“Big water, big fish” is a maxim I smiled at and politely nodded at for more than a decade. It’s not that I don’t think big fish live in big water. Have you seen the trout they take out of Pyramid Lake? But I am mildly offended by any suggestion that the opposite of the statement implies: “Small fish live in small waters.”
I’ll be honest, I avoid most of the big water and the crowds that flood in there as the ice melts. And it’s not just loneliness and willful fish that keep me climbing up weed-clogged drains. The possibility of catching trophies from small streams pushes me higher.
In most streams where the average trout is 7-8 inches, a 16-inch is a real monster. A wild or native trout of that size in a small creek will challenge any angler to hook and land, and will make everyone stop to admire the flanks, flecks and lower jaw teeth. In a small tributary, such a fish will leave you wondering if you should be so casually wading through the rapids.
It doesn’t matter if you’re throwing spinners, throwing streamers, or soaking worms, here are three things you need to know if you’re going to catch big fish in small water.
know the food
Some anglers associate the small creeks with somewhat barren waters where fish will eat a crumpled up piece of paper if it floats by. While this may be true in some cases, many other waters are home to prolific insect life.
Spend 30 minutes shoveling rocks in any healthy Appalachian trout stream and you’ll find a wide variety of stonefly nymphs. Good merciless streams in the Rockies will see caddis covered rocks seasonally. But it’s the more energy-rich insects (grasshoppers, icefish, salmonflies, and goldstones) that are the real big fish makers. Streams with healthy populations of large insects mean fish can gorge themselves and grow faster and fatter than their cousins without access to as many calories.
Hatches in small streams seldom seem to follow the schedule of the river into which they flow. Green Ducks are traditionally a night and evening hatcher on Pennsylvania’s famed Penns Creek, but its tributaries see giant mayflies burst from early to mid-afternoon, bringing large trout to the surface in daylight. Don’t wait for night to go fishing.
With good connectivity to a larger waterway, really big fish often show up in small waters to feed or breed. While you shouldn’t fish for trout on redds, if you’re catching a diversity of age classes as you go down a stream, you might assume some older fish are approaching the buffet. Sometimes it may be worth trying some leeches, sculptures or other streamer patterns to activate carnivorous fish. Also, look for signs of mice along the shoreline, such as footprints or droppings. An 18-inch brown I pulled from a creek (and ate to save some natives) had a mouse filling his belly. The whiskers were still stiff.
know the depth
Fish need places to hide to survive. That may sound like common sense, but many anglers don’t do their homework when it comes to exploring streams. If you suspect there might be big fish, take the time to walk a mile or two down the creek before, during, or after fishing. This is a great activity when the water is too shallow or too hot to fish for trout ethically. Look in the pools to investigate the depth. Look for embankments, plunge pools, springs, submerged rocks, tree shade, root structure, clogs, and other woody debris. Large fish are often kept in the best habitat and deepest water available in otherwise shallow streams.
Even in streams that you can cross, there will often be one or two ponds with water 4 to 6 feet deep. That’s more than enough depth to make a beefy goon or novice feel confident.
know the weather
After the spring high tide, the summer stagnation sends large trout into the most hidden and secret corners of a stream, or out of it altogether. But a storm in July or August can change everything. I have caught several native brook trout in the 13-16 inch range and wild brown trout over a pound after a summer storm flooded a small stream. These are usually my biggest fish of the year in these tributaries.
Big trout feel safer when the flows are high and discolored. After weeks without significant rainfall, these fish often become mostly nocturnal, eating one or two large meals each day to conserve energy. But with the arrival of more water, these fish can become uninhibited and eat regularly at higher flows.
You must be quick to get to the stream after these weather events. Small streams spew water faster than rivers. It is during the fall of the flow when the best fishing occurs. Streamer and Spinner anglers know that a small speck in the water is time to feed the big fish. Take a page out of your book to find a giant little stream.
Featured Image via Sam Lungren