22 Small Stream Trout Fishing Tips and Tactics Used By Trout Guides

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

There are some things I do as a trout guide to catch more trout when trout fishing in small streams. I teach these small stream trout fishing tips and tactics to my clients so they can catch more trout consistently.

Small stream trout fishing is easy if you use the right tactics, gear, and the right approach. In fact, when it comes to fishing small streams for trout, I think your approach can make or break your day. I also like to use smaller baits, lighter rods and reels, and smaller leaders.

A slower quiet approach and the right method is very important.

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.

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

One of my clients using a productive small stream trout fishing method.
One of my clients using a productive small stream trout fishing method.

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.

If you are new and just learning how to catch trout in a river you have some options for fishing methods and this is how I rate them

  1. Fly Fishing: Allows you to imitate the trout’s most available food source which is insects. This is the best method for fishing on the surface but is also great for fishing below the surface.
  2. Spin Fishing: Spin fishing for trout is likely the most popular method. With spin fishing you can drift baits down the stream with a float or dead drifted without a float. You can also cast small lures.
  3. Lure Fishing: Casting lures for small stream trout is a fun and effective method used by many small stream anglers.
  4. Float Fishing & Centerpin Fishing: Float fishing with a spinning reel or a Centerpin reel is one of the most effective ways for catching trout but is best left to deeper spots over 3 feet deep.

Use The Best Method Based On Conditions

  1. Deeper water: If the river is slow and deep, the best method is probably to float your bait below a float or to cast lures.
  2. Shallow Water: 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.
  3. Surface Fishing: If the fish are rising to the surface the best method is to drift a dry fly on the surface. the best method for this is a fly rod, however, you can cast a dry fly out with a small bobber.

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 to catch trout on small and large streams.

Fly Fishing is one of my preferred methods and my most productive way of catching trout in small streams and larger streams.

Brook trout, brown trout, and rainbow trout in small streams will eat a lot of aquatic insects and in many cases, aquatic insects can be their primary food source. With fly fishing, you can easily imitate these bugs and catch feeding trout that are eating insects on the surface or below the surface.

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.

Flies are not only for small trout, I and my clients catch and release many large trout on tiny flies.

You can also use streamer flies which are flies that imitate larger bait like fish, leeches, crayfish, frogs, and even mice. Streamers are great for larger fish and on larger rivers but they can be hard to fish on small streams.

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

There are all kinds of information to help you become a good fly fisher on my 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 great small stream trout fishing method and is good for bait fishing or for using artificial lures.

Trout will hold and feed in shallow water like you see in the image and the best method to fish this type of water is fly fishing or bottom bouncing.

Using my advanced bottom bouncing setup and method of bait fishing will help you catch more trout in water under 3 feet deep, especially if it’s very clear water.

Most lures just do not work well and float fishing with a boober is best in water deeper than 3 feet.

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 With Spinning Gear, click the link.

Also, check out Spin Fishing For Trout: Guide Methods and Tips for More Trout

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 a great small stream trout fishing method but it’s best in deeper water. The above picture is an example of a small stream with a good pool that would be a great spot where you would do well Centerpin 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

My client with all the trout fishing gear including a good hat and glasses.
My client with all the trout fishing gear including a good hat and glasses.

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.

Guide Tip: Wear waders to keep you dry and comfortable and to protect your legs from poisonous plants, biting insects, 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 if you practice catch and release fishing.

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 theAbu 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 long 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 spinning 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 long rod like 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, and 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 3 to 5-weight fly rod that is 9-feet long.

If you want to specialize in nymph fishing for trout on streams then go with a 2 or 3-weight 10-foot fly rod. If you want to only fish dry flies, especially on smaller rivers, consider an 8 or 9-foot fly rod that is 2 to 4 weight.

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

A trout with a nymph fly in its mouth.

The water in streams is usually very clear and trout can be line shy and will see thicker leader 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.

