How To Catch Trout In A Stream: 19 Best Guide Tips

How to catch trout in a stream - an angler fishing a nice trout stream

These are my guide tips and some tips that I have received from other guides that will help beginner and advanced anglers learn how to catch trout in a stream or make trout fishing more effective.

Call it a stream or creek, or a small river, they are all the same to me, I consider a stream any moving waterway that is about 20 feet wide or less.

Catching trout in a stream requires different tactics and gear. I like to use smaller baits, lighter rods, smaller reels, and smaller leaders. I also approach the river and the fish from different angles and I use different fishing methods. All of this means more fish in the net.

This article is part of a series starting with our very popular article Trout Fishing: A Complete Guide.

1. Use The Right Methods To Catch Trout In A Stream

When it comes to fishing a small stream I use different methods which will often depend on the type of water that I am fishing. You might only use 1 method which might just be the method that you find the most fun.

If you are new and just learning how to catch trout in a river you have some options.

If the river is slow and deep, the best method is probably to float your bait below a float or to cast lures.

If the river is shallow and fast then it’s better to Nymph fish with a fly rod or to bottom bounce with a spinning rod and reel.

If the fish are rising to the surface the best method is to drift a dry fly on the surface.

You might need to change tactics based on your observations when you get to the river. Anglers that can adapt quickly to feeding changes and to different types of water will catch more trout.

Fly Fishing Small Streams

An angler fishing a small stream
Fly Fishing is a very productive way catch trout small and large streams.

Fly fishing can be a great way to catch trout in a stream and it’s one of my favorite ways to fish.

Trout in small streams will eat a lot of bugs and in many cases, this can be their primary food source.

You can easily imitate these bugs that are below and on the surface with fly fishing which is why fly fishing can be so effective.

With fly fishing, you can drift nymph flies below the surface, or you can do dry fly fishing which means you are floating your flies on the surface.

You can also use streamer flies which are flies that imitate larger bait like fish, leeches, crayfish, frogs, and even mice.

Fly fishing is fun, it’s not as hard as it looks, and it doesn’t need to be expensive.

Anglers that are new and that want to know how to catch trout in a stream should consider fly fishing as a method to try.

There is all kinds of information about how to get started on my fly fishing page Learn To Fly Fish – 10 Easy Steps From A Pro River Guide.

Spin Fishing Small Streams

Fishing a small stream for trout.
Trout will hold and feed in shallow water like this and the best method to fish this type of water is fly fishing or bottom bouncing.

Spin fishing is a very popular way to fish small streams and it can be a very effective and versatile method to catch trout in a stream.

With spin fishing, you can cast lures, drift a bait under a float or use a method called bottom bouncing.

Using my advanced bottom bouncing setup and method will help you catch more trout.

You can also fish flies below a float or with the bottom bouncing method. If you are new and learning how to catch trout in a stream and want to know how to use flies, check out my page How To Fish Flies With Spinning Gear: 2 Best Methods

Centerpin Fishing Streams

A good pool to Centerpin Fish
This is an example of a small stream with a good pool that would be a spot that you would do well Centerpin and float fishing in.

Centerpin fishing is basically float fishing except that you are using a special reel called a Centerpin reel, also known as a float reel.

On streams with deeper slower pools, Centerpin and float fishing can be a great method to use but if the streams you fish are mostly shallow then spin fishing and fly fishing are usually better on small streams.

2. Use The Right Fishing Gear

Using the right gear will help you catch trout in a stream and using the wrong gear will just make it harder to catch trout.

The right gear includes everything from the rods and reels, waders, vest, and down to the little things like the proper hooks, leader, floats, etc.

Wear waders to keep you dry and comfortable and to protect your legs from bugs and sharp objects.

Use a vest or a pack to carry all your gear and leave the tackle box at home.

Always have a net to make sure you land that big trout and it’s much better for the fish that you plan to release.

For all the gear that you need to river fish check out my page River Fishing Gear: Everything You Need To Succeed

3. Use The Right Size Rods And Reels For Stream Fishing

Ultra-Light and Short Spinning Rods – For very small streams with lots of overhead trees or lots of bush where casting is difficult, use small 5 to 6-foot ultralight rods like the 5 foot ultralight St.Croix Premier trout rod with a very light line of 2 to 6-pound test lines on small size 10 or 15 reels like the Abu Garcia Revo X.

You can get spinning rods and fly rods in this length.

On rivers where there is not as much overhead bush, I would suggest going with a longer rod. For casting lures, I use a 7 foot ultra-light St. Croix Premier rod on a size 15 reel with a 2 to 6-pound line.

