Field and Stream Guide: 50 Ways to Catch Spring Trout
Where you decide to fish is your choice, but we recommend the following 50 tips to improve your results--and your appreciation of spring fishing.
From a trout fisherman’s perspective, spring is a long and changeable season, not one thing but many. Before and after runoff, rivers and streams pulse with insect hatches and offer excellent action. Spring creeks and tailwaters, which rarely suffer high-water conditions, remain clear and calm and loaded with hungry fish throughout the season. And just after ice-out, lakes and ponds consistently produce some of the biggest bruisers of the year. Where you decide to fish is your choice, but we recommend the following 50 tips to improve your results–and your appreciation of spring fishing.
Freestone Rivers & Streams
Because these waters are fed by tributaries, snowmelt, and runoff, they are most susceptible to fluctuations in speed, depth, temperature, and color. But for much of spring they offer enjoyable and productive fishing.
1 FISH NOW. Early-season (the middle of March in some regions) weather can be less than balmy, but often the current is clear and stable and midday hatches (Baetis and midges) provide exciting topwater fishing.
2 GO ULTRALIGHT. For spinfishermen, the clear water of early spring is a perfect time for a 5- to 5 1/2-foot ultralight rod with matching reel and 4-pound-test line. Diminutive spinners (sizes 00-1) are often the top producers, especially in brass, dull gold, and baitfish colors. Cast to specific cover and current cushions, such as the pockets in front of and behind boulders, along banks, and in pools.
3 WATCH THE WEATHER. One or two days of warmer weather and bright sun at the start of the season will raise the water temperature and activate trout; so will warming rains, which also wash terrestrial insects and bait into the current. Conversely, any weather pattern or event that lowers the water temperature, even by 2 or 3 degrees, often results in a poor day of fishing.
4 DRIFT BENEATH THE HATCH. If adult flies are hatching but no trout are rising, drift an emerger pattern just under the surface, or a nymph near the bottom. Often trout ignore adult flies while feeding voraciously on the easier pickings below.
5 MASTER THE “SWING-AROUND” PRESENTATION. Position yourself upstream and to one side of a visible fish or prime lie. Toss a spinner, spoon, or streamer on a down-and-across angle, reeling or stripping line to adjust the drift path so that the lure swings around in the current just as it enters the prime lie or the fish’s line of vision.
6 TUMBLE A SLAB-STYLE SPOON. Cast upstream and across, dropping the lure into a seam or edge where deep, fast water meets a slower flow. Let the lure sink but don’t retrieve. Simply tighten the line, raise the rod tip, and allow the lure to tumble near the bottom on a downstream drift.
7 GO DEEP. Between hatches in the rising waters of mid- to late spring, try bigger, heavier streamers: Sculpins, Marabou Muddlers, Woolly Buggers, Flashabuggers, and Egg-Sucking Leeches in sizes 1-6, natural and dark colors. These should be weighted, preferably with a beadhead, so that the fly gets down quickly. Dead-drift the streamer along a seam or run to imitate a drifting stonefly nymph or bottom-hugging sculpin.
8 TRY TWO NYMPHS RIGGED IN TANDEM. When no adult flies are hatching, a beadhead Pheasant Tail, No. 16-20, will imitate the many Baetis naturals. Rig more than one fly, and vary the sizes. Use a long (12- to 14-foot) tapered leader, with 2 to 4 feet of fine, supple tippet material to encourage deep sinking and a natural, drag-free drift. Make short casts (15 to 20 feet) upstream and slightly across, well above prime lies. Let the flies sink near the bottom. If you don’t feel the flies ticking bottom periodically, you aren’t getting deep enough.
9 BE A “SUPER” MAN. Mid- to late spring–when water begins to rise and darken from snowmelt–is when many of the so-called super hatches occur: green drakes, Hendricksons, Mother’s Day (Grannom) caddis, salmonflies (giant stoneflies), and more. Surprisingly, darker water actually offers some advantages. You can approach visible fish and prime lies more closely, and fly patterns need not be as finely matched to the naturals. Basic attractors such as Wulffs, Humpies, Stimulators, Trudes, and Elk Hair Caddis will entice plenty of fish.
