The Perfect Small Stream Fly Rod

Fly fishing for native trout on a small stream in the back county can lead to one of the most rewarding experiences of a lifetime. Getting off the beaten path to find finicky fish in untouched waters is what the pioneers of the sport truly intended. On the other hand, some small streams are just off the roadway but are just as willing, or unwilling, to give up their inhabitants to the skilled angler. The proper clothing, flies and equipment can help you make the absolute most of your adventure. The fly rod may be the most important aspect of your small stream set up.

One question that I often hear is, “what is the perfect small stream fly rod”. Well, allow me to clear this up right now… there is no perfect small stream fly rod. There, now you have it. I should stop here and leave it at that, but you know that I won’t.

Be careful, there are many self proclaimed fly fishing experts that are all too eager to give their opinion on the ideal rod for the smaller streams. Don’t be too hasty to accept their remarks as gospel and run out and buy a rod simply base on their opinions. I wish I could give you a cut and dried, etched in stone, answer and identify the specific rod that would be perfect for any small stream you may encounter in your fly fishing lifetime… but I can’t do that. Neither can anyone else.

Most folks simply do not realize the factors involved in making a small stream rod selection. There are several things to carefully ponder before dropping the bucks for a new rod. That’s exactly what we’re going to do here. We’ll discuss several important rod and stream factors that govern a small stream rod selection. After arming yourself with the proper information, it is you who will end up making the ultimate decision as to which rod is best for you.

What’s a Small Stream?

First things first… we probably need to identify exactly what constitutes a small stream. So, what type of water will you be fishing? Is it a small stream, a spring creek or a narrow river? Are all three of these really the same thing? All fly fishers are not on the same page here.

OK, look up “small stream” in the dictionary. What do you find? Nothing, right? There is no formal definition of this term. I know what I mean when I say “small stream”. But do you see in your mind the same thing that I see? Maybe, maybe not.

The Cimarron River in, New Mexico is no doubt a narrow river but don’t let the word “river” fool you. It consists mostly of small stream attributes. Most of the public water is lined with willows, cottonwoods and alders and provides anglers with undercut banks, riffles, runs, bend pools and pocket water. I fish this river as a small stream. The St. Vrain River in Colorado is another great example. There is no place on its banks where you can’t comfortably roll cast to the other side. When the water is clear, there is no place where you can’t see the bottom. On the other hand, Young’s Creek in Montana is about the same size and in some areas it is much wider than many stretches of the Cimarron and St. Vrain Rivers. I fish all three basically the same way.

Let’s just say that a small stream is one that you can cast across easily just about anywhere on it, that you can wade, often cross in hip boots, that is way too small for boats, and has most of its structure exposed to view. Also, most importantly, we’ll assume it has trout in it.

Back to the Rods

So now, what about the rod and stream factors? I will break things down by discussing each factor. As you study these bits of information, you should begin to develop a picture, in your mind, of what type of small stream fishing you’ll be doing and what rod you’ll be needing. You may find that, for you, one rod simply won’t get the job done. You may discover that you need two or more rods to satisfy your small stream desires. How bad could that be? You have now given yourself an excuse, and hopefully permission, to buy more rods.

Our rod selection factors include weight, length, action, material, sections, color and several stream characteristics. We must also spend a little time on fly lines because this may also impact our rod choice. Also, there is no need to get fancy with a small stream rod. Terms such as modulus, IM whatever, titanium, and other high-tech sounding terms frequently make their way into the fly rod shopping process. The good news is that these are things that should not worry you during you selection process. You don’t need the X15 Super Modulated Ballistic Fly Rod designed to cast a quarter mile on any small stream. Let’s just keep it simple.

Rod Weight

Anything from a 0wt to 5wt will work well depending on the situation. The ultimate choice of the rod weight has a lot to do with the size fish you’ll be after. Many small streams only support small trout. Some streams, of course, have larger fish. I’ve caught some healthy 16 inchers in streams, like Bear Creek in Southwest Colorado, which you can almost jump across. Generally though, you’re probably looking at catching fish from 6 to 10 inches. You’ll get an occasional 12 incher and several Jack Fish. Oh… what’s a Jack Fish you ask? These are the fish, generally called fry, that are so small that when you set the hook you jack them up out of the water and they sail back over your head.

So, the fight of a small fish feels better to the angler if they’re using a lightweight fly rod such as a 2 wt. The 16 inchers will feel great on a 2 wt rod also but there are some distinct disadvantages with this scenario. One is that by the time you get the big fish landed, it may be exhausted to the point of no return and may soon die after its release. If you’re going to eat it then that is really mute point. Secondly, you run the risk of breaking your rod from the strain. If you’re deep in the wilderness fishing a delightful little stream, the last thing you need is for your stick to break.

Another thing to consider is hook set. The lighter weight flimsy fly rods offer you little help in setting the hook. I have a 1wt rod that is a joy to use. The problem is that I lose a good amount of fish within two seconds of the hook set (or lack there of). If you’re using this type of rod you had best make sure your fly hooks are debarbed and honed needle sharp. I can use my 2wt with little problems of getting the hook set properly.

