Spring fly fishing is like your fifth piece of chocolate cake. It’s enticing, delicious, and sweet, but by the time you’re done you find yourself wondering what in the hell just happened.
With cake, you’re wondering how you fit piece number five down your gullet. With fishing? Well, you’re usually left wondering how a trout can be infernally picky after an entire winter of sparse food options, or you’re left pondering how it’s possible to fish a blanket BWO hatch.
Of course middle ground exists for both instances described above, but what fun is it to write about three “meh” pieces of chocolate cake and a so-so day of fly fishing?
None at all.
So in the spirit of extremes and following the tendency anglers have to lean towards one or the other (a day of fishing rarely spoken of as “alright.” It’s either “incredible” or “I don’t wan’t to talk about it.) I thought it a pertinent time to put on my “fly fishing professional” hat and dole out some spring fly fishing knowledge*. The following are a few lessons I’ve learned over the years I’ve spent fishing in the Rockies and doing my best imitation of someone who knows what he’s doing while standing in a river.
*Disclaimer: While some folks mistakenly think I’m good at fly fishing, I’m 99% sure I’m the worst fly fisherman in America who gets paid to write about the sport.
Get your stalk on
Spring fly fishing (pre-runoff) means cold, low, and clear water. If you’re serious about catching fish, you have to be serious about not spooking them. After all, it’s not only the fish that are out and about after a long winter.
Bald eagles, ospreys, and herons all dine on trout – and all three birds are just as eager as you are for some solid spring fishing.
Birds have a huge advantage on us human anglers, what with their crazy good vision and ability to fly. We have to make up for our lack of wings and good eyes with careful movement and polarized sunglasses. We do that by stalking trout, a term I believe to have been created by fishermen who wanted to sound more macho than the average angler who simply “pursues” animals with brains no larger than a strawberry.
Kirk Deeter, a loud voice in the fly fishing world, had this to say about stalking trout in a Fly Talk post for Field & Stream:
“The number-one trick to catch wary trout in calm waters has nothing to do with how far you can cast, or even how well you might choose a fly pattern; it has everything to do with concealing yourself and making a natural presentation.”
Fly fishing is all about inserting oneself into the natural flow of things and fooling fish into thinking a clump of hair and hackle is in fact a living part of the natural world. That aspect of the sport is exacerbated in spring, when it’s not uncommon to see anglers stalking a hole like I was in the below photo.
Army-crawling in waders and throwing a steeple cast at 15-inch rainbow trout isn’t high on my list of ideal fishing situations, but it beats the hell out of freezing and/or not catching fish.
Never, ever leave the house without an Adams
This bit of advice is short. But it’s important enough that it gets its own section in this guide. When you’re on the river in the spring, you’re a fool if you’re not packing at least a dozen Adams’s, sizes 14-20. And before you balk at my saying you should pack around size 14 flies in March, when most BWO hatches are in the 18-22 size range, consider the following story.
I was out on Utah’s Lower Provo River last week, doing some after-work fishing. I got on the water around 5 in the afternoon, and there were about a billion midges on the water. Fish were rising steadily, so I tied on a size 26 parachute midge and set to work.
45 minutes and 5 flies later, I still hadn’t had a bite.
My midges were the exact same size as what was buzzing in the air; my presentation was as perfect as I could make it; and most importantly, I knew the fish in the river couldn’t see me.
But I was doing something wrong because I wasn’t catching a thing.
I was about to just leave the river and head home for an early dinner when I decided to throw on a size 14 Adams, just for kicks. What’s gonna happen, I won’t catch fish? I thought.
On my second cast, this beauty came to hand.
I went on to catch five more fish that size, including one that ran about 17 inches but escaped before it could be photographed.
So what does this anecdote prove? To me, it underscores the unpredictability of fly fishing, the feeding patterns of trout on any given day, and the absolute power that the Adams has. Seriously, the fly is magic.
Light tackle is a must
For a while, light tackle seemed a fad. After all, who would really fish with the 000wt fly rod Sage rolled out a few years ago? (The TXL-F, which isn’t made anymore, was replaced by the “Little One” in 2016. A shame, considering the TXL-F was my favorite rod Sage came up with since the LL.)
Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to see anglers with 3wts out and about on major Western rivers. The trout contingent of the fly fishing world seems to be reeling itself back (pun intended) from its obsession with broomstick-like rods to more sensible trout-friendly actions. We’re even seeing specialty lines produced for light tackle – namely, the Rio LightLine.
Circling back to the earlier point about fish being spooky in the calm, clear water of spring, it’s imperative to have the ability to make soft, light casts. Light tackle is the best way to accomplish this. Unless it’s windy (or you’re in Wyoming – the wind never stops in the Cowboy State) or chucking big streamers, there’s little need for anything heavier than a 4wt rod for spring fishing.
I switched over to an old Winston 3wt IM6 at the start of spring this year, and I’ve definitely seen more success using that rod than my usual Boron IIIx 9ft 5wt.
Now, I do need to stress this point – the rod itself isn’t making me a better fisherman. But using a rod designed for small dries enables me to make better presentations to finicky fish, and that’s only because I spend hours on the lawn practicing my cast, and hours more on the water getting rejected by fish before I finally figure out just how to get them to eat my fly.
No, not that kind of high.
I mean get to the high country.
Seriously. Get up there.
In John Gierach’s book, No Shortage of Good Days, he tells a story about a time when a film crew came to his native habitat in Colorado to get footage of him catching trout for a TV show. The film crew wanted gorgeous scenery, but according to Gierach that year’s snowpack had been above average and the only water worth fishing wasn’t in the high country, but down lower in the less-than-TV-scenery-friendly stretches of the creeks Gierach favorites.
The crew follow Gierach around for three days and he had a rough go of catching fish. As soon as the crew left, Gierach hiked to some of the “gnarliest” high country he could access and started fishing.
And he caught fish in nearly every pool into which he threw a fly.
In his words:
“I was…busy absorbing the idea that the creeks were fishing well a good two weeks or more before I usually started fishing them and also dealing with my embarrassment that this was such a big surprise.
“I’ve been casting a fly rod on these streams since the end of the Nixon administration and had long since bought into the common belief that we local fishermen know the score better than anyone. But as Robert Traver once pointed out, that belief can make us complacent, which is why a stranger will sometimes show up, unburdened by habits and preconceptions, and fish circles around us.
“The problem was, I’d come to know the water well enough to tell at a glance when the conditions were ideal, but I’d gotten spoiled and had fallen into the habit of waiting for that, either traveling to other places to fish or moping around home until everything was perfect. I did the obvious calculation. If I’d missed out on two extra weeks every season for the last thirty-five years, that meant I’d moped through almost a year and a half’s worth of fishing that I’ll never get back. Yikes!
“Of course, the creeks were still largely unwadable, and the pools and glides that reveal themselves in lower flows were still mostly whitewater. From the vantage point of the pickup driving the canyon roads – my usual lazy scouting strategy – the streams didn’t look all that inviting. On closer inspection, though, the water was clear enough and the trout were stacked neatly into miniature slicks and eddies, some of which you pick out only at almost point-blank range.”
I’m aware that excerpt is a bit lengthy, but it drives this point home better than any story I have to share. I’ve taken Gierach’s advice to heart, and found myself trekking higher and higher this spring, even when the water’s high and not nearly as enticing as a tailwater – or a piece of chocolate cake.
And it’s worked. I’ve caught more fish not because I’m better at flinging flies (although it’s poetic to think that with every passing year I add some skill to my arsenal, but I chalk that polite thought up to the fanciful whims of a road-weary trout bum) but because I’m out spending more time on water that, in all actuality, is worth fishing.
I could go on for another 1700 words, but at that point I fear I’d be straying too far into the realm of pretending to know what I’m talking about than actually writing on the very little I do believe to be true about spring fly fishing.
These four tips should help you have a successful spring. Sometimes, half the battle may be fighting through the honeydo list to get out the door, but once you’re out on the water I do hope these four tips help you have a more successful outing.
Oh, and please don’t be afraid to throw your thoughts down in the comments section. I’d love to hear and learn more from other anglers about spring fly fishing.