10 TAKE A SPIN. One of the best lures for high-water trout is a crappie-size spinner-jig, with a 1/4-ounce fluorescent red or green leadhead, a small silver blade, and a plastic grub tail in pearl or black. This lure has flash and instant action and sinks quickly, which makes it perfect for dropping into small pockets and current cushions.
11 TIE ON A RODENT. Big trout everywhere–not just in Alaska–often throw caution aside when they spot a swimming mouse or vole, a hearty item of prey that few Lower 48 anglers think to imitate. Find a comparatively calm piece of water near a grassy bank–a place where a cut or irregularity in the bank creates a small or large cushion from the current. Next, cast a full-size, deer-hair mouse pattern right up on the edge of the bank. As soon as the mouse plops into the water, begin stripping it slowly back. Hang on.
12 KNOW THE HATCHES. From early to mid-spring, hatch lore is much simplified and easy to comprehend. In March and early April, the bluewing olive, or Baetis, mayfly is common throughout trout country. Baetis hatch on overcast afternoons, often during a drizzle or spitting snow. A No. 16-18 Parachute Adams (A) matches this fly nicely. Another important and widespread early-spring mayfly is the larger March brown, which hatches from late morning to early afternoon. This fly is easily distinguished from the bluewing olive by its larger size, brown mottling, and raked-back wings. Imitate it with a (B) No. 14-16 March Brown Thorax, (C) Hairwing Dun, or (D) Brown Wulff.
13 SEARCH WITH STREAMERS. Before and after hatches in cold, clear-water conditions, explore by dead-drifting a streamer along banks, seams, and the edges of runs. If that fails, activate the fly with flicks of the rod tip and short strips of the line. Good patterns include: (A) Woolly Bugger, (B) Clouser Minnow, (C) Muddler, and (D) Zonker, sizes 4-8. Black, brown, and olive are productive colors; but when in doubt, choose something that matches the tint of the streambed.
14 SLOW DOWN. To fly cast large, weighted flies and multiple-fly rigs without difficulty or tangling, slow down your casting stroke and open your loops by allowing the rod tip to describe a slightly wider arc. Accomplish this by simply dropping the rod tip a little lower than usual on the back and forward casts.
15 GET STOUT. In high and darkening water, a 6-foot fast-action rod with a light or medium-light strength rating and 6- to 8-pound-test line will give you the muscle necessary for working larger, heavier lures and for handling big fish in the current. Use thick, 1/4 ounce-plus spoons and heavy-bodied spinners, sizes 1-3, that sink quickly and stay in the fish zone. Bright finishes–gold, silver, and fluorescents–are especially productive in murky waters.
16 BANK ON IT. To find trout in high water, cast anywhere the water pools. Above all, fish the banks. During peak runoff, that’s where most trout will be.
17 MAKE A MOVE. When a freestone stream is at peak runoff, all muddy roils and flooded banks, often the smartest tactic is to leave. Let the river do its thing and head for more congenial lakes, ponds, tailwaters, and spring creeks–places where the torrents of spring have less impact.
Lakes & Ponds
In spring, lakes and ponds not only offer an escape from high water but also hold trout that are accessible and usually voracious after a long winter. You can catch them in good size (often some of the largest fish of the season) and numbers, on both flies and lures–if you know how.
18 FISH THE ICE-OUT. Some of the largest trout of the year are taken when there’s still ice bobbing on the water. You’ll find the big fish cruising the warming shallows in search of food.
19 TOW THE LINES. Don’t leave home without an assortment of fly lines on easily changeable spools. You need a floating, weight-forward taper for fishing the surface to 5 feet; a sink tip for fishing 5- to 8-foot depths; and a full sink, high-density line for anything beyond that. On some ponds and clear backwaters where trout spook easily, a floating double-taper line will allow the most delicate presentations.
20 CATCH A CRUISER. In lakes and ponds, a great deal of a trout’s time is spent on the move, searching for food. Always examine the water before moving in close. Think of hunting trout. Remain still, with as low a profile as possible, while you wait for fish to swim within casting range.