I am a 2 and 3wt fan when it comes to small stream rods. I like the lightweight feel of these rods. I like to feel the fish fight. For me, there lighter weight rods allows me to present a fly more delicately. The play in the rods offers me some leader protection on days when I must use very fine tippets. Unfortunately, I don’t catch many behemoths on the small streams that I frequent, so over fighting the fish is usually not a problem.

Castibilty is another issue with rod weights. A 5wt rod is much easier to cast than a 1wt rod… period. So, for the beginner, I would not recommend and extremely light weight rod. Perhaps a 4wt would be a better choice at this stage of skill level. But then, on the other hand, many small streams are so small that you’re really not casting anyway. You’re only flipping and dapping with an occasional roll cast. If you look at it that way, first class casting skills are not overly important. It depends upon the size of the stream, brush, trees and even wind as to how much real casting you may or may not be doing. For example, a typical small meandering stream that snakes through a valley meadow will likely have no trees and minimum brush to contend with. However, the wind may create a problem when trying to cast a 2wt. You may actually need a 4 or 5 wt in order get the fly where you want it.

You can see that when it comes to the ideal rod weight for small streams opinions vary. One single rod weight is not going to be ideal for every small stream application. I will venture to say that most of the anglers that I know use a 3 or 4wt rod in this situation. These are good all-around rod weights that will handle a large variety of small stream applications.

Rod Length

My very first small stream fly rod was a 2/3 wt, 7ft rod. I once took a fishing trip to the Cimarron River where I booked Doc Thompson of High Country Anglers. We fished the Cita which is a private stretch of the Cimarron just bellow the Cimarron Canyon State Park entrance. This section is a classic small stream just loaded with hungry Browns. I met Doc at the trail and started to assemble my gear. He patiently watched as I assemble my 7ft rod. He then calmly said, “Why don’t you leave that rod here, we’ll take my 9ft 4wt instead”. I was bit confused and my feelings were a little hurt. I was taught that you need a short rod for small streams and this is definitely a small stream. However, I figured he was the expert on this river so I’ll take his word for it. We were soon on the bank and Doc pointed out a nice pool to cast to.

After I made a few drifts, he said, “Here, let me see your rod for a minute”. He then taught me how to properly high stick. I then saw the advantages of a long rod on a small stream. Doc had me to cast out with only about 1 or 2 feet of fly line hanging out of the end my rod. He then had me lift the rod high while keeping it parallel to the ground. I was trying to keep all of the fly line and as much of the leader as I could off of the water. This was creating, of course, a perfectly drag free drift. Occasionally I was able to lift the entire leader from the water so that the only thing touching the water was my dry fly. This took a lot practice but I finally got the technique down pat and caught a lot of fish. I made very few overhead casts. I mostly flipped and rolled so the brush and trees were really not much of a problem.

Rod length is a very important consideration and, in some situations, maybe even more important than rod weight. As you can see, there is more than one school of thought regarding the proper rod length for small streams. The short rod advocates are steadfast in their beliefs. The long rod proponents are equally convinced there technique is superior. I can see that both rods have their place. This is where the character of the stream itself will help you in determining the best length for you in a given situation.

Shorter rods, 5 to 7ft, may be ideal for the tightest and brushiest of creeks. Best of all, these short rods are so cute and so sweet. On the opposite side we may find the need for that long rod. An 8’6″, a 9ft, or perhaps even longer rod may be the best choice for the meadow stream that offers little casting impediments. Maybe you’ll be high sticking to finicky trout and you need that extra reach. The Global dorbeR Group in Flippin, Arkansas now produces a 10ft 1wt fly rod blank for this type of fishing.

Rod Action

If your time is going to be spent chasing Brookies s on a smaller stream, then a fast action may not be the best choice. Medium and slow action rods are better suited for small streams. They offer better control, more accuracy, more tippet protection and softer presentations. I know there are some fast action fanatics out there and that’s fine. If a fast action rod feels good to you, then by all means use it. Myself, I prefer a medium action rod. The medium action just feels good to me. They offer more forgiveness of my sometimes lazy casting stroke. They really do offer the accuracy and the delicate presentations that I often need on these small creeks. The medium action rod slightly out performs the slow action in the hook set, yet the slow action remains another great choice for fishing for small fish.


I suppose our basic choices here are bamboo, fiberglass and graphite. Most rods sold today are graphite. Overwhelmingly so. Graphite rods are lighter in weight, more sensitive, and have a faster response than a bamboo or fiberglass rod. More than likely you’ll end up with a graphite rod and your decision to do so will be sound and safe.

It is important though to not overlook fiberglass and bamboo. With glass and bamboo, you have a solid structure consisting of fibers with varying densities. With graphite you have a hollow tube of uniformmaterial. The result is that glass and bamboo is smoother, closer to natural action and a little less tiring.

