Late winter and spring can be a highly productive time to pursue trout before the hoards of anglers descend on our favorite rivers. A surprising amount of bug life is burbling to the surface that can lead to exciting dry fly fishing. I have focused in on three of my favorite spring hatches and how I have gone about fishing through them. We will work from the largest bugs to the smallest. I will spare you Latin names and lifecycle information, but I will call ‘em as I see ‘em from my 40 years of fly fishing, 20 of those as a professional trout guide who can’t speak a lick of Latin… and yet somehow I got by.
This fabled Western stone fly is a unicorn of an insect. It hatches very early in the year appearing in full force in late March. This Rocky-Mountain hatch may be the only opportunity on Earth to ski fresh powder in the morning and fish dry flies in the afternoon. One of the reasons it is such a popular hatch is that many of the fish have not seen a fly since the fall and it is a good opportunity, maybe the best opportunity of the year, to catch a large fish on the surface.
Pros: You can use large patterns and can hunt big fish. You don’t have to hit the river at dawn. Most of the good fishing happens in the afternoon.
Cons: The word is out and the pressure on some of the more popular rivers can make finding a good stretch to float or wade tougher than ever.
Tactical tip: Although the dark green flies are an inch to an inch and a half long, resist using a big, thick foam fly with piles of antron just to float a nymph, hopper-dropper style. A slender fly with a low profile will be key to fooling those big fish. If you have a hard time seeing it, it is likely the right pattern.
Water: Remember that it is still cold out and the fish will not be in the fast water at the top of a riffle where you might find them in the summer. Look for that transition water from the run into the pool and be patient. Let it drift as long as you can and don’t loose faith. Inside seams can be much better than outside seams. One reason to just fish a single skwala dry is so you can fish it tight to the structure. Six or 8 inches off that branch or rock might be too far for that trout to move. With a single dry you can run that shot tight to the structure.
For the experienced angler: Try leaving the nymph box at home. Of course, nymphing is an effective way to fish in the spring, but just like the fish have not seen a fly in months, you have, likely, not seen a big stonefly/hopper eat either. There will be plenty of time you will be forced to go subsurface throughout the year.
These large, chocolate-colored mayflies live in many of the most popular trout streams: north, south, east, and west. I can hear the bug nerds out there ready to pounce… yes there are many different subspecies. Although true, it that has not stopped me from fishing the same patterns with equal success on the Bitterroot and the West Branch of the Delaware more than 2,500 miles apart. A delicate cdc comparadun, if you must know. Mayflies are so delicate and ephemeral it is hard not to admire their design as much as the trout desire their nutrients.
Pros:A large easy to see mayfly… come on, what else do you need?
Cons: They can be sporadic and hard to plan around. They may come off in a short window or not at all. They might also be rolling out of one riffle and not the next one down.
Tactical Tip:Because this hatch can just be a trickle, you might not see the dun on the water, but you might see a large ring from a fish rising. This is likely a sign that the bugs are slowly trickling off. Time to fish that slow water just inside of the seam.
Water: Again, these fish don’t want to work that hard so they will be in the slower water. They like pockets near the main current to feed on the bugs leaking out of the riffle. The mends can be tough to get your bug to stay in that slow water without being drug out, but the payoff can be awesome.
For the Experienced Angler:Try fishing the eddies that recirculate the water. You might have to get into odd casting positions to get close to these glory holes, but it can be where the large fish congregate. A foamy film might make it tough spotting your fly, so use a parachute with a bright post. Be prepared to feed line and make multiple mends.
Blue Winged Olives
Another prolific mayfly hatch across the country, BWOs come to play in the Spring and the Fall. They are often an afterthought for many, but can be a fun and challenging hatch to fish. They are small, usually size 16-18 flies (5-9mm), but they usually come off in numbers. After being picked on by large-bug-wielding anglers, some trout revert to a diet of these tiny tenders to avoid being mouth pierced one more time.
Pros:Less anglers key in on BWO in the spring so finding unfettered fish might be a touch easier. The hatches are typically prolific and dependable.
Cons:The smaller patterns can be difficult to float and to spot on the water.
Tactical Tip:Don’t be afraid to throw a cripple. These are dun patterns that are caught mid-hatch and are stuck inside their exoskeleton. You can throw a slightly bulkier fly that floats better and is easier to see than some of the daintier BWO ties out there. And there are a bunch of patterns to choose from.
Water:Although you will find BWO fish in eddies and along slower, juicy seams, don’t be afraid to look for them in flats. Some of those wary fish who have been pricked once too often over the years prefer to feed in these flats where they feel they can hide in plane sight. They can be hard to approach but are a triumph when you get it right.
For the Experienced Angler:Don’t be afraid to head hunt. Spend some time in the flats looking for rising fish that may be to tough for other anglers to get to. Both from wade and from a boat this will require long casts and leading the fish by a dozen feet or so. Wait for it, wait for it… bam.
Overall Spring is an excellent time to fish for trout with puzzles aplenty just waiting to be solved. One thing to note when you are out there, this is also prime spawning season for rainbow and cutthroat trout. Many streams are closed for spawning, so know your regulations. As you traverse the rivers, if you see what looks like disturbed gravel, perhaps with the dirt seemingly brushed off of it, you have likely found a spawning redd. Leave it alone and find another place to fish. We need these fish to keep doing their thing so that we can continue to enjoy them in the future. Plus, how would like a creepy, wader-clad, stick waiver hovering over your bedroom when you are trying to get it on?