21 WORK THE FLY. In still water, mayfly nymphs can be twitched along just beneath the surface or sunk more deeply and given a swimming, darting retrieve. Fish damselfly nymphs over submerged weeds and near the surface with erratic strips. Scuds move with a slow, jerky motion. Give leech patterns a quick, irregular action in the shallows and around weeds; but in deeper water use a slower, longer strip-and-pause retrieve near the bottom.
22 DOUBLE DOWN. When you can’t see visible, cruising fish, search prime water with tandem-fly rigs. Try a No. 14-16 Woolly Worm trailed by a large, black Woolly Bugger or Marabou Leech. Or cast two streamers of different size and color. You can also twitch a pair of nymphs just under the surface or near the bottom. With skittish trout holding in weeds, hang a No. 16 Pheasant Tail nymph and a No. 18-20 midge larva or scud pattern beneath a strike indicator and let it sit.
23 SOFTEN UP. Trout love soft-plastic baits designed for crappies and bass. Black grub tails make tremendous leech imitations, especially when fished on a red or orange jighead (suggestive of a trout egg). Pearl-white tails and baitfish-mimicking bodies (in blue and white, trout colors, grey-black and white) are also deadly. Switch colors and sizes–don’t be afraid to fish bass-size baits for big trout–and vary your retrieves: slow and steady, rise and fall, or “bumping” along the bottom.
24 LOCATE TROUT HAUNTS Look for trout near springs, inlets (especially during and after a rainstorm), channels, points of land, shoals, and dropoffs.
25 WATCH FOR FOAM LINES These lines form in offshore slicks on gusty days. They serve as natural flypaper, trapping insects. Trout feed beneath the foam and along its edges.
26 FIND SUBMERGED WEEDBEDS Weeds are essentially a food factory, where nymphs, larvae, scuds, and baitfish breed and feed, and where trout do most of their dining.
27 LEAD THE WAY. A common mistake is casting a lure or fly directly to a rise ring, which often spooks the fish. Patient anglers will observe a still-water trout’s moving and feeding pattern and then cast to where the fish is going.
28 FISH FINE. As a general rule, spinfishermen will do best with the lightest tackle suitable for the size and weight of the lures they’re using. Four- to 6-pound-test matches well with most jigs and with size 0-3 spinners and spoons. Avoid unnecessary, bulky, or flashy-bright snaps and swivels. Tie jigs and small spinners directly to the line; use small, dark snap-swivels with spoons and larger lures.
29 CHANGE PATTERNS OFTEN. Unlike most stream situations, trout in still water have all the time they want to inspect and reject a fly, so don’t persist with something that isn’t working.
30 FISH AT DIFFERENT DEPTHS. If you aren’t seeing or enticing fish on or near the surface, go deeper. Use a weighted fly or add microshot with a floating line; or switch to a sink-tip or full-sink line. Use the countdown method for systematic depth control. When the fly begins sinking, start counting: one thousand one, one thousand two, etc. Note the number when you start your retrieve. On the next cast, let the fly sink for two or three seconds longer before retrieving. Work your way down to the bottom. If you tangle in weeds on a cast, simply count one or two seconds fewer on the subsequent cast, and you’ll be just above the weeds, tangle-free and right in the fish zone.
31 STAY TIGHT. On still waters, keep your rod tip low. This will help your line remain tight, which is important for detecting takes and for quick, effective strikes with both lures and flies.
32 GET GREASY. When fishing nymphs close to the surface, grease all of the leader except the last few inches. This turns the whole leader into a strike indicator. If it jerks, flashes, or darts toward the fly, set the hook.
33 BE AWARE. If you notice fish turning away or flaring from a lure, chances are it’s too bright and/or too large. Silver or bright gold blades will sometimes spook trout in clear water. Change to more muted blades and natural-bait colors.
Tailwaters & Spring Creeks
Tailwaters and spring creeks often go overlooked by anglers who don’t understand how they differ from typical rivers and streams. A tailwater is simply the controlled flow beneath a man-made dam. Spring creeks are natural phenomena: small to midsize streams whose water comes mostly from underground. What tailwaters and spring creeks have in common is a generally even, regulated flow; comparatively steady and fish-favorable temperatures; and nutrient-rich water loaded with insects, baitfish, and trout.
