Through their multiple functions, refuges may be important for stream‐living fishes, particularly during stressful events such as seasonal low flow or drought. Coastal Cutthroat Trout Oncorhynchus clarkii clarkii is an ideal study organism to understand the importance of refuge. During seasonal low flow, lower water levels limit access to refuge and emigration, survival of fish is low, and predation risk is high. Under these conditions, we studied patterns of cover use from field observations and tested predictions from multiple hypotheses about cover use in a semi‐natural experiment. Boulders were the main cover selected by trout in natural streams. Trout disproportionately used cover near deeper water, and they selected larger‐sized cover in shallower water. Trout showed plasticity to switch among behaviours, concealing under cover and emigrating as first options, followed by grouping, and then habitat shifting. Lack of feeding and growth suggested that perceived threat of predation was a more important driver of behaviour than foraging. Emigration was also linked to cover, with higher levels of emigration associated with less cover availability, revealing a potential link between refuge and demography through emigration. Except for feeding, the intensity of alternative behaviours can increase or decrease depending on refuge availability. Collectively, findings of this work indicate that cover can be considered a critical limiting resource along with other fundamental resources of food and space for stream‐living fish.