Catching Big Trout In Small Streams: A Definitive Guide

Sometimes big things come in small packages and that’s why we love fishing in small streams.  You never know how big a trout may be when you pull it from a deep hole.  Impressive fish swim in local creeks that you can leap in a single bound.

Not all streams and creeks are created equal.  Only streams with the perfect conditions produce lunker trout that push 16 inches or larger.  With a bit of research, you’ll soon discover what streams near you have the ability to support large trout.

In this article, we’ll go over what we look for in small streams and rivers that consistently hold big trout and get less pressure than other trophy fishing spots.

Chances are you live near just such a stream so don’t miss out on catching big trout from these overlooked waters.  

What to look for

To tell you the truth, finding streams that hold larger trout is going to take some trial and error.  However, there are some consistent features among top producing streams and we’ll discuss each one.


The most reliable trait of a stream that holds large fish is whether or not it is a tributary to a larger river or lake.  Big trout have to come from somewhere, so if the stream you’re looking at feeds into larger waters known for trophy sized fish, then you are on the right tract.  

Trout often migrate up tributaries for spawning and feeding and then return to the larger rivers and lakes for food and safety.  When possible, trout stay in tributaries for long periods of time before being forced back downstream by unsuitable conditions. Tributaries with deep pockets and pools tend to maintain quality fishing throughout the season.

With that in mind, use mapping tools to locate streams that feed into healthy river systems and large lakes.  Fish can travel miles up streams assuming there isn’t any impassible obstructions.  However, we have better success hooking into big trout within a mile or two of any confluences or inlets.  


It takes lots of food to grow big trout.  Everything from small insects to minnows are on the menu.  The challenge is figuring out what kind of forage a stream can serve up to these hungry fish.

Here are a couple things to keep in mind when determining the forage production of a stream.

First, high elevation streams have a shorter season for providing quality forage to trout.  Harsh winters dramatically reduce the growth rates of trout and the abbreviated warm weather is not long enough to make up for it.  

Severe weather at high elevation creates a boom or bust environment that greatly limits available forage.  Although, there are exception to this rule so don’t discount a potential fishing spot until you take a closer look.

Second, look for a complete food chain.  Abundant insect hatches combined with the presence of crustaceans and minnows means big trout can feast on high calorie prey.

Recognizing the available forage takes a “boots on the ground” approach or you can ask local anglers what they know.   


The terrain where a stream flows has a huge impact on the quality and size of the trout in it.  Some creeks cascade down rugged canyons and others cut lazy paths through miles of grassy meadows.  Trout are amazing fish and can swim up powerful currents but a 15 foot waterfall will block their way.  

We use Google Maps to look at streams before heading out to fish.  It’s a great tool for spotting large cascades or impassible irrigation culverts.  For streams fed strictly by rain or snow run-off, fishing above a large cascade or water fall is usually a no-go for us.  The only exception is for streams fed by large lakes or reservoirs.  Trout are then able to populate above and below impassible obstructions.


We’ve been talking about small streams but how small is too small?  Well, that depends.  A small stream that meanders through farm country is a lot different than a cascading mountain creek fed by snow melt, even if they are technically the same size.

As a general guide, larger streams do produce larger fish.  There’s simply more food and more space for fish to live and grow.   

Small creeks are also prone to seasonal fluctuation depending on the water source.  A mountain stream tends to run low in late summer as snow pack diminishes while a stream running through irrigated farm land in flat valleys may remain more consistent year-round.

So, what size stream is best for finding big trout?  Unfortunately, there just isn’t a hard and fast rule.  We usually look for streams which are classified as small rivers for mountain regions and moderately deep creeks in farm country that might be 8 feet wide.

Stream size is the least reliable means for predicting trout size and informed anglers assess all the traits of the stream to track down the best prospects.

Stream fishing tactics

Fishing small streams requires a different approach than fishing large rivers.  Large trout in small streams are more wary and success depends on a more subtle approach.

Whether you are fly fishing or casting small lures, follow these tips to increase the odds of hooking up with big trout.

  • Make a stealthy approach.  For trout to survive predatory attacks in the narrow confines of small streams, they must be wary.  Anglers silhouetted against the sky are easily visible to trout swimming below and your presence will turn off a bite.  Always approach a fishing spot as low as possible.  If you can, cast into the stream while standing several feet back from the bank to avoid detection.
  • Use light tackle.  Light line and ultralight rods and reels will allow you to cast small baits.  Finesse and a natural presentation are key to getting a strike from big trout.  Don’t know what the best fishing line for trout is?  Check out our post on the perfect fishing line for trout in all situations.
  • Avoid wading into the stream where you are fishing.  It’s pretty difficult to move through the water without splashing and it’s easy for trout to pick up on your movement in a small stream.  If you must wade through the water, take your time and only move when you’re done fishing that spot.
  • Timing is critical.  Small streams have shorter windows of opportunity.  Early spring and fall are ideal.  Tolerable water temperature combined with insect hatches and less intense sunshine create a “Goldilocks” set of conditions that are just right for above average sized trout.  Spring and fall also coincide with most spawning periods for different trout species.
  • Get off the beaten path.  Do yourself a favor and put in the effort to find hidden spots.  Sometimes it takes a long walk but fishing in the same spots as everyone else means settling for left overs.  Find a fishing spot on the stream that is difficult to get to and more often than not, you’ll be rewarded with bigger trout. 

Where do big trout hang out

No matter what stream you are fishing in, you can reliably find trout in a hand full of spots.  The biggest fish in the stream have more discerning tastes in location though.  

Random casts will catch fish occasionally but a well thought out plan of attack in prime spots yields the best results for savvy anglers.  Spend more time catching trout by learning where trout tend to be. Below is a quick lesson on reading water but read our other article about finding fish in streams and rivers to learn more.