34 UNDERSTAND THE WATER. In tail-waters and spring creeks, the generally slower, clearer, placid currents make trout more wary. Also, since trout are surrounded by so much food and have so much time to inspect and select what they eat, your artificial fly or lure must be perfectly chosen and presented.
35 STALK TROUT. As a general rule, the typical freestone approach of casting blind to attractive water is counterproductive on a spring creek or calm tailwater. Exploratory casting disturbs the water and frightens trout, and it rarely places the fly or lure with the kind of precision needed to catch fish. It’s better to scrutinize the water carefully before approaching, looking for visible (and especially, feeding) trout that you can observe and–only then–stalk and ply with a careful cast. To help spot fish, wear quality polarized sunglasses and a hat with a dark-underside front brim.
36 GET A CLOSER LOOK. Carry a pair of lightweight binoculars to scan for rise activity, water disturbances, and visible fish. Also use binoculars to study nearby trout and floating or drifting insects and to examine the immediate area for other trout.
37 CHANNEL YOUR CAST. On small to midsize waters, look for trout in weedy channels, particularly those with open patches of bottom. Big trout hold in these protected, food-rich lies.
38 WORK THE MARGINS. With larger tailwater rivers, do most of your fishing on the margins outside the main current: undercut and thickly covered banks; heads and tails of islands and adjacent bars and side channels; and the large eddies that form on inside bends and below jutting points of land.
39 BE SNEAKY. To target a specific trout, false-cast away from the fish, off to one side, to avoid spooking it with the line and also to prevent water droplets from falling over and scaring it. The more clear, open, and shallow the water, the more you need to make a stealthy approach and cast.
40 KNOW WHEN TO STRIKE. Watch the fish, not your fly. Look for a silver flash as the fish rolls slightly to grab a nymph; or for the sudden show of white as its mouth opens to take a fly. Strike as the white disappears (and the mouth closes).
41 NAIL THE APPROACH. Trout in these waters don’t need to move much to take in food. So your fly or lure must enter their exact drift lanes. With flies, the presentation should also be drag-free. Good approaches include the across-and-slightly-downstream cast with slack line, the across-reach, and the upstream curve. With ultra-wary, leader-shy trout, often the best approach is directly downstream, using a slack-line cast that presents the fly to the fish ahead of the leader.
42 PICK YOUR FISH. Target one fish at a time, especially when you come upon several trout feeding or holding together. If you try to cast generally to the group, chances are you’ll present well to none of them. Or worse, you’ll put the whole group down.
43 Carry a broad-based but key selection of flies.
—MIDGES Have cluster and dry patterns (Griffith Gnat, (A) Parachute Midge, Black Gnat; Nos. 16-24); pupae, larvae, and emerger patterns (Brassie, Beadhead Midge Worm, Disco, Palomino, Foam Head; Nos. 16-24).
—DRIES Favor sparse, “realistic” patterns tied in no-hackle, parachute, thorax, and Comparadun styles (Adams, Light Cahill, (B) Bluewing Olive, Paradun, and specific local hatch-matchers; Nos. 12-24). Include some spent-wing variations to mimic the dead adult flies that float, wings outstretched, in the surface film.
—NYMPHS You want Pheasant Tail, Prince, (C) Gold Ribbed Hare’s Ear, Gray Muskrat (Nos. 16-22; some weighted, some beadhead); Floating Nymph, and various local emerger patterns.
—OTHER SINKING FLIES Bring Scuds, Nos. 12-18, in olive, gray, tan, and pink; some with sparkle or flash fibers, some weighted; Cress bugs (Nos. 12-16); and the (D) San Juan Worm (Nos. 6-10).
—STREAMERS Good choices include the Matuka, Zonker, Clouser Minnow, Woolly Bugger, Muddler, Sculpin, and (E) Leech Fly, in black, olive, and brown; Nos. 1-8; some weighted.
