Fishing Small Streams

Later this week the province’s tributaries will be lined with fishermen hoping to be the lucky angler to hook into some Ontario run Steelhead.  Years ago I would have been right there with them, but recently I have distanced myself from the crowds and gravitated to the smaller, more secluded waterways.  Why would I want to fight for a spot on a river bank or chance tangling lines with other anglers or even worse; having another angler hook up only to have them fight the fish for 30 minutes?  That's not relaxing and I've lost patience for it over the years.  My alternative is to scout out a nice quiet tributary with limited traffic and set out on my own private fishing adventure. 

Here are some tips to help you search out and conquer some of Ontario's best kept secret fisheries.

Think of it as an Adventure First:
I will be brutally honest, the likelihood of catching big fish in small steams is low.  If it's big fish you're after hit up the big rivers (and contend with the crowds).  Small streams can offer anglers a little bit of adventure and if you outfit yourself properly (more on that later) you can have a blast catching smaller fish. 

I don't always look at these outings as fishing trips, they are more like adventures.  A chance to get out and explore.  An opportunity to discover new areas, fish new waters and (hopefully) catch some fish.  But I guarantee that getting skunked on a small stream adventure will be more rewarding then walking away empty handed from a busy shoreline.    

Be Safe:
Your safe return from a fishing trip is the most important thing.  At the very least it is recommended that you share your trip plans with someone.  An even better alternative is to bring someone along on your adventure (safety in numbers).  While you may not be able to get cell coverage, it is a good idea to bring a phone along (and it can double as a camera and GPS map) in the event of an emergency.  A small first aid kit is a welcomed addition on any adventure.  There is generally a lot of stream crossing with this type of fishing so always scout where you are crossing and do so safely.  Cross in dry, low water areas whenever possible.  Always be careful of tree branches as well.  A stick in the eye is not a pleasant experience.  If you’re fishing with a buddy, give them plenty of space when moving through the woods.   

Pick Your Stream:
This is an important step in the process.  It is best to look for streams that break off from major tributaries.  Start with the bigger rivers and work your way back from there until you find what you are looking for.  Structures such as dams may inhibit fish movement and roadways and bridges may make for easier access.  With the quality of maps available today online you will easily be able to find some options. 

Some other helpful advice when picking streams is:

  • Check the MNR regulations to ensure that you are able to fish that area.  Some streams have different opening/closing dates or do not allow fishing at all. 

  • Ensure that you're not trespassing.  Only access rivers and streams from public lands.

  • Try to find streams that offer some cover for the fish, but aren't totally choked with vegetation.Google Earth maps can help with this if you zoom in and look closely.

  • Access off of roadways is ideal but try to find backroads with lower traffic.You will also need a place to park your car safely off the road.

Outfit Yourself Properly:
To maximize your fun and enjoyment on smaller streams it is important that you outfit yourself properly.  For spincasters I would recommend going with short rods of 5’6” to 6” and with a light or ultralight setup.  You can go light on the line as well and spool up 2 to 4lbs test.  As for lures there are many options available to you.  Small inline spinners and spoons can work well.  Worm harnesses can be successful and properly rigged drift outfits can produce fish.  I would recommend replacing any treble hooks with single hooks for easier catch and release.  Casting long distances is rare and some anglers choose to cast tied flies in smaller streams. 

If you lean more towards fly fishing, have no fear, there are options for you as well.  Short 7’ to 7’6” rods are available and cast short distances incredibly accurately.  You can downsize the weight of your rod but 3wt or 4wt should meet most of your needs.  A variety of flies will catch fish depending on your quarry and the time of year and may include dry flies, nymphs, wet flies and streamers.     

Bring Some None Fishing Gear As Well:
Fishing and exploring small streams can take several hours if not the entire day if desired.  I would recommend bringing the following items along with you:

  • Water

  • Lunch or snacks

  • Bug spray

  • Sunscreen

  • Glasses (good for spotting fish and protecting your eyes from twigs while bushwhacking).

  • Cell Phone or Camera

  • Map of the area or GPS device (this functionality will be on your phone as well)

Practice Catch and Release:
I'm a big supporter of catch and release fishing.  I won't get on my soapbox and smite anyone who keeps their limits but with this type of fishing, most of the fish you catch won't be worth keeping so just put them back. 

Where to Fish:
Small stream fishing may at first seem intimidating but these waterways are made up of the same features as larger rivers; just on a smaller scale.  Identifying common river features like runs, pools, eddies and break waters all exist on a smaller scale and may just be more difficult to identify.  A pool that you may overlook on a big river, may be a holding spot for fish on a small stream.  After spending some time on smaller streams you will be able to recalibrate your expectations and you will quickly get the feel for the water.  Some features that can hold fish in smaller rivers are areas of heavy cover and cut banks so don’t overlook these important areas either. 

Take Your Time and Take it All in:
As mentioned above, small stream fishing should be considered more of an adventure in exploration then a pure fishing trip; catching fish is just a bonus.  You will get frustrated at times.  You will get muddy, sometimes bloody and I guarantee that in Canada you will get eaten alive.  This type of experience offers so much more to me than fighting for a small piece of shoreline on the big rivers and I think that over time and a little bit of practice, others will see this as well.  And who doesn't need a little more fun and adventure in their lives?