You may hear that bamboo rods are heavier. This is true, however, this relatively small increase in weight is also one of its advantages, for this additional weight gives these rods an inherent loading characteristic that makes them very smooth casting. Split bamboo rods are also a fly fishing work of art. They certainly have an aesthetic advantage over glass and graphite. One problem is that they’re usually quite expensive.

Glass rods may be a better alternative to bamboo. Doug Macnair, long time casting instructor and fly fishing writer, says “In the short rod format, fiberglass handles very much like bamboo and in my opinion beats graphite every time. I would suppose that my all time small stream favorite is the Little Betts fiberglass 6-footer from 1963.” You’ll probably not find many 1963 Little Betts around but you can still get good fiberglass rods today. Diamondback’s Diamondglass rods are a perfect example of modern fiberglass fly rods at their best.


I have a 7pc 3wt fly rod that packs down into an 18″ rod tube. I thought it would make a great small stream rod because it disassembled into such a concealed package. I could store it anywhere. The last time I used it I was with a friend who had a 2pc rod. We drove up to only a few yards from the creek. We started rigging up for the fish. In a matter of what seemed like seconds, my friend was catching fish while I was still assembling my fly rod.

So, how many sections should your new small stream rod break into? It is a matter of preference as well as functionality. A 2pc rod is so convenient. You only have two sections to worry about. Aligning the guides during assembly is so simple. A 7 or 8pc rod is also convenient in its own way. Their tubes are very short which makes for a great travel or pack rod. If you are hiking or backpacking any significant distance to the back country stream then these rods are ideal. It just takes a little longer to assemble them in a manner so that the guides are all lined up. It’s probably safe to say that the largest selling rods come in 4 sections.

It’s a good idea to consider how you will usually be traveling to you fly fishing destination. Will you fly or drive? If you fly, well, that opens up a whole other can of worms. We’re not talking San Juan worms either. This can get pretty nasty sometimes. Generally there is no problem flying with a four piece rod, without reel, as carry on. But like a lot of carry on rules today, a lot depends on who is working the security check point at the time you pass through. Trying to carry on a reel is a big no-no today. Airline officials have said there is enough fly line and backing to tie up a whole flight crew. The thing to remember is that the enforcement and interpretation of these rules are very inconsistent.

One very good solution is to purchase one of the new rolling duffels that have a dedicated space in the bottom to hold several four piece rod tubes and check it as luggage. Fishpond, Orvis and Cabela’s have luggage with this feature. Just check the luggage and hope for the best. It should arrive safely. On the other hand, if you try to carry it on and get stopped at the terminal and are requested to check your fly rod tube, the chances of never seeing your rod again have just increased

One other solution is to FedEx or UPS your equipment to the lodge or hotel ahead of your arrival and arrange for a prepaid pick up after you leave. This also offers better insurance coverage than hassling with an airline if something is lost.

Fly Line

Now that I have enlightened you on some factors and characteristics to strongly consider when purchasing your new fly rod I am finished, right? Well, in all good conscience, I can’t just turn you loose right now without at least mentioning fly line and how it will affect your small stream rod.

First of all, let me make this perfectly clear, I usually advocate staying with the manufacturer’s suggested line recommendations or, in the case of the heavier weights 6-9, underlining by one weight depending on the circumstances. Wait a minute… did I say underline? Yes I did. Macnair opened my eyes to this concept. You see, it’s in the amount of line you aerialize in making the cast. Consider for a moment that while you and I now know the weight in grains for the first 30-feet of our line, we don’t know the weight of the remainder that typically includes the rest of the head, its rear taper, and the running line … An interesting thought? It should be, because for every ten to fifteen feet we add to the initial 30 hanging in the air, we effectively add another line weight to the load carried by the rod. Said another way: a 5-weight line becomes the equivalent of a 6-weight when 40-feet of line are aerialized, a 7-weight with 60 to 65-feet in the air, etc. At some point, of course, our 5-weight rod will overload resulting in either a collapsed cast or worse, a broken rod. Then, as Doug would say, the Ancient Fishing Gods will be laughing.

OK, so what does this concept of underling a 7wt fly rod have with a small stream rod? Plenty… the same concept applies but in reverse. Let’s say you’re using a 3wt rod with a 3wt line on a small stream. Most of your casts are going to be less than 15 or 20 feet. Take away the leader and you only have about 10 feet or so of fly line aerialized. Well that’s not enough line weight to allow the rod to perform as designed. So, in this case, its makes perfect since to overline your rod. Ten feet of a 4wt line might give you enough aerialized weight to allow the rod to perform better and thus improve your casting. So think about it. You may want to overline your new rod depending on how far you think you’ll be casting.


OK… there you have it. Now, have I covered every possible aspect of selecting the ideal creek rod? Probably not… but you know have enough information to assist you in selecting the best stick for your specific applications. I think you now realize that no single rod will do.

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