Don’t Underestimate Small Streams

Don't be fooled, small streams can hold big fish. You just may have to work to find them.

In my book small streams provide the best angling experience. There is something very intimate about fishing the little rivers. I’m not really sure at what point a stream becomes a river.  Does it have to be five, 10, 20 feet wide?  All I know is that I prefer the smaller streams, the smaller the better as long as they hold fish.

Fly fishermen traveling west to trout fish often seek out the big, famous rivers they’ve read so much about. On the rare occasion I find myself west of the Mississippi I look for the little meadow streams. The trout usually aren’t as big as you would find in the larger rivers but I don’t have to battle other fisherman for a place to cast a fly. 

My experience with small streams in my home state has been a win-win situation. I don’t have competition from other anglers plus the fish are just as large as they are in the bigger rivers.

I started off fishing in little streams because that’s all I had within bicycle range. I caught long eared sunfish, chubs and the occasional eight inch bass. That was enough to keep a ten year old boy busy. After I traded two wheels for four I left the little streams behind and headed for the bigger, deeper, wider rivers with the thought in mind; bigger water, bigger fish, bigger water, more fish. It took me years to realize that isn’t necessarily true.

I began fishing small streams again under rather unusual circumstances. A cattle farmer in Rush County, Indiana had the bad habit of dumping his manure lagoon into a small stream that ran very close to his lagoon. He would commit this crime just before a predicted rain. The rain would dilute the manure enough to avoid a fish kill. 

One bad weather forecast cost him $10,000. He began dumping the manure prior to a predicted rain. It didn’t rain and he killed miles of the small stream. As it turned out the stream had a very healthy fish population but not a lot of smallmouth bass. I was the investigating conservation officer, I counted 23,000 dead fish over a period of five days.

After the fish kill I called my friend Steve Huffacre. Steve was the Chief of Fisheries for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources at the time. I talked him into doing a smallmouth stocking in the recently killed stream. One day on his way to Brookville Reservoir to collect walleye eggs, Steve threw a bag of smallmouth fingerlings off a bridge that crossed the dead stream.

I waited four years before test fishing the once dead stream. When I began wading the stream I noticed the forage fish had returned nicely. This was a good sign. To give you an idea how small this stream was there were several places I could step across and not get my feet wet. Every 50 yards or so there was a pool about 15 feet wide and from 20 to 50 feet in length. Some of the pools were three to four feet deep in places. 

I was astounded at the number and size of smallmouth I caught that day. This story doesn’t have a happy ending however, at least not for this section of stream. Two years later this portion of the stream completely dried up during a very dry summer. On the upside it appears that many of the smallmouth migrated downstream before the holding pools dried up. These days I frequently fish downstream of the section that was poisoned years ago and the smallmouth fishing is often very rewarding. This experience made me reevaluate my definition of what makes good smallmouth habitat.

Obviously not all small streams are going to produce great fishing for smallmouth, so how do you find those that will? I start by finding larger rivers that have a good population of smallmouth. It could be the Tippecanoe, Blue, Sugar Creek, St. Joe or a multitude of others.  

After you’ve located these look for their feeder streams. Some biologists believe, as I do, that the bass migrate to and from the larger rivers to the smaller and vise versa. Other fisheries biologists I’ve talked to aren’t so sure. From my observations some smallmouth move to the tributaries to spawn.  

It seems I catch a disproportionate number of large fish in the spring. However they could just be more vulnerable at that time of the year. I also find big fish in the smaller streams during mid-winter (we’ll talk about winter smallmouth fishing in another article).

So far we’ve been talking about smallmouth bass, what about largemouth? My son and I both enjoyed a rather unique fishery close to where we lived in northern Rush County. I say unique but I’m sure there are similar situations throughout the state; it’s worth the time to make an effort to find them.  

We lived close to a series of grave pits that had a small stream that flowed into and out of them.  The gravel pits themselves were known for their excellent bass fishing. During the spring rains some of the bass would drift out of the pit and into the stream. As soon as the water cleared a little bit it was time to fish the stream. It was a lot of fun plucking one to two pound bass from such a small body of water. Most years this fishing opportunity was short-lived. When the stream resumed it’s normal flow the bass headed back to the pits.

Fishing small streams isn’t for those folks who don’t like to walk. This past year one of my fishing partners and I walked three miles of a fishy looking little stream trying to locate suitable smallmouth habitat. For our effort we were rewarded with a quarter mile stretch of dynamite bass fishing. You won’t find these honey holes while sitting on the couch.

Dean Shadley
Shadley’s interest in hunting, fishing and a ton of other outdoor activities started at a very young age. He was hunting and fly-fishing on his own when he was eleven; it’s always been his passion. He was employed by the Indiana DNR as a conservation officer for 34 years. For the first 17 years, Shadley worked southeastern Indiana as a field officer. For the last 17 years he was in charge of Indiana’s Turn In a Poacher program (TIP) and was the chief public relations officer for the law enforcement division. Since his retirement he’s spent most of his time fly-fishing, shooting sporting clays, hunting and photographing wildlife. Shadley is Fishing Editor of Sportsman Magazine

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