Conventional wisdom on “small stream flyrods” dictates a very short rod, usually 7’ or under, fast action concentrated in the tip, and light line so that the small trout in these streams are more fun. Of course such rods work, but is there a better choice? Our staff’s experience and their observations of others fishing these streams suggest another approach.A good place to start is to outline what will be required of small stream rods here in North Carolina. First, the rod needs to cast easily and accurately at distances from 10’ to 30’. Second, it needs to be long enough to mend line, and keep the line out of the fast water at the tails of the little “plunge pools” that characterize the steeper portions of these waters. Third, unless you are a dry fly purist, the rod needs to cast a wide range of flies, dry, wet, and streamers from #4 or 6 down to #22. And, it needs to be handy in close quarters.
For every cast over 30’, small streams offer up hundreds under 15’. We’re not talking “dappling” or “bow and arrow” casts, but short, conventional casts to close marks; overhead, side arm and roll casts are all necessary in a given day. One reason for the short casts is that our streams seldom open up, foliage wise, enough for longer casts. Another reason is that the water often flows through boulder fields requiring close stalking to get a good presentation and drift. And, as the stream gradient increases toward the headwaters, we find small plunge pools with little waterfalls and cascades at the head and tails of these pools; while standing in the cascades at the head of one pool, one seldom has an opportunity for long casts to the next.
This brings up the need to control drag. All fly fishermen are faced with controlling drag, but with the complexity of currents created by a rapidly changing underwater topography, and the typically fast water at the tails of pools, the small stream rod needs to be long enough to easily mend line, and long enough to keep the line out of the fast water at the pool tails. One is often faced with the necessity of several quick mends to get even a 2-3’ drag free float. And, while the angler may use a short rod and extend his arm to help with drag, a moving hand or arm is much more alarming to trout that the movement of a thin rod shaft.
While most of us tend to fish dry flies to see the rise and the strike, there are many days when a crayfish imitation or streamer will prove the most effective. A Muddler or Wooly Bugger in size #4 or #6, cast to the head of a pool, allowed to sink for a few seconds, and then retrieved as quickly as possible will often yield the best fish of the day. Weighted nymphs are also deadly, especially in pools or portions of pools greater than 4’deep, with big (#6 or #8), ugly stone flies being especially effective. In shallower water, small bead heads fished on a short dropper under a well dressed Stimulator or Wulff often doubles the productivity of fishing one or the other; even dual hook ups are not uncommon. These tactics require a line of at least 4 wt, with 5wt better and not much downside with a 6wt. If used with a well designed tapered leader, you can still go down to 7x for the small, late season terrestrials or tricos, and the baeits that seem to always be on the stream.
“Handy” is, literally, a moving target. Most folks define “handy” in terms of overall length, the shorter the “handier.” However, it is important to keep in mind that the static length of a rod fails to tell the whole story. A soft, slow or medium action rod that loads progressively and flexes well down toward the grip has a much more compact casting arc than the same length rod that has a fast, tip action. This action type also loads easily for very short casts, is forgiving with weighted nymphs and dropper combos, and is especially good with streamers. As the variety of rods is so great, only casting the various candidates will tell one which has the most compact casting arc. But, don’t be surprised if the softer, progressive action rod that matches the casting arc of a fast, tippy seven footer is 8’ or 8.5’ long!
So, what do we recommend? Keeping in mind that all good fly rods are neat, fun to use pieces of gear, and that none of us can seem to limit ourselves to just a few, we make the following recommendation acknowledging that there is no best answer for everyone, and even what is best for any one of us can be left at home when we want to try something for variety or challenge!
The rod would be between 7.5’ and 8.5’, have a slow to medium cadenced, progressive action that flexes well down toward the grip, so that it would load quickly, handle a wide range of flies, handle line mending efficiently and possess a compact casting arc. It would use a 5wt line unless dry fly work would heavily predominate, and then a 4wt would be fine. It could be made of bamboo, glass or graphite, with the material secondary to the quality with which the maker is able to accurately adhere to the design parameters. This is the place one would be truly sensible to splurge on the very best, as it will probably become your favorite small stream trout rod and may well become your favorite rod period.
One last note. We seldom get excited about new lines, but the Rio “Nymph” line is really a problem solver. It floats like a moccasin because it has extra flotation spheres in the coating, has a short front taper that loads a rod very quickly, and the back taper helps keep the line from sagging on long casts. A triumph, and a very good line for small streams as well as the nymphing it was designed to facilitate.
Tom Valone, Founder