I knew fly fishing was something special the first time I explored a little-known freestone creek in Northern Pennsylvania and caught my first native brook trout. Seeing that brookie leap from the water and snatch my size 12 Adams had my adrenaline pumping as much as if I had hooked into a lunker bass. The whole experience was exhilarating, even if the fish was only six-inches long. However, it wasn’t just the fish that made the experience special. It was everything from the remoteness of the stream, the sounds of the cascading water, and the aerial acrobatics of the native brookies as they lunged for my dry fly. It was on the banks of that tiny Pennsylvania freestone stream, where I realized that I had discovered a hobby that I would enjoy for the rest of my life, exploring and fly fishing small streams.
After several delightful years of chasing brookies, I left my home waters of Pennsylvania behind, and headed to Houston, Texas. Many aspects of my life were changing, but my passion for exploring small streams still remained. As I settled down and fell into the rhythm of the Gulf Coast, I found that the Pineywoods of East Texas were littered with small streams, and yes, they were full of fish too! Obviously, the native freshwater fish of Southeast Texas weren’t brook trout, but these local fishes ate flies all the same! Panfish of many different species became my new quarry, along with bass, and the occasional catfish.
Again, the fire for exploration was rekindled. I looked at maps for hours, and once again, made a list of remote streams that I wanted to explore. Many of the things I learned while fishing for brook trout translated well to the small streams of East Texas. Here are several small stream tips for fishing the creeks of the Pineywoods:
1. The more remote you go, the more fish you’ll catch.
As an angler, I’m nothing to brag about. But I try and counteract my mediocre fishing skills with a willingness to walk farther in order to find more remote waters. Water that is easy to access will get a lot of fishing pressure. Popular fishing locations tend to hold tight-lipped and wary fish. If you are willing to venture off the beaten path and blaze a trail to a little-known fishery, then you can sling flies to fish that rarely see anglers. Who doesn’t love gullible fish?
2. Big pools hold big fish
On one of my favorite freestone streams in Northern Pennsylvania, there was a large pool at the base of a beautiful waterfall. Over the millennia, the constant pounding of the water on the rocks had eroded a deep pool under the falls. It was a perfect place for a big brook trout. One summer’s day, I made a short cast with a hare’s ear nymph, and I hooked into one of the biggest native brook trout I have ever caught. The deep pool provided a sanctuary for the brook trout. It was a safe hideout, and food was constantly being washed over the falls into the pool.
Fast forward several years later, I was walking a small spring-fed creek in Southeast Texas. I had spent most of the day catching small panfish from the pools of the little creek, when I came upon a particularly large pool.
At the head of the pool there was a small cascade which was formed from the stream flowing over a sunken log. I cast my fly into the pool and almost immediately felt the tug of a panfish. As I brought the panfish in, I watched as a large green flash darted out from under a cutbank and made a swipe at the panfish on the end of my line!
I quickly brought the panfish in and released it. I then made a cast to the cut bank and watched as a decent largemouth shot out from under the bank and ate my fly. This surprised me because the small creek wasn’t stereotypical bass habitat. It was another example of a big pool holding a big fish.
3. Be sneaky
Wearing camouflage and slithering around on the river bank like a snake while making casts from prone positions is likely taking this concept a bit too far. You don’t need to wear camo face paint or wear a ghillie suit to pull-the-sneak on a fish in a small stream. Conversely, you won’t catch much if you go stomping around through the water heedlessly kicking over rocks and logs.
Fish are sensitive to vibrations and carelessly stumbling around in a small stream will alert the fish to your presence. It is also good to remember that fish are constantly on the lookout for predators, especially egrets and herons. Keep this in mind when you poke your head over the bank of a small stream. Any fish that sees your head appear over the bank will likely think you are one of its many predators and will high-tail it to deeper water.
4. Use riffles and changes in water level to hide your approach
One of my first real lessons on understanding small stream fishing came from a fly fisherman named Pete. Pete had been fly fishing Pennsylvania water for decades and he was kind enough to let me tag along with him while we angled for wild PA brown trout in the State College area. The stuff I learned from Pete was invaluable. While most of my day was spent untangling my fly line from the trees along the streambanks, Pete reeled in brown trout, one after another. I watched Pete and listened to him as he explained his strategy for approaching fishy-looking pools.
At the tail end of most pools, there was usually a swift flowing riffle section. Pete would approach the placid pools via the riffles at the pool’s outflow. His reason for doing this was twofold. First, he was downstream of the pool, at a lower elevation than the pool, and he could stay hidden from the fish as he approached. The second reason was that the water flowing through the riffles screened Pete’s movements while he worked up stream.
The swift and bubbling waters muffled the vibrations and noise of his approach. Think about it this way: If you throw a rock into a perfectly still pool, the splash of the rock and the subsequent ripples are a major disturbance to the tranquil waters. But, if you take a rock and throw it into swift flowing rapids, the splash of the rock only lasts for a split second before the agitated water just becomes part of the overall commotion of the riffle. You can more thoroughly fish a calm pool by approaching it through the riffles, and you won’t alert fish to your presence. Of course, the streams in Pennsylvania have a bit more elevation to them, than the streams of the Pineywoods, but this strategy can be used along the numerous gravel bars and log jams that form in the local waterways.
Hopefully these tips will help creek stompin’ fly rodders bring more fish to hand. Just remember that you’re out there to commune with nature and enjoy yourself. Don’t take this stuff too seriously.
Go explore, get dirty, catch fish, and have fun!