If I’m going to do both lure fishing and float fishing I will use an 8-foot or an 8’6″ rod like my favorite 8’6″ St. Croix Premier rod with a 15 to 20 size reel with 6-pound line.

If you mostly want to use bait under a float or drift bait without a float using the bottom bouncing method I would recommend a 9 or 10-foot ultralight rod. I prefer a 9 or 10-foot rod like the 9 foot or 11 foot Daiwa Presso Ultralight Spinning Rod. I will match this to a size 20 reel with a 6-pound line.

These longer rods will give you better line control, better drifts and the longer rods act as a shock absorber to protect lighter leaders.

Fly fishing rods to catch trout in streams – In fly fishing the trend is longer and longer rods.

If you want to mix it up and dry fly fish, streamer fish, and nymph fish I would recommend a 4 or 5 weight, 8’6 to 9-foot fly rod.

If you want to specialize in nymph fishing for trout on streams then go with a 3 or 4 weight 10-foot fly rods.

I teach guys how to catch trout in a stream with nymph flies on my 10-foot fly rod because the extra reach, the better line control, and these longer rods help protect my light tippets. (a tippet is the bottom part of the leader in the fly fishing world)

4. Go With Thinner Leaders For More Trout

The water in streams is usually very clear and trout can be line shy and see thicker lines. If they see the line they will not bite the bait or fly. This mostly matters with slow-moving baits.

I will sometimes go as light as a 2-pound test line when I fly fish for many reasons. A lighter line will allow your bait to sink faster, it also allows your bait to move at a more natural speed and the fish will not see it.

With shorter rods, I will go up 1 or 2 sizes but this is what I use for leaders when trout fishing. Longer rods protect your leader better.

  • 4lb or 6 pound – Lure Fishing
  • 3 to 5 pound – Bottom bouncing or float fishing 3lb, 4lb, or 5 pound
  • 3lb or 4 pound – Fly fishing with nymphs or dry flies

Learn more about the right leader on my page What Pound Test Leader For Trout.

5. Use Fluorocarbon Leaders

Fluorocarbon leaders tend to sink better and they are the most invisible to the fish so it’s the best leader for baits that are underwater.

For bait and flies below the surface, I always will use a fluorocarbon leader, but for dry fly fishing, I will use monofilament leaders.

For lure fishing, any leader will be fine because the lure is moving so fast that the fish rarely see the line anyways unless it’s really thick.

6. Use The Right Size Hooks

You could have everything just right and even have a boat that the trout love but if you have the wrong hook on the line it could cause you to not get any bites or it could cause you to lose your trout.

Guides tend to use the best hooks simply because they work better. Check out my page Best Hook Size For Trout: A Guides Advice On Trout Hook Size.

7. Know How To Properly Set Up Your Leader

Whether you fly fish or float fish you will need to set up your leader properly. A poorly constructed leader will lead to problems and fewer trout in the net.

If you want to catch trout in a stream you will need to know how to set up your leader and you can find out more about that on my page 2 Float Fishing Leader Setups From A Pro River Guide or my page on bottom bouncing which has the leaders for that very productive method.

See that page Bottom Bouncing – 5 Proven Guide Tips For More Fish

8. Polarized Glasses Are Very Important

Polarized glasses are a valuable piece of equipment that all river anglers need to have.

I use my glasses to help me read the water and find fish. My glasses help me see the deeper spots that trout might hold in as well as show me objects that trout might hide near or that I need to avoid so I don’t get snagged.

Polarized glasses even help me find safer places to cross the river.

Polarized glasses also protect your eyes from the suns rays and from stray hooks. My glasses have even protected my eyes from being poked by branches.

9. Know Where To Find Trout In A Stream

If you want to know how to catch trout in a stream, knowing where trout in a stream like to hold and feed is a really good skill to have and it will greatly improve how many fish you will catch.

Look for depressions in the rivers, deep spots, current breaks, and any type of cover that fish might use.

10. Find Depth And Fish It With The Right Method

If you want to learn how to catch trout in a stream you need to learn how to identify deeper water.

When I talk about finding deep or deeper water where trout will hold, most anglers think about deep pools, but deeper water could simply mean a 2 foot by 3-foot depression in the river bed that makes the bottom go from 1 foot deep everywhere to 2 foot deep in that one spot. That is a spot that a trout could hold in and is always worth a try.

Deeper water could also mean a pool, or ledge, or drop off which are all good spots for trout to hold and feed in.

11. Fish The Cover: That Includes The Banks

Trout in small streams like to use rocks, logs, sticks, and even deep banks as holding spots. If you want to learn how to catch trout in a stream you need to learn to identify and fish the cover.

My clients and I have pulled 20-inch brown trout out of 20 inches of water right beside a bolder or a log.

