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How To Catch Trout In The Spring
Spring season is upon us, and the mad dash is starting. Are you equipped with the know-how, flies, and gear to catch early spring trout? To catch more fish, you’ll want to deploy strategies that differ from every other season. Here’s how to catch trout in the spring.
#9 – It’s fun to emerge from winter fly fishing hibernation, for those not into frostbitten toes
#8 – For many streams in the east, spring is the most productive season
#7 – For many streams in the west, spring is productive even if fall is the best
#6 – Get it in before the summer doldrums warm up streams and trout get lethargic
#5 – Great time to get your kids out for some fresh air and fun fishing (as is anytime!)
#4 – Trout can be less picky than matching the hatch during lower water later in the season
#3 – Trout are hungry from the winter and spawning season gets aggressive
#2 – You love getting a sore shoulder fishing deep with a higher-weight or sinking line in high flow water, because…
#1 – Fishing bomber-sized, gaudy streamers and other tinsely attractors is your version of a blast
Where Are The Best Places To Fish In The Spring?
Spring trout fly fishing can be very productive, if you know where to go in spite of variable fishing conditions.
Tailwaters – because tailwaters benefit from flow coming out of the bottom of dams, which has a more consistent temperature over time and also flow rate, they can be very good spring fisheries. The dam upstream buffers any high flow coming from rain or snowpack melt, serves to let silt settle out, and as a result provides predictable conditions for insects to thrive and in turn the fish.
Smaller streams vs. larger – just keep an eye on what’s happening in your favorite stream. USGS flow gauges are a great way to do this. Smaller streams can rise much faster in response to rain or snow melt, but also come down faster. Larger streams and rivers may not rise as fast, but also take much more time to come down because they are draining a larger watershed area.
Ice out – consider getting out in a canoe or kayak when ice starts breaking up. Trout often feed near the surface as they follow food sources such as minnows and insects that are starting to see the light of day and better oxygen levels for the first time in months. Ice out can be an exciting time to experience a lake (our favorite place to do this is in the boundary waters area between Minnesota and Canada), but of course take very careful precautions and wear your life vest to avoid capsizing and hypothermia.
Locating early season trout in streams and rivers – just like the lakes discussion above, early in the season trout seek shallower, warmer water in rivers and streams. This is where insect, baitfish, tadpoles, crawfish, and other aquatic food sources start to activate as water temperatures warm up faster in the shallows. Same thing for spawning activity. Just think of locating fish the opposite compared to hot august when fish seek out the depths to cool off, in spring they have the benefit of higher water they can easily escape to, but need to follow the food. Don’t we all!
When To Fish In The Spring?
Haha you may be thinking, this article is about spring trout fishing. So go in the spring, right? Yes, you’ve got us on that one.
Just consider it’s just more refined than that. Because spring fishing conditions can be so variable, you’ll want to keep your eye on the flow levels, water temperature, and other conditions such as turbidity.
Early spring trout fishing demands attentiveness to flow levels, visibility, and temperature. Since trout are still in a slower metabolism, it also demands some of the same cold-water tactics you use in the winter. More on that below.
Watch The Flows
Eastern streams usually experience higher flows in early spring, when rainfall fills many streams over their banks. Aside from rainfall ups & downs, the spring rainy period is followed by gradually decreasing / improving flows, often triggering the best fishing in late spring when flows stabilize and water temperatures rise.
But many western streams, especially those draining mountains with snowpack, experience a different flow regime. Early spring flows are actually more stable and lower than late spring. This is because it takes warmer temperatures melt the snow-pack and in some cases accelerate glacial runoff.
When this happens, flow will not only spike, it may remain high for sustained periods – weeks – rather than coming down more quickly like after a normal rainfall. For streams like this, such as the Taylor River in Colorado, you’ll want to get out fishing before, or after, this extended period of high flow. Notably, on the Taylor this flow is the only time of year when the river has enough water for white-water rafting!
Monitor Temperature And Other Factors
Trout feed most actively in water ranging from 52 to 64 degrees F. Water colder that that, use winter and cold-water tactics. In water warmer than that, they become more sluggish. And in water over 70 degrees, trout are at a high risk of mortality if they get spent from a battle with your fly rod. So many anglers switch over to fishing for smallmouth or largemouth bass, or other warm water species to protect the trout.
Many USGS water flow gauges also take temperature readings, but not all. Some also measure many parameters of interest, for example one of the gauges for the Yakima River in Washington gives great information you can watch to determine the best time to get out:
Specific cond at 25C
We like to key off temperature, flow (discharge), dissolved oxygen, and turbidity as the main drivers for spring fishing success.
