Size is not everything in fishing and that applies as much to the rivers that we fish as the fish that we catch. I enjoy casting a fly across a big and famous trout stream as much as anyone but, let’s face it, big rivers can often be moody and finding the trout when nothing is showing at the surface can be really frustrating. Small streams, however, are quick to reveal their secrets and even when nothing is rising it is easy to pick out the spots that are likely to hold some good trout.
A couple of years ago I was far from home and having a great time on some of the world-famous trout streams of Yellowstone National Park yet when I took a day off from the serious stuff and headed for the high mountains to fish some tiny streams, there was no sense of loss. Indeed, as I waded up tiny Dead Indian Creek at nearly 10,000 feet, picking off rainbows, cutthroats and the occasional brook trout less than half the size of the trout that I had been catching a day earlier, I realised that I was enjoying myself just as much. And with not another angler to be seen, I was certainly not missing the crowds on the more famous rivers.
Closer to home, I recall days on the Kennet and other noted chalk streams when the main river has been decidedly dour, yet the tiny carriers created in the past to irrigate the meadows, have been alive with rising trout.
It is in the south west of England, however, where the opportunities for fishing tiny trout streams, so many of which you could almost jump across, seem almost endless – whether in meadow country or high on the moors. I experienced a vivid example of just how good the tiniest stream can be during a day with the fly rod on the edge of Exmoor. I was fishing the Bray on day when a morning’s hard fishing had produced only a few trout when I decided to try the bottom half mile of Hole Water, a tiny tributary that was included in the beat. In the clear sparkling water the trout were there for all to see and after a careful approach I dropped a buoyant Elk Hair Caddis onto a small pool where several trout could be seen holding in the current. The first cast had hardly touched down before there was a slashing rise and I was into a fish. It proved to be about eight inches and was quickly followed by a better fish of 10 inches from the head of the pool. Those Hole Water trout were really on the feed and every pool produced a fish or two, in sharp contrast with my lack of success on the main river.
Far to the west in Cornwall I recall a day on the Angling 2000 beat on the River Allen at Lemail Mill. Much of this beat is heavily overgrown and the jungle tactics required will test any angler, so deep wading with a short rod is the only way to success. Fortunately trout in such inaccessible places are usually unsophisticated and those River Allen browns came readily to just about any dry fly that I threw at them.
The Arundell Arms has around 20 miles of fishing on the Tamar and its tributaries, but one of my favourite beats is on the tiny River Lew, just above its confluence with the Lyd. This meandering brook is absolutely packed with browns up to around 12 inches and, although it can fish well at any time, is always worth a try when the mayflies bring the bigger fish to the surface.
The Creedy and the Yeo at Crediton, where the Crediton Fly Fishing Club has around five miles of water, offer small stream fishing at its most productive. And the lengthy Angling 2000 beat on the Little Dart at Essebeare near Witheridge has always delivered the goods for me, including a wonderful July afternoon when the blue-winged olives never stopped hatching and the trout came steadily to the fly for several hours. Another Angling 2000 beat on the Ottery at Wiggaton near Canworthy Water is a wonderful place to be when the black gnats are swarming in late spring. The list of tiny streams that have given me countless enchanting days is almost endless and every season I find more to explore.
So, what is the technique that will bring you success with trout on these miniature rivers? First of all, the rod needs to be short – about 7 ft is ideal and certainly no more than 7 ft 6 in. When I started fishing that meant one of the hideous little “brook rods” with their sloppy action totally unsuited to fishing in confined spaces. Fortunately, carbon now means that even the lightest little rod has the crisp action necessary for casting a tight loop under the overhanging tree. An AFTM 4 line is about right, with a shortish leader – I use a 5-ft braided butt attached to about 5 ft of nylon tapered to a 6X tippet, or lighter in very low clear water.
When a specific insect is on the water it makes sense to match it but standard dry patterns like Adams, Klinkhamer, Elk Hair Caddis or Black Gnat will usually bring the trout to the surface, with a small beadhead nymph for those occasions when nothing is showing. To get the best of both worlds, many anglers now turn to the New Zealand dropper. Tie on something like a heavily dressed 16 or 14 Klinkhamer, attach 24 to 30 inches of fine nylon to the bend of the hook, with a 16 or 14 goldhead Hare’s Ear or Pheasant Tail at the other end. The nymph goes in search of any trout that are lying deep, while the dry fly acts as an indicator while attracting any fish that are looking towards the surface. The results can be spectacular.
Finally get yourself a good pair of body waders – preferably breathable for warm summer days. Small overgrown streams just cannot be fished from the bank and many are surprisingly deep – far too deep for thigh waders. Slip into the river and wade carefully upstream under the canopy of branches and you will enjoy a world of peace and, if all goes well, some great fishing.