  • Deep pockets and pools.  Deep water gives big trout space to escape strong currents and the hot sun.  Pools also act as a buffet line.  Upstream forage washes into deep, slow moving water where picky trout can gorge themselves on prime forage.  Pools usually form at the base of cascades or fast moving water.  Find small deep pockets behind large boulders or fallen trees.
  • Current seams.  Places in streams where strong current passes by slower moving water often hold bigger fish.  Trout feed on the edge of current seams created by eddies or tail-outs while conserving energy in slow water. 
  • Under cut banks.  Under cut banks are a common occurrence on the outside turn of winding streams.  Not only do these areas provide protection to fish from sun and predators, but these spots also funnel food right to them.

Best lures for catching trout in streams

While any bait or lure might catch trout in a stream, there are a few standout lures that help us catch big trout consistently.  Ultimately, the best lure is the one you have the most confidence in, and therefore, know how to fish it well.  

For those of you looking to stock up on the best small stream trout lures, here are our 5 all time favorites.

1. Rooster Tail

The first lure we grab for any stream is a small 1/16 to 1/8 ounce Rooster Tail.  Black with a silver blade is great for overcast weather.  Try a brown and gold version for sun beaten days.  

In-line spinners like the Rooster Tail are hard for trout to resist.  They give just the right amount of flash and feathery finesse to induce strikes from trophy trout.  

We like to fish Rooster Tails perpendicular to the current or slightly upstream depending on the stream conditions.  Let it sweep down the current and retrieve it through pools, pockets and current seems.  Don’t be afraid to let it sink before retrieving to reach trout holding on the bottom.

2.  Panther Martin

These little spinners send out plenty of vibration and flash to grab the interest of any trout.  When fishing deep pools, you can use up to a 1/4 ounce Panther Martin.  Size down when fishing shallower stretches where subtle presentations are more important than depth.

Panther Martins are a great option for slow moving water.  The blade spins easily when slowly retrieved and the thumping of the blade lets you know it’s working.

3.  Mepps Aglia

When a tiny profile is needed to encourage finicky trout, look no further than the Meeps Aglia in-line spinner.  Use a 1/16 ounce or smaller to delicately cast into small pockets behind boulders or flip to undercut banks.  

Mepps lures cast accurately with an ultra light setup but they do fish shallow compared to other lures on the list.  In small streams this is actually a benefit.  We’re partial to the plain gold or silver blade but other color options are available.

4.  Kastmaster Spoons

Not all small stream fishing calls for using a spinner lure.  Sometimes the erratic tumbling action of a Kastmaster is the ticket.  It’s particularly effective for casting into deep holes and tail-outs.  

In small streams, we prefer the action and balance of the 1/12 or 1/8 ounce spoons.  It’s still small enough to avoid spooking trout but heavy enough to sink near the bottom.  Be careful though, Kastmaster spoons sink fast and snags are common in rocky streams.

Some of our favorite colors are chrome-blue, gold and rainbow trout.

5.  Trout Magnets

These little gems really shine when the flash of spinners fail.  The natural presentation of a Trout Magnet grub is hard for lure-wise trout to resist.  We break these out anytime we are fishing areas with heavy angling pressure and they have yet to fail.

At only a 1/64 ounce, they are best fished below the small foam bobber that’s usually included in trout magnet kits.  This is the ultimate in finesse fishing so use the lightest line possible for line shy trout.

The key with Trout Magnets is getting the small split tail plastic within inches of the bottom where big trout feed.  It may take several bobber adjustments to get this right for each location you’re fishing.  

Start with natural colors like brown or white in clear creeks.  Pink and black are reliable choices for stained water.

Other baits for trout

Many streams are restricted to artificial lures but not all.  For streams open to live bait fishing, there are a few baits we prefer.  

  • Worms:  Easily the most reliable bait out there.  All kinds of fish love worms and that includes trout.  Put a small piece on a single hook with a split shot weight and drift it along the bottom or tip your favorite lure for added scent.
  • Salmon eggs:  One of the most natural baits in a stream is small salmon eggs.  Red or orange eggs both work.  Use the smallest hook possible and put only one or two eggs on the hook.  If possible, try hiding the hook fully in the egg.  Either drift it beneath a float or fish it right along the bottom.
  • Insects:  Big trout eat the largest prey available and nearby insect are like candy to feeding trout.  Crickets are the best in our opinion.  If you can manage to catch a few, put a single cricket on a hook and drift it on the surface near current seams.  Nothing beats watching a large trout suck down a live cricket.

Keep in mind, fishing with bait is not ideal for catch and release.  Trout tend to take in live bait deep and safely removing a hook from the fish is unlikely.

How big do trout get in small streams

We have talked a lot about catching big trout in small streams but how big is big?  Well, size is relative.  An 8 to 10 inch trout from a tiny mountain creek is a trophy.  Yet, in a small lowland stream anything over 14 inches is considered quite the catch. 

However, when you find the perfect small stream or river that has all the right conditions for growing big trout, catching an 18 inch or larger trout is not uncommon.  

Once you put in enough time fishing a local stream, you’ll start to get an idea of its maximum potential.  It also depends on the species that are present in the stream.  Rainbows and cutthroats are common in Pacific Northwest streams and they often reach 16 to 18 inches in quality areas.

Final thoughts

The next time you’re looking for a new trophy fishing spot, don’t pass up what your small local streams might offer.  There is more big trout potential in small streams than you might think.  To top it off, fishing in these tiny streams is simple.  A small selection of lures and a decent ultralight rod and reel is all that’s required.  Plus, the peaceful solitude is worth it.