Late spring is a fishing bonanza on many rivers. The combination of stable flows, water temperatures optimal for active trout, start of more prolific hatches, and spawning season can be super productive.
Best Flies For Spring Trout – Explained
In the spring flies aren’t as prolific on the surface as they are underwater, even as the water is warming and trout become more active. Use these flies and strategies to up your game.
Attractors – use these flies to add some flash so your flies can be seen in higher and swifter water, and to trigger strikes when the water isn’t warm enough to support much in the way of hatches. Be sure to add extra weight, to the fly or on your leader, to get down to where the fish are. Attractors can be any type of fly, including nymphs, wets, streamers, and dries that have bright colors and are often tied larger than their more natural “match the hatch” counterparts. We also include the San Juan worm here, which is a bright imitation of terrestrial & aquatic worms that get washed downstream by spring rains.
Flashback Pheasant Tail
Tinsel & Crystal Wooly Buggers
San Juan Worm
Egg Patterns – while most fish such as the brown trout and salmon spawn in the fall, the spring is mating season for rainbow trout. When that is the case, many fish line up to munch on the eggs downstream of the nests. Rainbow trout start spawning when the water temperature hits about 50 degrees F, well before warmer water activates hatches and more fish activity in the 55 – 65 degree F range. During this time, choosing the best egg pattern (also known as a spawn pattern or spawn fly) can be really effective. Also, some streams now have (planted) steelhead runs in the spring, which you can fish for with an egg fly and other steelhead patterns just like in the fall.
Plastic Bead Eggs
Emergers – of course, when hatches occur the insects must get to the surface, before they can dry out their wings and fly off to mate. It only follows, that in the spring, trout will be feeding on emergers well before you see prolific dry fly activity. In fact, many insect takes just under the surface appear incorrectly to the novice eye to be dry flies, when in fact the trout are focusing several inches under the surface. Emergers are an under-fished type of fly, that require their own special movements. Trout are most likely to take them when you’re raising your rod so your fly looks like it’s rising to the surface, but many anglers make the mistake of fishing them more like dead drifted nymphs. To choose the best wet fly, read more on this in our related article 101 Proven Patterns – The Best Flies For Trout.
Caddis Emerger – Bread & Butter
Caddis Soft Hackle Pupa
Nymphs – while nymphs are great to fish year round – because fish feed underwater year round – we view them as the staple fly pattern in the spring. Matching the hatch is good, but be sure to look under rocks to figure out what’s happening when no hatch is coming off the water. We suggest using more generalized nymph patterns, that emulate several potential insects (such as the hares ear, flashback pheasant tail, etc). And of course, “searching” for fish with attractors flies is a great strategy to help you locate fish and hone in on the best nymph choice.
Hare’s Ear Nymph
Euro-Nymphing – is perfect for the spring. More weight, more color, and more exotic patterns to catch their attention. Read all about it at Euro-Nymphing Style Explained.If you want to choose the best fly for spring, and haven’t already euro-nymphed, you’ll figure out quickly why some of the best spring flies are fished this way.
Hot Head Euro Pheasant Tail
Newbury’s Dirty Hipster
Tungsten Micro Woolly Bugger Jig
Streamers – are essential for spring fly fishing. If you’re not a big streamer user, now is the time. Streamers emulate minnows, which are essential to fish’s diet when hatches aren’t yet in full swing. Also, the best streamers have the movement and color to garner attention when the water is high, swift, and/or murky. Use streamers with flash built in, extra weight to get down to the fish, and larger articulated streamers as well to get their attention.
Black Nose Dace
Clouser (Deep) Minnow
Rainy’s Galloups Dungeon
Dry Flies – we actually don’t fish a lot of dries in the early spring, as they can be more difficult to fish when the flow is up, and fish aren’t coming to the surface as much yet. When we do, we find the best dry fly is usually bouyant, large, usually with a dropper emerger or nymph placed 6-18 inches under the surface, and usually attractor versions. At some point, when the mayflies start emerging we’ll choose the best mayfly for the moment at hand.
Elk Hair Caddis
How To Catch Spring Trout?
Change your spring trout flies often. Use searching patterns and cover water till you start to see fish following your fly or get a few bumps. Then change it up till you find what they want. Watch changing weather and water conditions closely.
It’s (Mostly) About Visibility To The Fish
Follow our tips associated with each type of fly we describe above. This may require breaking old habits, just do it, you’ll be pleased with the results. The great thing about the spring is, it’s a little less about immaculate presentation, like you need with lower flows later in the season. It’s more about finding fish, and then enticing them to strike.
