Fly Fishing Headwater Trout Streams

Robert W. Streeter

Fly Fishing Headwater Trout Streams

As a lifelong fly angler, through the years there have been some incredible times on the water, and while my fishing was never measured in the numbers caught or size of fish, one thing became important—it was all about having a good time. Of course, having a good time was always a matter of perspective. One thing that became apparent was that enjoying life as a fly angler was often a matter of scale.

A king salmon on a fly rod can be the most awesome fish in the world, yet so is an 8-inch brookie on the right equipment.  King salmon require a big fly rods and reels.  Small trout in headwater streams are at their best when fished with smaller rods in light line weights.  Catching a brookie that is over a foot long out of a tiny creek where you have to sneak up on a pool and deliver the perfect cast is every bit as much fun as catching the other species that anglers typically think of in terms of trophies.


For fishing headwaters trout streams—smaller rods are the way to go. One of my guilty pleasures is fishing a small brook trout stream just down the road from my office. I can get out there and catch two or three brookies on my half hour lunch break and still get back on time.  I ended up ordering a JP Ross six and a half foot 2-weight rod last year that is a real gem for this type of fishing.  The shorter rod is much easier to cast on a small stream with a lot of vegetation, and a trout that would be average anywhere else will put quite a bend in it. 

Smaller streams require smaller rods.  Headwaters streams do not provide a ton of casting room. A standard trout rod of 8-9 feet in length hangs up in streamside vegetation, but rods that are 5-7 feet long are much easier to manipulate and cast. Lighter line weights in the 1-3-weight range are also easier to drop on a pool without spooking fish. Smaller rods in lighter weights also give the fish much more of a chance.  One idea to consider is that casts are typically short, so over-lining the rod by one weight so it is easy to turn over short, accurate casts is important.

In addition to an appropriately sized rod and reel, there are some other equipment considerations for small streams. Since you are often sneaking up on individual fish that require close casting, wearing clothing that blends in with surrounding vegetation is important. I usually fish with neoprene hip boots, because wading these streams doesn’t require going in too deep, and they are a lot cooler for summer fishing.

These streams don’t require tons of fly boxes and other gear, and a simple chest pack with a box of flies, some tippet and leader material, a hemostat for a quick release of the fish, and some clippers round out the gear needs.  I also carry a small landing net even though the fish aren’t huge, because it makes for easier release of the fish. Polarized lenses are also a must, because on some streams you will be spotting individual fish and casting to them.


Small stream brook trout do not have the variety of food sources that trout in larger streams have. There are a number of macroinvertebrate species in the headwater streams, but there are not many different species among the major insect types. Most of these streams will have stoneflies, some mayfly species, and some caddis. The headwater streams flowing through woodlands also will have some land-based insect life that ends up in the stream as well.

While there are some hatches on these streams, they are not as predictable as they are elsewhere and the trout in smaller streams are opportunists. Any attractor dry fly pattern that is properly presented is going to attract attention. My favorite is the Ausable Wulff, but I have a new pattern called the Micro-Wulff that I also use.  A generic mayfly pattern like the Adams is good to have. Olive and tan Caddis patterns are good to have.  Simple nymphs like the Pheasant Tail and Hare’s Ear are good, along with a big golden stonefly nymph. A few soft-hackle wet flies are also good for representing hatching caddis. A beetle pattern and a green inchworm are also good flies for these streams.


The best approach that I have found with small trout streams is to start downstream and fish upstream. Since I usually used dry flies, this is the best approach to get in casting position without spooking fish. Try and plan your approach and casting positions to put flies on the water in any likely holding spots with a minimum of casting and wading.  Try and plan out each step and approach the likely holding areas in the stream with a minimum of disturbance.

On pools, the fish can usually see you easily, so try and stay low as you approach to make a cast. My favorite stream has a nice bend pool with a gravel bar that I crawl up on to cast to it. There’s usually a hungry trout or two at the head of the pool.

If you’ve already fished upstream and now want to fish down on the way back to the vehicle, you can swing small wet flies through water that you have already fished can bring a strike or two from a trout. 

Handling Fish

With most small streams back in the woods, you are typically dealing with wild fish, and finding wild trout anywhere is a great thing, one worth preserving by releasing them. Small stream trout are delicate and much harder to handle and release. While it is fun catching them, you need to plan for releasing them properly. Starting out with flies tied on barbless hooks or simply pinching the hook barbs down helps ensure they will survive.  In most cases you can keep the fish right in the water and use a hemostat to grab the hook and release them.

Finding Streams

Locating small trout streams is something that you can do in just about any part of the state, including the counties around Lake Ontario. The best place to start is the NYSDEC website at and check out the pages for places to fish. You can find a number of streams this way and get a good start.  You can also explore likely streams on public lands on your own.  Some of the streams are truly in wilderness areas and are a lot of fun because you can combine a little hiking to go fish them. I have a favorite Adirondack stream that I hike in to just about every year and fish. Others are a little easier to access and are closer to the road.

Fishing small trout streams is a challenge; just getting a shot at a decent trout requires stealth and skill. For this reason, a lot of folks don’t fish them, but if you like a challenge and are willing to scale down your gear, this is a rewarding way to fish that holds up through the summer months.

Rob Streeter enjoys fly fishing for many species, especially trout and salmon in the Lake Ontario tributaries. He is the outdoor columnist for the Albany Times Union and freelances for several publications. He is a member of the NYS Outdoor Writers’ Association and the Outdoor Writers’ Association of America.

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