angling on a stream

7 reasons to target trout in small streams

Oregon has miles and miles of small rivers and creeks where anglers can enjoy simple techniques, a sense of solitude and a taste of adventure.‌

In a state well-known for big fish (salmon, steelhead) and big rivers (Columbia, Willamette, Deschutes), there's something to be said for thinking small.‌

That's because Oregon also boasts thousands of miles of smaller rivers, creeks and streams where catching aggressive cutthroat trout hooked on ultralight tackle is another kind of fun. ‌

Two harvest cutthroat trout rest on a mossy streamside rock
In small waters, a 10 to 13-inch cutthroat trout would register as "big."

What is a small stream? Rather than an exact definition, we think of small streams as those that are not very wide, pretty shallow, and easy to wade. Sometimes the headwaters of larger rivers seem more like small streams, as do larger rivers during the low flows of summer. These aren't big fish waters. A 10- to 13-inch cutthroat would register as "big," while the norm might be closer to 6-10 inches. But what these fish lack in stature they make up for with enthusiasm. ‌

Chris Kern, ODFW west region manager, remembers fishing these streams as a kid. He later turned to other types of fishing but rediscovered small stream fishing during the COVID pandemic -- when he wanted to limit both travel and contact with other people. As he continues to target these small waters, he has found even more reasons to enjoy this style of fishing.‌

1. Exploring small streams can be an adventure. It's not hard to find small streams and creeks, but evaluating their fishing potential may require an on-site visit. Two sources of information include:

  • The Oregon Sport Fishing Regulations booklet includes lots of gems hiding in plain sight. The booklet lists the seasons and bag limits for dozens of smaller streams you may never have heard of. But their presence in the regulations suggest they may hold some fish.
  • There's also blue-lining, looking for new small trout water on a map and then exploring it to see what it holds. A good approach if you want a place close to home or have an area you want to explore. But make sure you double check the regulations.

2, The fishing gear is simple. There are several options for gear, but you'll have the most fun if you match the size/weight of your gear to the size of the fish you're likely to hook. Reeling in a 6-inch trout on salmon gear will work – you just probably won't have much fun. Instead,

  • Select the lightest spinning tackle you have – an ultralight set up with 4-pound line would be close to ideal. Pair it with a selection of small spinners and/or spoons.
  • If you prefer a fly-rod, a 3- or 4-weight would be great, but a general-purpose 5-weight will do. Add a dry fly or simple rig of two flies under an indicator. A "hopper and dropper" rig works great during the summer.

A fly-anglers stands on a huge boulder casting into Drift Creek.
A simply dry fly or a nymph under an indicator are good techniques on smaller water.

3. So are the techniques.

  • Throwing small spinners or spoons with spinning tackle can be a good way to get to the bottom of deeper pools.
  • Dry flies or nymphs under an indicator can cover skinny water and riffles.
  • Carry both kinds of set ups, and you'll be ready for anything.
  • If you're going to be catching and releasing, you may not even need a net. Instead, try a quick flick to remove the hook without removing the fish from the water. Switching out treble hooks that usually come attached to lures with single barbless hooks makes this much easier.

4. You can often fish close to home. There are small streams in locations ranging from valley floors to mountain foothills. Chances are good there's one not too far from you.

5. Chances are good you'll have the place to yourself. Many small streams and creeks are overlooked and can offer a chance for solitude, as well as fine fishing.

6. It's easy to drop-in for a few quick casts. No need to plan an all-day trip with the associated travel time, lunch, snacks and coolers. It's easy to grab your rod and a small tackle bag, and spend an hour or two exploring a nearby stream.

7. Small stream cutthroats are famously feisty – the are aggressive in taking your fly or lure, and once hooked put up a good fight.

If you decide small stream trout fishing might be for you, here are a few things to consider before you go:‌

  • An angler holds their rod high while netting a fish -- river banks covered in snow
    While many small streams close in winter to protect salmon and steelhead smolts, some remain open year-round.
    Be sure to check the regulations before you fish.
    • Streams and creeks with anadromous fish populations (salmon, steelhead) may be closed part of the year to protect migrating smolts.
    • Other rivers and streams without ocean-bound smolts may remain open all year.
  • Don't harass smolts and other juvenile fish you encounter. You might find groups of smolts or smaller fish hanging out in slower, deeper water, and they can be pretty persistent in chasing your lure. Don't keep targeting the little guys and move to another spot on the river.
  • Watch summer water temperatures. During peak summer temperatures, small streams don't have a lot of water in them and what's there can heat up quickly. When fish start feeling the heat, give them a break by following these warm weather fishing guidelines.
  • Respect private property. There can be plenty of access to smaller rivers and streams through public land or private timber holdings that allow walk-in access. But many streams cut through private property, as well. Don't trespass on private land without permission.
  • Make other plans for dinner. These generally aren't big fish waters. And even in locations where you can harvest a couple of fish, they may not feed the whole family.
  • Send ODFW your fishing photos. We'd love to see photos of you, where you were fishing and the fish you caught. And there's a chance your photo could be used on the ODFW website or social media channels, or in signs, brochures and other outreach materials. Use this form to submit your photos.