A Stream Trout Primer by Matt Straw + Tippet Chart

A Stream Trout Primer by Matt Straw + Tippet Chart

Stream trout were the glamour fish of the early-to-mid twentieth century. Wild settings, clear water, solitude, and a “River-Runs-Through-It” kind of self assurance captivated the angling audience.

The writings of Hemmingway, Wulff, Schweibert, Haig-Brown, and many others played no small part in the romance.

The sleek, stylish profile is built for speed and splitting current. The jewel-like red, blue, or black spots, and the pristine habitats they thrive in continue to inspire literature by great authors and daydreams by the millions.

fish fishing fly trout stream creek river

Stream trout are spooky. A shadow overhead, a vibration sent through the ground, a glimpse of sudden movement, the wake from a wading angler, or the sight of disturbed sediment from the bottom can send them racing for cover. The smaller the environment they inhabit, the spookier they get. And they can inhabit some pretty tiny brooks.

Growing up in Michigan, I was never far from some tiny, ignored rivulet running through a forest that literally brimmed with native brookies. The fish seldom reached a foot in length.

A 14 incher was the trophy of a lifetime.

I could easily step across most of these brooks, but in forests the banks are often undercut where roots hold the soil high, creating a huge, shadowy recluse underneath.

Streams that appeared to be 2 or 3 feet wide were, in effect, 5 or 6 feet wide in places. Brookies in those spots are approached with extreme caution or never caught. Walking on their roof is out of the question. If you can see the water, the trout can see you. If they can see you (which is far more often than you think), best to cover every inch of skin with clothes that blend into the background, tread lightly, and keep vegetation or rocks between you and the trout. Since seeing them first is extremely advantageous, a good pair of polarized glasses is a must—even in the deep shadows of a dark Michigan forest.

brook trout fishing fish fishing fly trout stream creek river

Those experiences led me to stalk sea-run brookies in the streams of Nova Scotia, Labrador, Quebec, Ontario, and Manitoba. In the years surrounding those trips, I’ve taken cutthroats on the streams of Yellowstone with a small spoon, browns on the Little Red with a fly, more browns from the tributaries of Lake Michigan with suspending baits, rainbows in Alaska with a plastic bead, and that’s just the beginning. Dozens of methods exist for taking stream trout, but two basic categories describe most of the equipment required for each method.

Fly Fishing

A trophy stream trout is about 10 pounds in many rivers. Although a 40-pound, former world-record brown trout was taken on the Little Red River in Arkansas in the 1990s, that’s a wild exception to the rule. An all-tackle, world-record brown has since been caught on the Big Manistee in Michigan, on a Rapala Shad Rap. Others have followed, but these are essentially Great Lakes fish running up rivers. Many gifted anglers fish true stream trout for a lifetime without ever topping 8 pounds.

fish fishing fly trout stream creek river brown

Fly fishing is the foundation of all modern “angling” (as opposed to netting, trapping, or any kind of commercial fishing). It arose centuries ago, long before spinning or casting gear was invented, and before any kind of monofilament existed.

The concept of fly fishing is predicated upon the concept of throwing the weight of a line—not the weight of a lure or livebait.

That’s why fly rods for different species are differentiated by the weight of the line the rod is designed to throw. A 3-weight rod, designed to throw a 3-weight line, is very light in weight and presentation—perfect for many stream-trout situations. A 10-weight rod is designed to throw a much heavier 10-weight line, perhaps right for throwing big flies to giant, carnivorous, sea-run browns in Tierra del Fuego, on the southern tip of South America—but hardly anywhere else.

fish fishing fly trout stream creek river brown

Most of my fly fishing for stream trout is done with a 4W or 5W outfit and a floating line—as opposed to a sink tip or full sinking line. Those heavy, hard-to-throw lines are used to get down quicker in large, fast, deep streams. On most waters, most of the time, a small split shot or lightly-weighted fly will suffice for sub-surface duty, and a lot of the action takes place with surface flies that imitate emerging caddis, stoneflies, and mayflies during a hatch (those three groups of aquatic invertebrates are extremely important to stream trout, affecting where they go and how they behave for much of the year).