  • 6lb pound – Lure Fishing – See Lure Fishing For Trout
  • 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

Good Hook Size For this bait
This bait is a good size for this hook and the hook gap is wide enough to hook a fish.

You could have everything just right and even have a bait 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

Shallow water float fishing leader
This is a shallow water float fishing leader that I would use in water less than 24 inches deep. The optional split shot may not be needed since the water is so shallow.

Whether you fly fish, bottom bounce, 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.

I even use a fluorocarbon leader for lure fishing which I discuss on my page Lure Fishing For Trout.

If you want to catch trout in a small 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.

8. Polarized Glasses Are Very Important

Polarized sunglasses 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

Trout will make a conscious effort to find spots in the river where they feel safe while still having access to food and without wasting energy.

Learning how to read the water and how to find these spots is a really good skill to have and it will greatly improve how many fish you will catch.

Look for depressions or deeper spots in the river, current breaks that provide some slow water, bubble lines, submerged rocks, small pockets, undercut banks, and any type of cover that fish might use.

10. Find Depth And Fish It With The Right Method

Fly fishing nymphs in fast water
The darker greener water is deeper water.

If you want to learn how to catch trout in a stream you need to learn how to identify deeper water. Down deep there is slow water and often cooler water where the trout feel safe.

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. During late summer these are good spots to try

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.

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.

When covering the water I look for any areas that are slightly deeper and I look for any type of structure that fish can hold near.

Too many guys rush in make a few casts 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 move.

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 Quiet, Stay Low, And Move Slow

One of my clients staying low and quiet on a small stream
One of my clients staying low and quiet on a small stream

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

These guys spook fish and catch fewer big ones.

Honestly, one of the best tips I can tell you is to avoid wading whenever possible and move slowly, and be quiet.

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 than it is to stomp in, spook every fish, and then need to wait an hour or two for them to settle down and start feeding again.

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

Guide Tip: Being quiet also means using less split shot weight and a less conspicuous indicator or bobber that doesn’t splash down hard and spoke the fish. Also, be careful your fly line doesn’t splash down hard or that the fly line doesn’t drift over the trout in clear water, this can spook big trout.

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 ones.

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

15. Fish Closer When Possible

Fishing for trout often occurs in clear streams
Fishing for trout often occurs in clear streams and many methods can be used.

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

But making long casts on small streams requires lots of accuracy due to all the bushes, and trees, 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

Indicators or floats can help detect subtle strikes, but big bulky and brightly colored indicators and floats splashing down on the surface over a big trout head is a great way to make them go lockjaw.

You have 2 options:

  1. 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. Euro Nymphing and Bottom Bouncing are the best methods that don’t use a float or indicator.
  2. I use clear Drennan loafer floats in streams and I use wool indicators like the New Zealand Indicator in the white color when fly fishing. These are subtle and less intrusive. I also recommend white indicators that look like the millions of bubbles the trout see every day.

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 his client’s fishing 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 makes 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

Training with George Daniel who is an expert at nymph fishing for trout
Training with George Daniel who is an expert at nymph fishing for trout.

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

Big Tout Eat Small Flies
I catch a lot a large trout with very small flies. This trout was caught using a size 18 fly. Size is about the width of your pinky fingernail.

This is a good tip for any fisherman that wants to catch trout in a stream. Avoid fake baits and use the most natural baits possible.

Avoid other baits like trout dough, plastics, corn, and marshmallows.

And when fishing trout in small streams go with small baits, even for big trout. Trout tend to eat almost anything that drifts by them, and this includes big trout.

In smaller streams even small spawn bags or a single salmon eggs 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.

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 the 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 Check The Water Temperature

Stream Thermometer

I use a small and inexpensive stream thermometer to check the water temperature, especially in late summer. The reason is trout will stop feeding if the water temperature exceeds 67F or 18C

When it gets too warm, I go fish other cool streams or I try fishing large rivers that are tailwater rivers.

Sometimes moving way upriver to the headwaters is a great way to find colder water and feeding trout.

22. 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 setup 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.

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

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,


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