Is color important? The debate is one, and many anglers have strong opinions about this. In our view, getting the fly to the fish is the most important factor for your success. Then change flies often till you find what they want. There is some evidence that darker colors work better in murky water, and lighter colors in clear water (the opposite of what many assume, that you would want lighter colors in darker water), but don’t get too hung up on size or color.
Note that we use the terms “light” and “bright” differently for flies. A fly with predominantly darker colors, such as a black or olive Woolly Bugger, should still have bright strips of flashabou and/or crystal flash tied in to create a bright flash for visibility. Same for lighter color flies, bright can be matched with light.
Don’t Forget Your Winter Tactics (in early spring)
Remember, the water is warming, but is not yet warm. Fish are still lethargic and aren’t yet ready to cross the current to inspect your fly more closely. They are still conserving energy, especially in early spring:
Fish slow and deep, whether using a spring nymph or spring streamer. This means use more weight, even consider using a sinking tip line if flow is up or you are in larger rivers.
Fish more during the day time and afternoon, when the daily temperature fluctuations peak and fish will be more active. It’s not till later in the season that early a.m. and late evening will take over as optimal times to fish. In some colder streams, this rule holds for year round.
Keep your eye out for fish activity under the surface – a subtle flash from a last second snub of your nymph or streamer, a subtle swirl from a snub of your dry fly or emerger. These are the “tell tails” of locating fish activity in spring.
Know that fish are probably holding in different locations than during the prime season. Look for slower water where they conserve energy. Many of the the same rules apply – look for eddy lines, drop offs and rock structures – but think deeper and slower. Even consider taking a little video of the same fishing spots at different flows. If you keep in mind that trout prefer to hold in water moving about 6 inches per second, you’ll notice how different the holding spots are – and really how much more you need to work at getting wet flies and streamers down to them.
Is Bigger Better?
The jury is out as to whether a larger spring trout fly works better – debate is still on. But do what you need to get their attention, at least while locating fish. We’ve caught nice fish both ways, I remember one nice spring brown trout caught drifting a tiny nymph through a deep pool, but in generally we are first fishing with larger flies.
Spring Streamer & Nymph Fishing – Slow & Deep
As one of the best spring time strategies, here are some tips for how to present your streamers in the spring. We consider these strategies actually more important than spending too much energy worrying about whether you chose the best streamer.
To get their attention, use streamers that really “show off” and are even gaudy. The undulating movement of flies with marabou and rabbit fur, such as the Woolly Bugger and Bunny Leach work well in spring.
Weight worked into the fly is better (bead heads, cone heads, non-lead wire, bug-eyes, tungsten beads) is better than weight on your line (splitshot, putty, etc) which reduces your ability to feel a take.
Use dead-drift techniques for both streamers and nymphs at first. Unlike what you are accustomed to, stripping streamers, this technique involves no movement to the fly at all. Just get it down there to where they are holding, deep.
To maximize your ability to find fish, drop a smaller nymph or emerger off the back of your streamer, larger nymph, or larger attractor dry fly.
There are different techniques to get your fly lower in the water, depending on whether you are using a floating line or sinking line. For a floating line, a quick lift of your rod tip can pull the fly under, but generally keep your rod down to keep the fly down, and use upstream mends to pull it further under water.
In contrast, with a sinking tip line you won’t need to work as hard to get the fly down. You may need instead to keep your rod up during the drift (keep enough room to set the hook though), and can also use upstream mends. Unlike the stripping technique however, let the fly drift to stay in the current “swim lane” to avoid making trout have to work cross current to take your fly. When you do strip, do it lightly, less frequently, and with plenty of pauses in between. Think getting to the fish, not making the fish come to you.
Setting The Hook
Don’t worry too much about subtle takes like later in the season when they are inspecting every leg on your fly to make sure it matches the hatch. While they may not move as far, this time of year, when they decide to take, usually you’ll get a good grab. In fact, they often have to make a quick decision as swifter spring water moves the fly by them quickly. So, to fly fish spring watch your line carefully, use your fingers to feel and set the hook hard and fast.
Best Gear For Spring Trout
You’ll probably do fine with the gear you have, following our tips above and using the flies we recommend. If you want to up your game or optimize your effectiveness in fly fishing spring, consider:
Choosing a longer, heavier, stiffer fly rod to handle the larger flies in stronger water. More in our article The Best Fly Rods For Trout.
Use every tool you have to locate fish, including indicators that help you quickly pick up on takes. You can read more about strike indicators in 12 Tippet Tips, and more about colored leaders and lines in Euro-Nymphing Style Explained.
For more on the best flies for trout, check out 101 Proven Patterns – The Best Flies For Trout.