Philip says the smallest streams are often big in enjoyment.
Brook, burn, creeklet, runnel… they all describe a very small stream. But the term I like best is wee creek. Whether my friend the late Muz Wilson actually coined this phrase is doubtful, but he certainly brought it into modern usage via his Wee Creek Hopper pattern. So when thinking about tiny mountain streams in south-eastern Australia (which Muz loved by the way), ‘wee creeks’ seems a fitting category
These streams really are little. If pressed, I’d say they’re those creeks you can literally straddle in places; a wading boot on each side. It’s tempting to add slightly more substantial waters; what I’d call small streams. But here I’m thinking about waters that are sufficiently insignificant and/ or awkward to fish, that I could give out the GPS coordinates right now and many readers would visit once and not go back, or not bother in the first place.
You might think that little streams are easy, and I’ll grant that sometimes this is true. Quite a few little streams are the nurseries where young trout begin life and try to get ahead; including snatching at any potential meal before the competition does.
But little streams can also be as challenging, exasperating and ultimately rewarding as any water I fish, as I was reminded of on a wee creek in Western Victoria a few weeks ago. It was a fine day, warm enough for shirtsleeves but cool enough to consider carrying a jacket for the likely evening chill.
The mid-afternoon session began, as little stream sessions often do, with a scramble down a steep hillside, trying to bypass the bloody blackberries while not breaking my ankle on a tree root. Though I’d fished this general stretch before, changes to the undergrowth and detouring around a small landslide, meant I wasn’t quite sure what sort of water I would hit. As it turned out, it was bouldery pocket water. Hmmm. The balance workout wasn’t over yet and I regretted I hadn’t got around to taking up Nick Taransky’s slacklining idea.
My default option for wee creeks is dry fly: easy to cast and less likely to snag. Besides, I like to rationalise that surely on a creek where your dry is never more than a couple of feet from the sides and the bottom, it will be noticed and eaten? I fished the first three pockets well with a little Royal Wulff, for no result besides a possible flash just as the current snatched the fly out of one mini tail. In the fourth pocket, I snagged a single trailing blackberry branch which had chosen to droop into the water right in the middle of the bubble-line.
Now, this creek usually isn’t the most prolific of the little streams I fish, but I was starting to acknowledge that four half-decent bits of holding water covered (well, three not including the blackberry snag) hadn’t produced a definite response to the Wulff. With some misgivings, I added a small dark nymph with a tiny tungsten bead 50cm below. The bead ensured the nymph sank quickly – essential in water where a drift may be only a metre or two.
My reluctance to add the nymph had nothing to do with purism. The new setup was at least twice as clumsy, both in terms of casting, and increased snagging potential. True, I could have replaced the Wulff with a hookless indicator, or even fished the nymph with no indicator. But it was a mild day in late spring and I held out hope that the dry would come into favour sooner or later.
After failing to get the flies where I wanted beneath a solitary willow, I was contemplating changing back to a single – the nymph alone maybe? Then the stream broke out into the remains of an old paddock and I had a little more space. Simultaneously, the pocket water was left behind and the creek began to take on a more pools-and-runs character. I managed a lovely three metre drift along a steep grassy edge, the Wulff dipped, and I had my first fish of the day – a colourful 9 inch brown.
Go slow, keep low
Maybe the excitement of the day’s initial success distracted me, because I then made my first big mistake by blundering past the ankle-deep run above in my haste to get to the next pool. Too late I saw shape out of the corner of my eye, and a 14 inch beauty bow-waved up the run into the pool; thereby most likely spooking the pool as well. Bugger!
There’s another thing about wee creeks: the better trout especially can range quite widely in their quest to find the food they need.
Suitably chastened, I slowed down and began carefully covering every patch of water that could conceivably hold a trout, instead of simply skipping to the best bits. I soon got into the right pace and enjoyed it; recognising that my thoroughness also meant I’d have a shorter walk back at the end of the day – a not insignificant consideration in the rough country I was fishing.
I caught a few more small trout, including (finally) one on the Wulff – a fish holding so far under the overhanging grass that I lifted on the sound rather than the sight of a rise.
Eventually, I came to the remains of a fence where a couple of strands of rusty wire neatly blocked a clean shot at the pool above. By now, evening was approaching and as a soft, green light settled over the valley, I hoped I might see a rise or two. The pool was one of the nicest pieces of water I’d seem all day: maybe a metre deep, with the roots of a towering bluegum forming a perfect trout hideout on the right side where the main current flowed in; and with a slow, deep back current on the left. I walked inland to straddle the old fence undetected, crossed into the beginnings of forest once again, then shuffled down the steep bank towards the tail.
Alas, my profile must have been too obvious despite my efforts, and I spooked a small trout from the tail, which promptly shot up into the depths. Although it was likely that the little fish had wrecked the pool, I made a couple of half-hearted casts: nothing. It occurred to me that another factor in wee creek fishing is, with everything else in miniature, you are like a giant. Because the target is so small, you often need to get close, but in doing so, your relatively enormous form is hard to hide. I didn’t have an obvious solution to this problem, other than reminding myself to be even more acutely aware of it.
The shallow run above looked featureless and uninspiring compared to the pool, but I’d learnt my lesson earlier in the day and I fished it as if it was a gem; progressively adding a careful metre to each presentation while staying below bank level. Third cast, the Wulff drifted a little and then quietly vanished. I lifted uncertainly, and was surprised by the pull of a strong trout. This was no 9 incher and although I couldn’t get a clear look at the fish, its boils and swirls as it pulled upstream and towards the far bank, had me wondering if I should’ve checked the dropper tippet for nicks and abrasions. But everything held and I soon had the trout of the day in the net: 15 inches of brown trout. It was clearly a fish which had been around for a while with the odd bit of tail and fin missing, yet still a force on this wee creek.
