In this episode, we interview fly fishing legend Gary Borger on fishing in the Upper Midwest and, specifically, how to fish spring creeks.

Listen to Gary Borger on Fly Fishing Spring Creeks now.

At the end of each episode, we often include a feature called “Great Stuff from Our Listeners.” We read a few of the comments from this blog or from our Facebook page. We enjoying hearing from our readers and listeners, and appreciate your advice, wisdom, and fly fishing experience.

What adjustments have you made when fly fishing spring creeks?

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Links Related to This Week’s Episode

    Gary Borger’s Web Site