Urban Fly-Fishing

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It's Just Great To Be Out Here! Photo by Louis Cahill

It’s Just Great To Be Out Here! Photo by Louis Cahill

By Karl Kortemeier

Want a new adventure? Want to fish to unstocked, naturally reproducing, native fish?

Want to fish water that rarely sees another fisherman? And is probably less than a few miles from home?  If this sounds like a blast, then urban fishing is for you.  So what is urban fishing? I define it as fishing natural waters within city limits of any modern metro area.  My adventures in urban fishing started a few years back when I sat down at my vise; because, I didn’t have time to drive to one of my favorite mountain trout streams. After a few flies, I took a break by looking at Google Earth for some armchair exploring.  The main screen displayed my current location. I live in Decatur, GA, which is part of Metro Atlanta.   As you would expect, Decatur is a bustling community of cars, traffic, barking dogs, and loud music.  But, thanks to Google Earth, I noticed that there are also blue lines, Tons of them!  Blue lines indicate creeks, streams and other waterways.  I was amazed, by all of the water that runs right under our feet and next to our homes and businesses in almost any urban area.  This got me thinking, “What if I could fish any time within minutes of my home?”

I zoomed in and focused on a possible candidate. I grabbed my fly rod and headed to an access point, the closest being Park and Putt, a local beer store.  After buying a beer, I talked to the guy behind the counter.  His furry eyebrows twitched when he saw my fly rod.

“You want to do what?” he asked, incredulously. “That creek has nothing but sewage and trash in it.  If you catch anything the next beer is on me.”

I headed through a field of kudzu and a broken fence to get to the stretch I planned to fish.  The water was crystal clear and ran over a sand bottom.  Every 50 to 100 yards the sand was broken by sections of stone riffles or old sections of stonework, very similar to many of the mountain trout streams I have fished.  I put on a small yellow popper and got to work.  My first cast was engulfed by a small bluegill.  I went on to catch fish after fish.   I caught close to two dozen fish within a few hours of fishing.  Every fish was beautiful and brightly colored.  The reds and blues of the sunfish looked neon against the verdant growth along both shores.  I even caught two small bass.  Each fish jumped on the popper like it was the first they had seen.  I never went back for my beer.  I figured the store clerk wouldn’t believe me anyway.

Since that first trip, I have learned a few things about fishing these small streams. 

In Atlanta, we are graced with the Chattahoochee.  It is an amazing tail water trout fishery all on its own. The ‘Hooch, as it is fondly known, is an urban river in its own right; but for this article, let’s focus on the smaller warm water feeder streams.  When I look at Google Earth, I first look for the blue lines.  Then I switch to the satellite image to see the size of the water.  Any waterway that is 5 to 10 feet wide is worth looking at.  As I drive to work or if I am out with family, I am constantly making mental notes about streams I want to look at.  My wife and kids roll their eyes every time I go scampering into a sewage drainage to look at a creek.  It’s part of the fun.

Once you find a waterway that shows potential, it is time to figure out a decent place to park and a way to access the stream.  Oftentimes, appealing creeks and streams pass through city parks and public spaces.  However, there are typically no boat ramps or central access points for truly urban streams.  Consider having someone drop you off or using Uber (thanks for the idea, Louis!).  Last but not least, don’t forget how handy a bicycle can be.

When should you go?  I enjoy fishing urban streams mid-Summer through the first cool days of Fall.  I prefer this time of year, because the water levels get lower which concentrates the fish.  There are also tons of insects in the air, and the fish will readily strike top waters.

Watch the rain!  These streams are hugely influenced by rainfall.  Because of all of the nearby impervious surfaces (read:  concrete), the rainwater flows immediately into these drainages.  If it rains, I usually wait a few days before I go.  If you do go before the water clears, the fishing is doable but tough. You can’t see what’s under your feet, and the fish act very sluggish.

Always wear good wading shoes.  I typically wet wade. These creeks have a beauty all their own, but the stream bed is full of urban artifacts.  Forget waders.  They will get torn to shreds by the pieces of metal and briers that you’ll find on your adventure.  On a recent family trip, I turned to help my older son out with a fish and when I turned around my 2 year old was wielding a 12” long butcher knife he found in the sand.  Can you say, “Hello Chucky?”

What kind of tackle should you use?  I use my 4-weight trout rod, but I overload the rod with a 5 or even 6 weight line.  Most of the casts are going to be up close and very short, 10’ or less.  You want your rod to load closely with very little line out.  I also have a Sage Smallmouth rod.  This rod works extremely well because it loads up close and is very accurate.  I like a shorter leader.  A 7 ½ foot 2x or 3x works great.  I custom make a 6’ leader, or you can cut the 7½’ leader to size.  Fly selection is simple.  I almost always use a size 4 or 6 popper if Largemouth Bass are present.  The size 6 will draw strikes from the bass, but the bream can still get it into their mouths.  If I am fishing a tiny stream, say around 5’ wide, I will go with the smaller bug, sometimes down to a size 8.  Yellow or chartreuse are my go-to colors. I will also sometimes use a small nymph as a dropper off the popper.  This combination is fantastic. I use this on the larger creeks when casting is a bit easier. I think the popper often pulls in the fish, but they end up eating the nymph.  A small size 8 to 12 nymph is perfect.  Any of the popular trout nymphs will work.