I released the old battler and just as I did, another good fish rose (finally!) a few metres further up. I scrambled to dry the Wulff and de-slime the nymph, and covered the area of the rise… once, twice, three times. No response. I contemplated continuing upstream in case more fish were rising at last, but the valley floor was darkening at a pace, and I knew the sensible thing to do would be to use the remaining light to navigate back to the car.
This was a solo trip and, assuming safety precautions, fishing little streams is obviously well suited to fishing on your own. Still, there are exceptions and I have a few fishing friends who I’m happy to share a wee creek with (or should that be, who are happy to share with me). This requires plenty of goodwill on behalf of both anglers. If you take turns, each fisher needs to err on the side of magnanimous when it comes to interpreting what a ‘turn’ actually is.
For all sorts of reasons which should be clear after the description of my solo session above, the usual ‘pool for pool’ system isn’t practical. A better approach is to consider what constitutes a fair go, which is usually a stretch rather than a defined feature. For example, on a recent trip with friend Max to a river headwater, the actual pools were so still and clear, you got one cast if you were lucky before you caught a trout, or (more likely) spooked the lot. It was actually the tiny runs and pockets under cascades where success was probable. I’ve fished with Max for decades so there was no issue; we soon got a feel for what was a reasonable go and it was an enjoyable session. However, I wouldn’t have wanted to fish that little stream with just anyone.
Another possibility is leap-frogging: because the water and all the features are in miniature, a short length of wee creek can provide at least the same amount of fishing time as a similar length of a bigger stream. The main obstacle is, really little waters often lack a river flat; and/or easy access in and out is obstructed by dense undergrowth. True, alpine creeks winding through snowgrass or short heath can be practical for skipping each other, but otherwise taking turns is usually less hassle.
The most reliable?
It’s easy to assume that the littlest creeks might be the most tenuous waters for trout to survive in during times of general hardship, but in fact the opposite is usually true. For example, being a long way towards the top of the catchment, wee creeks can often be the least affected by catastrophic floods, because the water simply hasn’t had a chance to gather to dangerous volumes at that early stage in the stream’s life.
Less dramatically, they can have fishable water early in the season when the larger creeks and rivers downstream are too fast and swollen. And following thunderstorms and heavy rain events during the season, the little creeks settle and clear more quickly.
Then, when it gets dry, it’s surprising how resilient these waters are. On many occasions during droughts, I’ve found the lower reaches of a favourite stream dry – even bone dry – and yet the headwater creeks are still trickling through the shade of the steep valleys and undergrowth; cold, spring-fed, and providing an oasis for trout survival. At such times, I may choose to leave the fish in peace, but when conditions improve, I know just where to find some instant action.
Speaking of cold, this is a major strength of most wee creeks: their geography ensures they are usually nice and cool in even the hottest summers. If your regular river is simply too warm for decent fishing, you can be sure that way upstream, a little mountain creek will be chilled.
I hardly ever fish wee creeks in waders, preferring the enhanced agility offered by wet wading (or should that be ‘damp’ wading?) with a good solid pair of boots and quick dry pants. If the thought of snakes bothers you, add a pair of gaiters.
As for rod and line, it’s easy to imagine these little waters are the perfect (if not exclusive) domain for ‘twigs’ or Tenkara, and there is certainly no better place to use either. However on little streams with a bit of overhead space, I often use a 9’6” 4 or 5 weight.
Many might express surprise I’d choose such an outfit on a tiny stream, but the long rod is wonderful for bow-and-arrow casting, flicking, mini roll casts, and reaching. While short rods are very practical rods on streams which flow through virtual tunnels in the vegetation, if there’s any overhead space at all, length can help.
Another appealing element of wee creeks is their sheer extent. If you’re happy to spend at least some fishing time on water you can step across, then that creates an almost exponential range of possibilities. The blue lines on a map that feed the thicker blue lines, are now on the list – and there are more of them than you could hope to explore in a lifetime. Decades in to my flyfishing, I’m casting a fly on a new little stream or three (or at least a new stretch) every year; and most are good enough that I at least think I should go back, even if the accumulated total means that in many cases, one visit will have to do.
But before I get too carried away, I must remind myself that, as stated at the beginning, these wee creeks aren’t for everyone. The access in and out can be hard work (though not always). And there’s rarely room for more than a single cast; sometimes all you can hope for is a dibble off the rod tip. Striking has to be restrained lest you throw the rod tip back against some immovable boulder or branch. And there will places – quite a few in fact – which you simply cannot get a fly into. Not infrequently, I watch through a 6 inch gap in the logs as the king of the stream fins gently below, or I see that unattainable dark shape behind a web of dead branches or dragging blackberry tendrils. (Did I mention my dislike of blackberries?)
Yet as in all flyfishing, there are the successes too – that unusually big trout for such a small stream, or that impossible presentation which you somehow pull off. And of course by definition, it’s all happening up close – a ‘regular’ stream fishing cast on a wee creek would likely land three pools up and out of sight.
As we finish this journey along tiny streams, I think back to the smallest creek I’ve ever fished; a creeklet in western Victoria so narrow, that upon stumbling on it, my brother and I couldn’t believe it contained trout; and then seriously wondered if some of the larger residents we subsequently spotted would have enough room to turn around! It’s a few years now since I last visited. I wonder if the trout are still there?