A few years ago a friend of mine, the poet Josh Edwards, wrote something I’ve been turning over in my head ever since: “Small islands are largely themselves.” I love the promise of transformation this phrase speaks to. It’s an idea that the small stream angler—and I mean the really, really small stream angler—can use to enter into the surprising expansiveness that can come while fishing diminutive water. If you let it.
I myself go back and forth between fishing fairly good-sized water for fairly good-sized fish and plying narrow coulees for smaller, differently spectacular specimens. The year’s first foray into tiny water is always a rediscovery—at times a painful one—of how to get into the small-stream state of mind. I was reminded of the challenge just last week, as I kicked off the Wisconsin trout season on a small, meandering coulee. Four weight in hand, it was the first fishing I had done since a January musky trip to Tennessee, where I threw flies a good deal larger than the fish I hoped to catch that day. I got out of walked through deep for one hundred yards, two hundred, three, observing the water, planning my strategy. But I spooked no fish and saw no water that screamed “fish me.” In fact, there wasn’t a single spot where I could not see the bottom. I would have kept walking downstream in search of what I deemed more fishable water, but some other anglers had put in, blocking my march. And so I was forced to turn around and fish through the four hundred or so yards of tiny, clear, shallow water I did not, could not believe held fish.
Slowly at first, I started to get my eyes. It takes your vision a few minutes to adjust to the dark. It can take hours—or days—to adjust to a small stream.
Fishing a small stream, which is just another way of saying fishing upstream, is like reading a book backwards. You study the end to better understand the beginning. You are unraveling a mystery in reverse. You are on the hunt for something you can’t quite place your finger. Until, suddenly and out of nowhere, you can.
Your rod is your tool of inquiry, your mechanism of divination. There is one thing, and one thing only, that must be true about a rod for small stream: it must be one.
Let it be a 3 weight, 4 weight or 5. It doesn’t matter. When you’re carrying a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
Small stream fishing is a game of adjustment and compromise. A dab of putty on the line to suspend a nymph, an extension of tippet, a shrinking of butt section. It’s not about having the right tool for the job. It’s about making your tools as you go.
A small stream teaches you how to fish it, and at what pace.
And at some point it will happen—there will come a moment when the river starts to make sense to you. It’s no longer looking as small as it did from the roadside. Moving upstream, you fish a run with a stone the size of a kid’s basketball. And there’s a fish there.
Keep fishing and at a certain moment, if you are doing it right, a small stream becomes a big stream. It becomes all there is. And in this it’s a metaphor for fly fishing itself—an acceptance of limitations and a narrowing of focus that reveal a world of possibility where there seemed to be very little.
I have topped my waders only twice. Once at dusk in a good-sized smallmouth bass river. The other time on the narrowest stream I had ever fished in my life, so narrow you could in many places have made a footbridge with a skateboard. On this tiny stream I had turned a sharp corner and was flush upon two rising brook trout. No, not rising—leaping. Leaping as freely as trout leap in a world too small for brown trout and too tight for anglers, their own little kingdom. I needed to get close enough for a bow and arrow cast, but I also needed to keep my center low, so I fell to my knees and stalked them. Every minute or so I crawled another six inches forward. One more push and I’d be in firing distance. Seeing a soft pad of elodea ahead of me, I lifted my knee, leaned forward and lowered down.
Part of me is still falling.
It turned out this puff of elodea masking a one-foot drop in the stream bottom. Not deep water by any means, but for a guy on his knees falling forward it was enough to dunk me. Drenched with freezing water I sprang to my feet, coughed up spring creek and started laughing. Standing upright for the first time in hours, the stream seemed even tinier. Had I really fished through all that?
The river had taught me what it wanted me to do. And I had done it.
Small streams are largely themselves. And then some.