One of the fundamental tenets of fly fishing is the understanding that trout—especially wild trout, born to the river—are highly selective. Meaning they get tunnel vision. If insects are hatching, flying into the water from overhanging grasses, dropping from trees, or migrating in any kind of abundance, trout will key in on the precise size, color, and shape of those most-abundant examples. When fishing with flies that imitate insects, it’s best to keep that in mind.

Most experts carry little seines and nets for capturing nymphs along the bottom of a stream and flying insects coming off the water so they can match size, color, and profile with something from their fly box.

fish fishing fly trout stream creek river nymph wet dry tying tie

A fly box for beginning fly fishermen should be more general than specific, however. To match all the species of mayflies that exist in North America, just having two flies for each species (just one for the subsurface nymph or larval version and one for the metamorphosed surface version—and those are not the only versions) your box would have to contain over 1400 flies.

With my luck, I’d arrive to find trout feeding on caddis flies, or “spentwing” mayflies—which is a completely different stage than the basic larval (sub-surface) or fully-developed (surface) versions. Or I’d hang my one perfect mayfly imitation in a tree branch before it ever touched the water. Best to study the hatches that take place where you want to start fishing and have a few imitations of each stage of those insects that “come off” in the biggest numbers there.

fish fishing fly trout stream creek river

But, by “general imitations,” I refer to flies that can be used to “generally” imitate a variety of insects, like the Irresistible, the Adams, some terrestrials (ants, spiders, inch worms), the bivisible, stonefly nymphs, almost anything called a “wet fly,” or a basic elk-hair caddis. I’ve used the same, basic elk-hair caddis selection (ranging from a size #14 up to a size #6) to fool trout all over the continent during caddis hatches. Adams and Hendrickson flies in various sizes can be used to imitate almost anything hatching on top.

Other general imitations include streamers that can be used to imitate any kind of minnow. The best ones to have, in various sizes (generally ranging from #10 up to #2, but often larger), include the Clouser Minnow, the Woolly Bugger, the Gray Ghost, Lefty’s Deceiver, a basic bunny strip, and the Muddler Minnow. Streamers are allowed to sink a foot or more as you “mend line” (looping it off the water and laying it upstream), then stripped in by pulling in the fly line a few inches to half a foot or so at a time.

Most of the time, no major hatch is occurring.

During those extended periods, general patterns that imitate nothing in particular but everything in general will excel. And while the biggest trout in the stream may take advantage of insect forage during a major hatch, they often key on minnows and small trout the remainder of the time. In most environments, trout seldom exceed 15 inches in length until they make that transition to a meat diet.

fish fishing fly trout stream creek river

Buy tapered leaders of 9 feet (streamers) to 12 feet (dry flies, wet flies, nymphs) long and tie them to the fly line using a nail knot. Don’t use fluorocarbon with dry flies (it sinks). Buy a quality floatant for dries, to keep the leader and fly on top. Dry flies and nymphs most often require tippets (the end of the leader) testing at 2 to 4 pounds (4X to 7X).

The Spinning Approach

Spinning tackle covers almost everything else a stream-trout angler wants to try. Casting gear might be right for throwing lures or drifting baits to really big trout in big, powerful rivers, but is otherwise too laboriously heavy. Stream trout have exceptional visual acuity demanding use of the lightest, thinnest leaders possible under any conditions.

For most trout fishing in streams, 8- to 9 ½-foot, fast-action, light- to medium-light power rods are optimum. That short, basic range of lengths and actions covers hardware (spinners, spoons, blade baits, etc), bait fishing, and lure fishing. For float fishing I use 10- to 12-foot, fast, medium-light rods. The longer rod is necessary to control the line and the float as it drifts downstream.