What about watercraft?  If the stream is large enough, I will put in my kayak or canoe.  The kayak works extremely well when you want to cover a lot of water or have time for a through trip.  There will be lots of times that you will have to drag over shoals, but the inconvenience is greatly outweighed by being able to carry your gear, cold drinks, etc.


On one of my last urban trips, I wheeled my kayak on a city park path, down a dirt drainage, and across an in-fill lot before I got to a feeder stream of the creek I wanted to fish.  I was soaked in sweat by the time I got there.  All I kept thinking about was the cool adventure awaiting me.  I ended up dragging the kayak about 100 yards down the feeder creek into the main stream.  At the confluence I noticed a bunch of green plywood shacks up and down the hillside.  There were chickens, and a garden off to one side. As I was getting situated, an elderly man came out of one of the shacks.  His back was arched by age, and his neck muscles strained so he could look straight ahead as he walked.

“You goin’ fishin’?” he asked.

I said, “Yes sir,” and he pointed down stream at the first bend.

“That spot there,” he said pointing his finger at and old cinder block building that was half in the creek. “That spot right behind there.  That’s the spot to fish.”

I thanked him, and after I got going a bit he yelled, “Be careful! Some of these folks that live here don’t like people pokin’ around.  They scared someone will kick ‘em out.” I assured him I would mind my own business as I waved and paddled on.

Another item that surprises some people is the amount of garbage. 

Many of the eddies or stream pileups are full of bottles, tires, discarded dolls, etc. My son always asks, “Why is there is so much garbage?”  I tell him to think of them as ornaments.  The streams are beautiful places.  It’s a shame that people abuse them.

A few last thoughts:  The fish in these streams are naturally reproducing, wild fish.  They are a blast to catch and deserve fisherman’s attention.  They are scrappy fighters that are willing and able to pounce on any reasonable presentation.  Don’t overlook the local streams; they can make a broken day into a great one. I can almost guarantee you will see very few people even though the press of humanity is only yards away.

Go out and find a local urban stream, grab a few poppers, and have a blast!

For further reading: (These are not specifically about urban streams, but the information is great)

Fishing Small Streams with a Fly Rod” by Charles R. Meck

Sunfishes” and “Bassin’ with a Fly Rod” by Jack Ellis (A must read for any warm water fly fisherman)

Stream Smallmouth Fishing” by Tim Holschlag

Fly Fishing Techniques for Smallmouth Bass” by Harry Murray

Fly Fishing for Smallmouth in Rivers and Streams” by Bob Clouser

Karl Kortemeier
Gink & Gasoline
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24 thoughts on “Urban Fly-Fishing

  1. Awesome! I have a few places here in Denver to get my fix when I have to head out to the store for the “honey-do list”. My wife sometimes wonders why it takes me an extra hour tor so hit the grocery store haha! Urban fishing can be a blast!

  2. There is a small creek that runs through the Columbus State University campus… after a long day of sitting in class, or if I have enough time between classes you can usually find me wet wading this creek. I have yet to get any of the bass to eat, but the feisty sun fish are a lot of fun on my 3 weight.

  3. Great article.

    I love fishing the Urban streams here in Upstate NY, It is interesting to see the remains of what once were major manufacturing areas. There is a Beauty in the way nature exists, reclaims, and thrives in these areas. And the fishing is Awesome.

  4. I have an issue: my “secret” suburban pond is not so secret anymore! A buddy and I started fishing a neighborhood pond out of boredom and found some pretty good sunfish and bass fishing. After answering thousands of “there’s actually fish in there?!”s more people have caught on. It’s a bummer that the best spots are often taken, but I’m glad to see more people fishing, especially children, who might never fish if they didn’t have a pond a few blocks away. Something I think this article is missing is the way these urban gems can spread the sport we love to people who can’t get to a trout stream or bonefish flat. It’s not a glamorous destination, but my not so secret pond is pretty great.

  5. Thanks for the article. Done the urban thing more than once or twice, even had great fishing in exotic locales (Florida and Mexico come to mind first) without boat or guide, just fishing near where I was staying. Your advice to use a shorter leader is spot on. There’s a real place for 7 1/2 and 6 ft. leaders, especially when throwing poppers, 3-6 ft. leaders when using fast sinking lines. Overlining your rod is great advice too. IMO, people should have 2 lines for each of their rods, if they can afford them. One for the rod’s recommended line weight and one that’s a line size heavier, for certain uses, such as fishing poppers and large streamers and fishing short to very short distances. These lines don’t have to cost $90-$100.You can get very good fly lines for $40-$60.