I did some electro-shocking with a conservation group and I did it on a section of rive that I knew like the back of my hand. I would even tell them how big the fish was in the next pool before they even got there.

What surprised me the most was that some 14 to 18-inch trout were sitting in 12 inches of water beside or under a stick, log or rock. It was amazing to see how shallow the would sit when they had the comfort of some sort of cover.

The crazy thing is that I and 99% of other anglers that fish that river would have never fished a spot that was only 12 inches deep. I fish those spots now, and my clients have benefited with many trout over 22 inches in water less than 20 inches deep.

12. Cover The Spot Thoroughly, Then Move On

how to cover the water on a trout stream
When covering the water I look for any areas the are slightly deeper and I look for any type of structure that fish can hold near.

Too many guys rush in make a few cast and then rush to the next spot. They miss so many fish because of this and they fish all over the place. They just cast aimlessly and don’t cover the spot thoroughly.

I grid or pattern every spot. I fan cast with lures or move my lure 3 feet up or 3 feet down. with baits, I make sure I fish in lines from the top of the spot to the bottom and fish every 1 foot before I more.

covering the water thoroughly will mean more fish. Once I think I have covered every foot I move to the next one and do it again.

13. Be Quite And Move Slow

I don’t know how many time I have been silently fishing and I hear a noise and look sown the river and 200 feet away some newbie anglers is splashing his way up the river and fishing every spot he sees.

When they pass me and I ask them if they caught any fish the answer in the same 99 out of 100 times. It’s either no fish, or just some small ones.

When I say to them i heard you coming from 200 feet away and so did all the fish, they either think I’m being an a-hole or the smarter ones will realise what I’m talking about.

If the big trout know you are there they will simple take off or go lock-jaw.

I tell my clients, it’s better to tip toe your way 6 feet into the river to get to the spot you want to fish and catch big fish right away, then it is to stomp in, spook every fish and then need to wait an hour for them to settle down and start feeding again.

I have had dozens of guys say to me after I tell them that, “oh, maybe that’s why I caught that last big after I fished the pool for an hour”.

If they hear you, your chances for big trout go way, way, way down.

14. Stay Behind The Fish – Or Stay Far

If you want to know how to catch trout in a stream remember this tip because it’s one of the most important tips I give to my clients when fishing for trout in a stream, and that tip is to stay behind the fish.

Fish look upriver so if you fish upriver of them they could see you, especially on a small clear trout stream.

If they see you they will go lock-jaw and become nearly impossible to catch.

I think this is a big reason why many guys only catch those small dumb little trout and never catch the big one.

Stay behind the fish and you will catch more and bigger trout.

15. Fish Closer When Possible

Making long casts on stream can be good because it keeps you from spooking some fish.

But making longs casts on small streams requires lots of accuracy due to all the bush, and tress and often the spot you need to hit is small.

That is why I try to get as close as possible using a stealthy approach and by staying behind the fish.

Being closer to the fish improves your chances of getting your bait in the right spot and getting a better hook-set.

16. Avoid Indicators And Big Floats

Beginners and advanced anglers make this mistake and if you really want to know how to catch trout in a stream you need to avoid this common mistake.

Big bulky indicators splashing down on the surface over a big trout head is a great way to make them go lockjaw.

When you’re fishing a small stream that is shallow and the water is gin-clear, every time your indicator (bobber for you non-fly guys) hits the water you can spook the fish.

In shallow clear water, in pocket water, or in fast water, the best method is one that doesn’t use a float, bobber, or indicator.

For fly fishing in a stream, I use Euro nymphing methods with amazing success. If you are not sure what Euro Nymphing is check out my page Euro Nymphing: An Expert Euro Guide Explains.

You can do Euro-type nymphing with a spinning reel and rod using my advanced bottom bouncing method. You can see that on my page Bottom Bouncing – 5 Proven Guide Tips For More Fish

Now if you are dead set on using an indicator or a float, that’s OK, just make sure that you use ones that work in clear shallow streams.

I use Drennan loafer floats in streams and I use wool indicators like the New Zealand Indicator in the white color when fly fishing.

For the best indicators check out my page What Are The Best Indicators For Fly Fishing? Guides Advice and for the best floats for stream check out my page Float Fishing For Trout – An Expert Guides Best Tips.

17. Change Your HookSet

One of my new guides called me up and asked me how I keep up with all the fly tying. Every night he needed to tie up 20 flies because his clients kept losing them in the trees behind them and above their heads, and he would spend half his day untangling line from around the rod tips.

This happens all the time with new and more advanced anglers.

I told him that it is part of his job as a guide to teach his clients how to set the hook properly, for his benefit and theirs.