Straight-shafted spinners are the most classic of all stream-trout lures. Spinners include Mepps, Panther Martin, Blue Fox, and homemade versions (kits are available). On the slower, smaller streams around the Great Lakes, a size #0 to size #1 spinner is optimum, and best matched with 4-pound monofilament. On larger rivers, size #2 up to size #4 spinners might be necessary—but most stream trout in the 1- to 3-pound range respond best to smaller spinners.

fish fishing fly trout stream creek river brown spinner

Spoons for stream trout are compact, like the Acme Little Cleo, the Eppinger Dardevle, the Luhr Jensen Krocodile, the PK Lures PK Spoon, and the Northland Moxie Minnow. On small streams, spoons from 2/32- to 1/6-ounce tend to work best. On larger or faster waters, spoons up to ½-ounce might be necessary but, again—most trout respond best to smaller spoons. Always use a snap swivel with hardware of any kind to avoid serious problems with line twist.

The best way to match hardware to the water you’re fishing is by gauging how it drifts with current on a tight line.

Spinners and spoons are most effective when pitched straight across the current or at varying angles down current and not retrieved but allowed to drift on a tight line. If the lure drags bottom, hold the rod lower to get more line on the water (current “carries” the additional line, which, in turn, carries the lure). If it continues dragging bottom, go to a lighter lure.

The lure should touch bottom occasionally, letting you know it’s traveling close to the floor of the stream. If the lure never touches bottom, hold the rod tip higher to get more line off the water. If that doesn’t work, use a heavier lure. When the lure sweeps to a point almost directly downstream of you, it automatically rises. That’s when most following trout strike. Again—tough, 4- to 6-pound test, green monofilaments are optimum. (Braids are 1) too “abrupt,” allowing hardware to drop too fast to be worked effectively, and 2) opaque, making them less stealthy even though mono is thicker.)

The same tackle and techniques can be applied to lures. The most significant hard-bodied lures for stream-trout fishermen are minnowbaits (like the Original Floating Rapala and the Smithwick Rogue) and suspending versions of those baits (like the Lucky Craft Pointer and the Rapala XRap). Floater-divers can adapt to any stream situation by drifting over shallow spots, floating up after contacting snags, then diving to depths of 4 feet or more. Suspending baits are best in larger rivers and river-mouth areas where they can be paused and left at depth without snagging up as much. In most cases, a fairly constant but erratic retrieve—created by snapping the rod tip downward or parallel to the water with the occasional pause—works best.

fish fishing fly trout stream creek river brookie brook

In all cases with hard-bodied lures, single hooks snag with less frequency than treble hooks—and also do less damage to the trout. We like to suggest changing out trebles and replacing them with slightly larger single hooks, then flattening the barb to make releasing trout quick, simple, efficient, and far less deadly.

As mentioned, this is just the beginning. In a future issue we’ll discuss bait fishing and the sometimes related practice of float fishing. Trout are highly adaptive as predators, taking advantage of myriad types of forage. Not so adaptive, I’m afraid, environmentally.

They require cool, clean, highly oxygenated water. We offer these primers in hope that more people will join us in striving to protect those waters from all the various threats facing them today.

- written by Matt Straw

fish fishing fly trout stream creek river


Tippet Chart To Get Started

Rod weight

X rating

tippet diameter

pound test

suggested fly size

5-7 weight


.011 inches

9.0 pounds

size-4 to size-6

5-7 weight


.010 inches

7.2 pounds

size-4 to size-8

3-4 weight


.009 inches

6.3 pounds

size-4 to size-10

3-4 weight


.008 inches

5.2 pounds

size-6 to size-12

1-2 weight


.007 inches

4.3 pounds

size-6 to size-14

1-2 weight


.006 inches

3.3 pounds

size-14 to size-20

1-2 weight


.005 inches

2.1 pounds

size-18 to size-26

0 weight


.006-.004 inches

3.3-1.2 pounds

size-20 to size-28

0 weight


.005-.003 inches

2.1-1.0 pounds

size-20 to size-28

00 weight


.004-.001 inches

1.2-.4 pounds

size-26 to size-32

000 weight


.003-.0009 inches

1.0-.3 pounds

size-28 to size-32


Get This Excellent Book on Fly Fishing & Tying for Stream Trout

basic stream flies fishing fly


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