  6. Great write up Karl. All the new subdivisions here in Toronto have holding ponds to prevent street water from flooding the rivers and creeks. They are almost completely ignored, much to my delight, and are full of carp, koi, crappie, sunfish, and large, hungry largemouth that have never seen a fly before. I’m constantly telling anglers about the great fishing in their own “backyards”, but keep the locations to myself…all it takes is access to Google Earth and a sense of urban adventure!

  7. Urban and suburban streams definitely need more fishing love, but make sure to wear waders, or if you wet wade, make sure you don’t have any open cuts. This is no joke. A lot of these streams are rich in fecal coliform bacteria, and hepatitis, among other things due to sewage runoff. That scrape from a rock could turn into a nasty infection.

    Not trying to discourage anyone, but this ain’t fishin’ in a pristine mountain stream! Be aware!

  8. The DFW area is awesome, but getting your shots I highly recommend. You wouldn’t believe what I’ve seen in the water. I get mine on a regular basis, it’s not from fishing, I’m just clumsy when I work.

  9. Great article Karl. We are very lucky to have all these great streams in our backyard. I have found my best luck in urban areas that have neighborhood ponds. Some of these ponds never get fished and if they do they get hammered from the bank . This read got me going I’m gonna head out before the sun sinks and wet a line.

  10. great read thanks. while where I live, I don’t have those particular structures, I do have pedestrian sidewalks and lanes of traffic and really tricky bushes trees and such. I got tired of backcasting over two lanes of traffic and the hook up with cars…they’re a b*tch to try and turn with a five weight, and so I’ve lost a few lines. So, probably over 20 years ago, I began teaching myself underhand casting and related single-handed spey casts, my fishing improved and I can pretty much cast with a wall behind me.
    I relate to the fact that you can, in urban fishing, get into places where you probably won’t see another fisherman, let alone a fly fisherman, and the fish haven’t seen the newest 2016 popper, or the 1980’s model for that matter. So, there’s no fishing pressure and the rewards are daily and bountiful.
    Thanks Gink and Gasoline for sharing a little known but consistently productive areas known as ‘urban fishing’.

  11. I have often thought of fishing the South River where it flows out of Lake Constitution off Moreland Ave. I have fished many of the intown Atlanta Lakes and ponds with mixed results. Apartment ponds can hold good numbers of bass. Thanks for the write up.

    • I’ve never fished the south river that far north. I’ve been to constitution lakes. It bet the fishing is good.

  12. My wife rolls her eyes at me too. I actually got the biggest trout of my life behind a shopping mall, on a stretch where the only access point is basically the unofficial dump for the trailer park near by. On another stream I took smallmouth taking shelter in the aluminum body of a washing machine that somehow made it into the river. I still wear waders though. I’ve seen too many waterborne infections mess up people’s legs to take the wet wade risk.

  13. I’ll be honest. I typically wet wade. Almost everyone I talk to and many of the above comments are about the dangers of water born illness. I’m going to look into the dangers of wet wading these urban streams. Once I get some good information, I’ll report back to everyone.


  14. I’m in Decatur as well, and I’m always scanning for blue puddles on the map. I get a little scared of snakes in the tall weeds this time of year and if I’m trespassing in certain places. I almost certainly am, but no sign/no foul? I usually stick to finding urban ponds, but the stream search looks like a good idea too. I get a little weird about wet wading the dirty water too, which probably is why I stick with more pond water. Don’t forget your gurglers in the flybox. I’ve had lots of success on black ones in the urban waters!


    • I didn’t talk about urban lakes in the article, but that is definitely a great place to look for spots to fish. I will tie up some black gurglers to have in my box. Thank you for the suggestion.

      I hope to see you on the water!

  15. Not a small stream story because I live in NYC. When on an evening harbor cruise on the East River with some friends. while I was waiting for them to arrive I noticed the lamp over the the dock was attracting baitfish which was in turn attracting striped bass. They’d come up swimming into the lighted dock slip and then disappear. They didn’t appear harvest legal, which is 28″ but they like they were big enough to put up a fight. The next evening I went back with my 8wt fly rod and caught and released about thirty of them before I got tired. It was almost like fishing for really big trout. Cast a streamer, drag it back, a striper would rise and grab it.

    For freshwater, there’s Prospect Park lake. They have some huge chain picket ther because it’s catch and relese. They’re bigger than a lot of pike. There’s one big girl we call Hannabel Lector. Because she likes a bluegill with a nice baby largemouth. She’s about 36 inches.

  16. Enjoyed this article…it brought back memories of my childhood in Portland, OR…we had a small creek about 5 blocks away–perfect for a bike ride with rod in hand…started fishing it with a friend when we were 10 yrs. old… while our parents didn’t like us to go there, we often left early before they were up… hitting the stream, we often searched for crawdads for their “tail bait” and find success of several 6 to 8″ trout… I have to say that urban creek got me started…haven’t looked back since…

  17. Pingback: Urban Fly Fishing: Sandton Edition - by Stuart Van Der Linden » Vagabond Fly - Fly Fishing & Lifestyle Magazine

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