Small Stream Recon Part II

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Photos by Louis Cahill

By Jason Tucker

More tips on finding small streams that pay off big!

For the sake of space we split the subject of small-stream recon into two parts. In the previous installment we discussed using state websites, online maps, printed maps and atlases, and guidebooks to find small-stream fishing. Click here to read it if you missed it.


Online maps and and phone apps are getting better and better, and service providers are continually expanding service even into the backcountry. Google maps is a great tool to use at home with a guidebook and DeLorme atlas. You can mark spots on the map, then open the app on your phone and follow the directions all the way to your stream. It even has GPS connectivity that allows it to work in areas without coverage.

Another useful app available for a subscription is OnX Maps. It is not a navigation app. Instead it identifies public lands and private land ownership and shows where you are on the landscape. You can positively identify unmarked public lands you can use for access, and identifies landowners in case you feel like asking for permission. It was developed for hunters, but now even real estate agents use it to accurately identify property boundaries. I think it will open up a lot of water to anglers who never realized there was public access to certain streams.

Fly Shops and Friends

I’m lumping these two resources together for a reason. Both can be great sources of intel, but you need to be careful not to abuse their largesse. Fly shops are in the business of promoting their fishery, and will have local maps, information on water conditions, hatches and flies, and sell guidebooks and other useful tools.

However, they are often promoting larger systems with well-known access points. Think that big trout stream that runs next to the paved highway or county road, gets stocked on a regular basis and is almost solid with canoes and tubers on holiday weekends. They are often a bit more reticent to talk about small streams for good reason. If you can somehow demonstrate respect for the resource and the ability to keep your mouth closed they may be more forthcoming.

Friends can be an even more touchy area. A lot of angling friendships have ended by someone burning a spot they were told in confidence. None of us own our secret spots, but when you find one it is a treasure you don’t and should not want to broadcast to the world. It can be heartbreaking after having a place to yourself for years to suddenly find that every time you go there’s a car parked at the access. There are some places I never go to on my own because they were shown to me by friends who regard it as their secret.

You need to be able to gauge whether a spot is truly “secret”, or whether it sees regular use by other anglers.

You also need to gauge accurately your friendships and know or even ask whether your friend will mind if you go back to the spot without them. Sometimes even asking can leave a bad taste. Tread lightly. They don’t own the spot of course, but if you didn’t personally put in the work and boot leather to find it, show some respect for their knowledge they’ve generously shared with you. Know when to keep your mouth shut, and when it is ok to go back. Be a friend and share your spots if you feel you can trust them in return. Don’t just be a taker.

Social Media

Facebook, Instagram, and online forums can all be resources for finding new places to fish. They have also been responsible for a lot of hot-spotting and spot-burning. Private Facebook groups can be a great place to exchange pictures and information. Learn the rules for each group, be a good citizen, and above all don’t spot-burn. A lot of good folks will share a spot via direct message if you promise to not broadcast it to the world. If you plan to share photos then learn how to turn off geographic information in the metadata so you’re not broadcasting GPS coordinates to the world. I don’t like social media as a means to find fishing spots as it has been abused so badly by some, but it is here to stay, so learn to be a good citizen, be willing to give if you want to receive, try to exchange specific information via private message, and learn to keep a secret.


I lived in Northern Michigan for over thirty years, and fished over one hundred days a year for nearly a decade. In all that time I was unable to get to all the small streams I wanted to fish even within ten miles of my house. There was simply too much to get to, and always some great hatch or run to fish. There are still places I heard mentioned at the general store or whispered about at a campfire at night that I never fished but would sure like to.

My eyes and ears are open at all times when it comes to small stream fishing. No matter where I go or what I’m doing I always take note of small streams I run across, and pay attention to the stray kernels of information I’ve heard various locals mention, or guys at bait shops talking too loud about a spot they think is common knowledge, or stopped to talk to that kid with the stringer of oversize brook trout traipsing down the road from a creek that seems too small to bother with. I have found small streams while hunting mushrooms and while hunting deer. One small creek near my house I never paid attention to because it flowed through a campground and was tiny, but when I checked it out there was a thirty inch brown sitting in broad daylight, and when I waded up to the beaver dam above the road crossing there were fifteen inch brookies hitting my flies. One day driving between jobs I passed two guys fishing a culvert on a dirt road on a creek so small it didn’t seem worth looking at. I stopped to ask how the fishing was. They complained that the fishing was slow and the fish were small, but when I looked in their bucket they had two twenty inch browns in it. After work I went to an access two roads down and hooked up on something on a streamer that promptly broke me off.

I know a lot of anglers don’t have that local edge. If you’re driving several hours from a major metro area to do your fishing it can be hard to explore.

It’s easy to go to that big familiar river with lots of fish and good hatches. Yeah, you’ve heard of other streams, but you’re not sure of where to go or if it will be any good. I’m encouraging you to take a chance and be pleasantly surprised. I have gone on bushwhacks and been terribly disappointed and bug-bitten. But more often I have been amazed at how great the fishing is. There are some stretches of stream that look impenetrable and unfishable, but I have pushed upstream through the jungle and spiders until I found a stretch open enough to fish, and that one stretch made up for all that effort, or at least until I heard the sound of a bear tearing a stump apart as the light was failing. I snipped off my fly in the twilight and waded out as quietly as I could.

Jason writes the fine blog Fontinalis Rising

Jason Tucker

Gink & Gasoline
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3 thoughts on “Small Stream Recon Part II

  1. Good article. I hearld from pre-internet days and really dislike the fishing forums. Don’t get me wrong, some great fly-tying, and general fishing talk. But some guys just can’t help themselves and have a need to broadcast their latest conquests on-line along with virtually everything but GPS co-ordinates on how to get there.
    I’ve also seen some outstanding fisheries ruined by guys who put daily diaries and photos on the net. Yes, they are after “free” fishing gear and fame, but don’t seem to care about who they tread on to get there. A legend in their own mind.
    Yes, you need to be very careful who you share information with! I’ve learned the hard way. Took a “friend” to a spot that took me days to find; he promised to keep the easy way in secret. The week after, I arrived at the spot, only to find him and another guy fishing the run I had worked so hard to find. Yep, my fault, but I never talked fishing with him again.
    Anyway, good article.

  2. Jason,

    Since you are a fellow Yooper, I’ll share this in case you think about going back. I fished many streams there, some you won’t even find on a map and it was great (50 years ago). I now live in NC so decided to take a group of friends up there. I’m sure you know they now have designated blue ribbon trout streams and we fished the Sturgeon and the East Branch of the Ontonagon. Minimum size is 15″ and we did not even catch a 5″ trout. Apparently poaching is as rampant there as it is in NC. A little luck in a couple smaller creeks I won’t name. The UP has become a great place to visit for beauty, but I won’t recommend to anyone for fishing.

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