By Brock Ray
Die-hard stream trout fly fishermen have it tough during the winter, when their favorite streams ice over or are too high to afford decent fishing. Warm weather rarely arrives before the faithful are out sloshing around in trout streams. Crazy as it may sound, in many instances early-season trout fly fishing is not crazy! In fact, some of the year’s best fishing can occur this month.
Unlike most of the surrounding terrestrial world, trout streams do not sleep now, as many anglers think. Life beneath the surface of these streams goes on pretty much as usual, except most activity is now slower. Early spring insect hatches occur later during the day (that is, when they DO occur). Admittedly, the trout feeding on these morsels can be torpid, at least compared to their behavior on the same waters eight weeks from now, and catch rates now seldom mirror those of late May or June; however, when the conditions are right, it is often a close race.
Anglers have two big advantages during the early season. Water levels are usually high enough so feeding trout are bold, confident the fast-moving water racing over them will conceal their movements in prime feeding lanes. Compared to late summer, when slowed stream flow levels typically force trout, especially large ones, to the bottom of deep pools or under cover such as rocks, this is much welcomed by the angler.
The less time trout have to inspect a fly, the greater the odds are the offering will be seized. Fishing fast water is not easy to master, but once you get the knack of making the current work to your advantage, your success rate will leap forward. Also, the early-season currents that make feeding trout feel confident they are not easily seen also mean the trout cannot easily see the anglers.
The old adage “the early bird catches the worm” applies wonderfully to early-season stream trout fly fishing. This other significant advantage has less to do with catch rates and everything to do with pure fly fishing enjoyment. One of the biggest disappointments fly fishermen experience is arriving early at their favorite stream, only to find someone else is ahead of them casting flies on their favorite stretch of water.
Granted, many expert anglers prefer the challenge of casting to the trout from which few others are able to coax strikes, but most trout seeking fly fishermen (or at least the ones I most often consort with), prefer their trout dumb and in possession of the least amount of education possible. Rare indeed are the days this time of year when you share a stream, much less your favorite holes, with others, save perhaps a raccoon or otter. At day’s end, when you tally up your experience, this opportunity for fly fishing solitude will rank as high, if not higher, in your books than how many fish you hook.
Early-season stream trout fishing can be described as a cross between winter and late spring angling. The weather is usually volatile. It can be 80 degrees and sunny on Monday, then eight inches of snow two days later. Windy days are usually less productive than calm ones, and rainfall is often measured in days rather than inches. During the summer you can plan trips to your favorite trout stream according to your schedule. Short of a hurricane blowing up from the Caribbean, there is little to disturb the predictable weather between June and September.
The best early-season stream trout fishing occurs when temperatures are generally mild (at least above 45 degrees), the wind is not blowing too hard (i.e., you don’t need to put rocks in your pockets to remain stationary), and the stream’s flow is optimal and clear. However, remember this is a general rule that is sometimes broken. Likewise, mid-morning to late afternoon will be when you usually will experience your best strike rates.
Sunny days generally produce the best fishing. As the days grow longer and more light strikes the streams, which are now not canopied by leaves, aquatic insects such as stoneflies, mayflies, and caddisflies begin to emerge. Increased surface and subsurface activity by these staple food sources triggers trout feeding activity. Most significant among eastern streams are the large slate-colored caddisflies, medium-size dark grey and brown mayflies, and very large to medium stoneflies. This is not peak emergence time for mayflies or caddisflies, though it is for most species of stonefly, especially the large, 1-inch to 1 1/2-inch specimens.
Being something of a “small creek freak,” I like to concentrate at least a portion of my early-season forays on small-to medium-size creeks. Part of this is because I grew up in the shadows of the Great Smoky Mountains, where the vast majority of the best fishing waters fall into these sizes. Between April 1st and the middle end of may these waters brim with rainbow, brown, and brook trout eager to nab a well-placed fly. Over the years such trips have helped me successfully combat the potentially devastating effects of lingering “cabin fever.”
Smallish trout waters are favorites among many fly fishermen because it is easy to read where feeding trout are located, and there is a breeze to get around on most of the time. Naturally, there are problems. Since most such streams are overgrown, often with stream side trees that meet overhead in the middle, effective fly casting is not always easy. As a general rule, the smaller the water, the more precise casting must be.
Surviving in these small aquatic worlds requires no small degree of talent – the trout must watch for danger from the terrestrial world. Once a trout found in a small to medium-size stream spots you, the game is over. Stealth, the use of trees and rocks to concealing your presence, and pinpoint-accurate casting are essential for catching trout from these waters.
Larger streams and rivers typically hold larger trout, as well as more trout. Such waters can be difficult to wade when strong currents and higher than usual flow levels occur. Casting is rarely encumbered, although it is the rare fly fisherman who can resist the temptation to decorate at least a few stream side trees and bushes. Strike areas are larger, and less precisely defined. Stealth is still important, but to a noticeably lesser degree than in the smaller waters. The tactics, lures, and baits used on larger streams and rivers vary little from those used on smaller streams. Fly rods designed to cast three-to-five-weight fly lines are recommended on small-to medium-size streams. On larger streams, where the wind often complicates casting, fly rods designed to cast seven- to eight-weight fly line are a better choice.
Fly fishermen read constantly about how deadly nymphs and streamers are this time of the year, and for good reason. Nymphs and streamers are traditional early-Spring favorites. However, it is not nearly as difficult as many think to coax rises from trout at this time. Simple dry fly patterns such as a Royal Coachman (sizes 12 to 16) or Hairwing Adams have consistently produced trout for me at this time of year for over three decades. Given an opportunity, I fly fish dry as often as possible. Never one to let which or what mayfly or caddisfly is skittering on the surface confuse my trout fishing efforts, I strongly adhere to the philosophy of match as best you can what the trout seem to be eating the most of. Fly fishing purists probably are revolted at my over-simplification of the sport. However, this technique works as well for me as anything I have tried.
Simply stated, if the surface flies are mayflies that are brown and about the size of a number 12 or 14 fly, I find a brownish looking number 12 or 14 fly pattern. If the surface fly is a slate-colored caddisfly that looks like it?s about a number 10 or 12, I dig out a caddisfly pattern of that color. As with the names of the insects the trout are eating, the names of fly patterns hold far less interest for me than catching trout.
I use the same basic approach to choosing a nymph pattern. Two that consistently produce for me are the Montana Stonefly and the Tellico Nymph. When you see lots of large stonefly nymphal husks on stream side rocks, match the size as closely as you can. Otherwise switch around until you find a size and color the trout will take. Streamers are another matter. Having once been an avid antique tackle collector, I have the utmost respect for the tradition many of the older patterns carry. However, if you are reduced to carrying a single streamer, don’t waste your time on the Christmas tree decorations; just carry a size selection of Muddler Minnows. Coupled with a small Hilderbrant spinner, these deer hair and feather deceivers are so deadly it is a wonder they are still legal to use.
If you have not discovered early-season stream trout fishing, give it a try. You’ll be happy you did!