My podcast partner, Dave, and I have had some fantastic days on big rivers. One spring we both had 20-inch rainbows on at the same time in the Madison River.
We’ve both landed big browns in the Lower Madison, and we’ve had a blast catching cutthroats feasting on hoppers in the Yellowstone River.
But it is the small creeks that we find irresistible.
Even on our trips to Montana or Wyoming, we always devote at least one day to fly fishing a small creek. Here are five reasons why we find small creeks so charming—and why you may want to make them part of your fly fishing experience as well.
Small creeks get less pressure
I wonder how many times I have seen the Yellowstone River in Montana’s Paradise Valley look like rush hour in Chicagoland, with all the drift boats making their way down the river.
Yet the little creeks — such as Pine Creek, Mill Creek, and Big Creek — are abandoned.
Recently, Dave and I fished the Driftless in southeast Minnesota. We had plenty of company on the South Fork of the Root River, but we spend most of our time on a little creek that emptied into the river. Canfield Creek turned out to be a gem. We had it all to ourselves, and the browns were happy to rise to our elk hair caddis flies.
Small creeks bring out the hunter in us
Small creeks require us to go into stealth mode.
When I fish my favorite runs in the Yellowstone or Madison Rivers, I rarely need to sneak up to the bank on my hands and knees. But that’s what it takes to fly fish a small creek. The run you want to fish in a small creek is only a couple feet away from where you’re kneeling rather than a dozen feet away as is often the case in a bigger river.
These runs in small creek are typically more shallow than the ones in a river, so a fly fisher is simply more visible to the fish. Maybe all this sneaking through the brush reminds me of bow-hunting elk.
Whatever the case, operating in stealth mode is part of the fun.
Small creeks require more precision
To be honest, this is a reason to hate fly fishing small creeks as well as to love it.
It’s not that big rivers allow you to make sloppy casts. But they are more forgiving.
A river may give you a foot-wide window for placing your fly. But in a small creek, that window often closes to a couple of inches. Short, gentle, target-specific casts are the order of the day when fly fishing a small creek. The challenge is usually fun, although some days it will drive you crazy.
Small creeks are easier to wade
This is the middle-aged man in me speaking.
A day of wade-fishing the Yellowstone leaves me weary. It’s a combination of fighting the swift current while trying to keep from slipping as I step from one slick rock to another.
Recently when Dave and I fished a couple small creeks, the pedometer on his cell phone indicated that we walked about seven miles (full disclosure: some of those steps were to and from a great little café in Preston, Minnesota). I was surprised we had walked that far because my legs and feet were hardly tired at all. That’s the benefit of a day of ankle-deep and calf-deep wading.
Small creeks are home to some large trout
For the most part, the trout are smaller in small creeks, and neither Dave nor I mind a bit.
I get as much joy landing a ten-inch rainbow in a small creek as I do a twenty-inch rainbow in a large river.
Last week I caught an eleven-inch brown on a dry fly in a small creek, and it made my day. But occasionally, you’ll catch a monster in a small creek. Recently, I fly fished the Boulder River in Montana in a mountainous stretch where the “river” is really a small creek. For several years, I had caught mainly eight- to twelve-inch fish. But one afternoon, when it began to rain lightly and the trout went into a feeding frenzy, I caught a fifteen-inch rainbow and then a sixteen-inch rainbow on consecutive casts.
Then the rain stopped, and so did the fishing. This experience reminded me that bigger trout lurk in these small streams. They are harder to catch, but everyone once in a while you’ll hook into one of them.
Enjoy your next trip to a big river. But don’t overlook the smaller streams that flow into it. Your best day of the trip might be on a creek that everyone else has neglected.