As the earth warms following a long, cold winter, it is easy to let the mind wander to summer trout, sipping dry flies. Luckily anglers don’t have to wait until summer. If the fishing gods are so inclined, there is a magical time between slow and low winter water levels and the chaos of spring runoff.
Springtime means that snow lines are moving slowly up the mountains, soon to be replaced by young green plants basking in the sun. However, the nights are still cold in the early spring and this slows the snow melt, creating a delay in water changes of most areas. I recently saw an 80-degree day that didn’t change the water level until the following morning.
Melting snow can actually lower the water temperature when the thermometer is climbing. Water temperature in the spring can make or break your day. Trout are influenced by the water temperature and so are insect hatches. During the middle of a spring day, the outside temperature can warm the water to a temperature where the trout become more active. Even if it is just the insects that start hatching, it can help encourage reluctant trout to start feeding. The hatches and feeding patterns can turn on and off hour-by-hour throughout the day. In order to find the best time to be on the water you need to hit the river and fish. You won’t catch fish if you aren’t on the water.
Head to Freestone Streams
Fly fishing pre-runoff is not relevant when talking about tail waters but it is for freestone streams and rivers. Fishing in water that is clear and low with trout that are waking up from a winter of lethargy may require constant changing of flies to find what the trout want that day or even that hour. Don’t be afraid to run the gauntlet of flies from your fly box. When you find what the trout want, it will be worth tying all the knots. If you are fortunate, and the weather cooperates, you may even hit a hatch of early stones or blue wing olives bringing heads to the surface again.
Don’t forget about the little midges you have been fishing this winter. They will still be of interest to the fish you are after. These are the moments I have been thinking of the last few months, eager trout eating bigger flies and chasing streamers. It may be short lived, so be sure to enjoy it. The weather could either become colder again or warm up quickly and cause the water to rise and cool and even turn off-color.
Play the Weather
Some of the fish in pre-runoff are still very spooky, so a stealthy approach is needed. Avoid wearing brightly-colored clothing and be sure to cast from as far away as you can, while still being able to get a good drift.
If the day doesn’t turn out the way you had hoped, and dry flies are still just a winter’s dream, tie on a streamer. This can be one of the times of the year when streamers are the meal of choice. Think about it! You have rainbows and cutthroats moving up out of the reservoirs to spawn and other hungry trout following to see if any eggs sneak out of the redd.
Trout become very protective of their redds and we should be protective of them too. Redds represent the future of the rivers we fish, the next generation of trout. I am not saying to avoid fishing during the spawn, but avoid fishing the fish on the redd. And please, please know what a redd looks like so you don’t inadvertently walk through one; destroying hundreds, or even thousands of eggs.
While you need to play the weather a little with pre-runoff fly fishing, the advantage is that it can be a less crowded experience. Dress in layers since you may start off with a coat or jacket and finish the day in a T-shirt. When the weather and fish cooperate and you are lucky enough to get a good streamer day or a big hatch, it will be worth the long winter wait. See you on the water!
Travis Jay Vernon, Fly Shop Co-Manager and Fly Fishing Guide