44 LIGHTEN UP. Much spring creek and tailwater fishing is best suited to the lightest rods and lines. This is the place where 8 1/2- to 9-foot, 2- to 4-weight fly rods earn their keep. Weight-forward lines are acceptable in these ranges, although some experts insist on a double-taper’s softer casts. Long, light leaders are very important: 14 to 16 feet, with 3 to 4 feet of tippet as fine as 6X to 7X, depending upon fly size. For spin fishing on creeks and many tailwaters, use ultralight, 5- to 5 1/2-foot rods with 4-pound-test line.
45 GET HEAVY. On some large tail-water rivers, heavier outfits–a 9-foot, 6- to 7-weight fly rod or a 6- to 6 1/2-foot medium-light spinning rod spooled with 6- to 8-pound-test–are helpful for making longer casts, and for handling bigger lures, flies, sink-tip lines, and windy conditions.
46 FIND OUT WHAT’S ON THE MENU. The best way is to get into the water well below the fish, in its exact current lane. Use a hand net or square of soft screen to sift out the flotsam for close inspection. You don’t need to be an entomologist to get a bead on the feed. Just match a fly to the naturals as well as you can–to size, shape, and color, in that order of priority.
47 REMEMBER THE “POUNDS OF MEAT” RULE. When several kinds of flies and bait are in the water and you aren’t sure which one to match, go with whatever is most abundant. More often than not trout prefer the most plentiful food in the water, the one that provides “the most pounds of meat.”
48 THINK VERY SMALL. Be sure to choose small, lightweight lures in subdued colors for most clear or shallow water conditions. Spoons from 1/16 to 1/8 ounce, and size 00 to 0 spinners, can be softly dropped in pockets, near banks, and in weed channels; or drifted and then “activated” in front of holding or feeding trout. Jigs from 1/32 to 1/8 ounce work great for this kind of fishing. In black, green, or brown marabou, they can be free-drifted, jigged, or hopped along the bottom to imitate numerous prey items, including nymphs, crayfish, sculpin, and leeches.
49 TRY A FLY ON YOUR SPINNING ROD. Streamers that imitate sculpin, minnows, and leeches are easily fished with ultralight spin tackle. Use weighted flies and/or add split shot 6 to 8 inches above the fly. Toss dries with a casting bubble. With nymphs, a three-way-swivel rig will allow the fly to drift more naturally along the bottom.
50 GO NUTS. If nothing is working after hours of careful strategy, break the “rules.” Start by enlivening your dry flies or nymphs with twitches, skips, and darts. Skitter and dance a Variant across the surface. Try a No. 10 Royal Wulff or Madame X; or a thumb-size Woolly Bugger or Leech. Exchange the 00 spinner for a No. 3; try cranking a big crayfish diver. Purists will shriek, but–sometimes–these last-resort deviations catch trout when conventional tactics fail.
“Nymph fishing is always a good idea in spring. Unless the fish are actively working emergers before a hatch, fish your nymph as close to the bottom as you can. You can put a split shot or two on your line or use a twist-on weight to help get the fly down. But as often as not, I’ll go with a stonefly nymph because they’re so easy to weight when you tie them.”
John Gierach’s latest book is At the Grave of the Unknown Fisherman.
“Early in the spring, a trout’s metabolism is slow, and very often when you’re fishing a streamer, the fish will only nip at the back end of the fly, rather than take the whole thing. But if you tie on a size 10 or 12 stinger hook so it trails back toward the end of the wing or tail of a Zonker or Woolly Bugger, for example, you’ll quite often hook those trout.”
“Try this one-stroke approach for casting weighted nymphs: Let’s assume you have cast upstream to get a deep drift. Now, when your fly has risen to the surface at the end of the drift, lift the leader right to the fly, then rotate your arm and hand so that your thumbnail faces the water, as you turn your body to face upstream. Make a softly powered forward cast. This eliminates the need for a perfectly timed full back cast.”
“Practice your fly casting before the season. Golfers are always working on their swing during the off-season. But for some reason, a lot of flyfishermen don’t bother–and when that good fish shows up, they blow the cast. Before your first trip, grab your outfit and get out there in the snow or grass on your lawn, and simply throw the line back and forth, just to loosen up those muscles you haven’t been using.”
Photograph courtesy of Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing – Northern VA/Flickr