How to Choose the Best Fly Rod for Small Streams
Wild Brook Trout in the Northeast, native Cutthroat out West, blue lining, ditch poking, backpacking - can you find the common thread? Small stream fishing is a phenomenal way to get away from the crowds, find wild fish, and enjoy solitude in America’s most rugged wilderness. Your hair should be standing up if you’re an adventurer who calls a fly rod your partner in crime.
For me, spending two summers exploring Yellowstone National Park opened my eyes to the value of small stream fishing, a value that I’ve since carried back with me to the often overlooked small streams of Maine. While Southwest Montana is aptly referred to as ‘the fly fishing capital of the world’, you don’t have to be close to a well-known national park to charge into the woods and find a small brook and native fish.
Small stream fishing is, in some ways, a rejection of contemporary fly fishing’s spiral toward fast action rods, distance casting, and big water. Native fish take the angler on a journey that’s as much about the landscape and the adventure as it is about the fish. You’ve got a rebellious side like me if you prefer to slow down and pull beautiful fish out of small water. Choosing the right fly rod will help you make the most out of your time on smaller streams. Hint: the best options aren’t lightning fast or known for their 100+ foot casting range.
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Rod action is a necessary consideration when choosing the perfect fly rod for small stream applications. Delicacy at short distances, a trait that rod manufacturers often compromise for performance at longer distances, is the name of the game. Long distance casting is unnecessary if you’re truly fishing small water.
Therefore, most rods that are designed for small streams are made with a moderate action blank and a full flex (or close to full flex) rod profile. A medium-action design and full flex profile allow anglers to optimize delicacy, tippet protection, and accuracy at short distances.
Another readily accepted norm in contemporary fly fishing is that a 9’ rod is best for trout fishing. This isn’t the case when fishing small streams. Longer rods are optimized for increased line mending capabilities and the ability to pick up line off the water to recast flies at distance. Again, all traits that are overkill on small streams.
A shorter rod between 7’ 6” and 8’ 6” helps maximize short distance performance and fine dry fly presentation. These shorter rods are also easier to fish in tight cover or brushy environments. If you’re backpacking or blue lining, a shorter rod packs down to fit nicely in a backpack or travel bag. You’ll lose some line mending capabilities, sure, but decreased rod length will maximize performance where it counts without the consideration of unneeded small water luxuries.
Graphite fly rods are certainly the most popular. Improved graphite technology has contributed to rods that are lighter, stronger, and more well-built than fiberglass and bamboo rods of the past. Graphite design allows anglers to cast farther and catch more fish, undoubtedly. But if you’d rather slow down and maximize your chances of fooling fish at close range, bamboo and fiberglass rods are also viable options.
Bamboo rods are made for small fish and short casting. These rods are optimized for art and delicacy - both important characteristics in a small water rod. Fiberglass rods are similar, although they don’t take nearly the time, care, and artistry to make. Both types of rods pay homage to rod builders of old and encourage an angler to slow down her/his casting stroke on the water.
Ok, I know what I'm looking for. Now, which rod should I go with?
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