Don’t overset the hook on small streams or whenever your bait or fly or lure is close to you. Hooking too hard will cause lots of frustrations because your hook will be up in the trees, wrapped around your rod or you may even hook yourself.

Learn how to set fast but do it with a shorter hookset.

If you set the hook and your rod tip goes way behind you and is pointing in the opposite direction of where it was in the water, you’re going to be stuck in a tree 20 feet over your head.

But if you hookset and make sure you stop the rod straight up or slightly in from of you, it will still set the hook on the fish but it won’t come flying out of the water if you miss the fish.

Practice make perfect and I teach my clients to do this on every other cast until it’s perfect.

18. Work Your Way Upstream If You Can

Many years ago a landowner who is an excellent river angler gave me a valuable tip that I remember and share today.

First, working your way down the river is basically like kicking mud and debris in the trout’s face, and in some instances, with very wary wild trout this can single danger from a long way away and make them go lock-jaw before you even get to make a cast.

The other thing is that most trout in a stream are looking upriver so if you are working your way toward them from upriver they might see you coming and again, go lock-jaw.

Because of this I often try to work my way upriver instead of downriver. A tip that I give to my clients is that if I can only go downriver at a certain spot, instead of working my way and fishing downriver slowly, I will often walk 20 or 30 minutes downriver, past all the spots, and then slowly fish my way back to the car.

This way I’m fishing upriver the entire time and spooking less fish and any angler that wants to know how to catch trout in a stream should consider this tip.

19. Use Smaller Baits And Flies

This is a good tip for new anglers that want to learn how to catch trout in a stream. Many anglers believe that a bigger bait means they will catch bigger fish but with trout, this is not the case.

Small streams, smaller fish, and therefore smaller baits are the ticket when fishing for trout in a stream.

But not only that, smaller stream trout, even the big ones tend to feed more on bugs and less on minnows and other baitfish simply because there are fewer baitfish but there are plenty of bugs.

In smaller streams even small spawn bags work well, smaller lures will work well too. You really don’t need bigger lures because you are not casting that far in a small river anyways.

Guide Tip: Tying your own flies saves you money and lets you tie custom flies that will probably work better. If you already tie your own flies make sure you use good quality hooks, check out The 7 Best Fly Tying Hooks: For Dry Fly, Nymphs, and Streamers,

If you are thinking about starting to tie your own flies, check out 5 Best Fly Tying Kits From Beginner to Advanced.

20. Walk Before You Start Fishing

Most anglers start to fish at the closest pool to their vehicle, and then they hit the next one, and then the next one.

These spots get fished really hard and some fish might even get caught and taken home for the frying pan so there is fewer fish in the pools close to the parking area.

Spots that get heavily fished will also have nervous wary fish that are harder to catch.

That’s why it’s often better to walk for 5 to 10 minutes up or down the river before you start fishing. Spots that are a 10 minute walk from the parking spot are far less likely to get fished as much.

In fact, often I will fish in reverse of everyone else. Most guys will fish each pool as they walk up or down the river and then walk back 30 minutes to their car, this might take 4 hours to do.

Instead, I will walk 30 or 40 minutes up or down the river first and then fish my way back to the car and I will often ignore the spots closer to the car. It may still take the same 4 hours but I always tend to catch far more fish at those pools that are a long way from where everyone else fishes.

21. Most Important Tip On How To Catch Trout In A Stream

This is probably the most important tip I can give any angler that wants to know how to catch trout in a stream. This is where many anglers mess up and then struggle to catch trout.

They focus too much on one thing like the bait and they get something else wrong. That one wrong thing can seriously affect how many trout you catch.

It’s very important that everything you do works well together. An example of this would be to use the perfect bait, on the right size hook, using my leader set up but then using a leader line that’s so heavy the trout see it.

Or maybe the leader is also perfect but you use a big clunky bobber that spooks every fish in the pool.

Or maybe your setup is perfect and everything else is perfect, but you’re in such a rush to catch fish that you stumble into the spot you are about to fish and you spook every fish in the pool.

One wrong thing in your fishing process can make all the right things useless. I believe this is a big part of why many guys will catch 1 or 2 trout a day while the one or 2 expert anglers that know this tip will hook 10.

Check out my page How To Catch More Trout And Steelhead Guaranteed for more information on what I call the fishing process which might be the most important tip I could give any angler that wants to know how to catch trout in a stream or river.

Got A Question About How To Catch Trout In Stream

If you have a question, comment, or even a tip about how to catch trout in a stream, let me and all the readers know in the comment section below. But please, keep it about how to catch trout in a stream, and let’s not get off-topic.

Tight Lines,

Graham and The Guide Team

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