Jeff Faulkner Presents: Fly Fishing Spring Run-off

It should come as no surprise that 2023 has been a year full of rain, snow and ice. If Johnny Cash sang about the city, it’s wet there. Well, I am not too sure about “Tocapillo, Baranquilla, and Perdilla.”, but everywhere else got some real precipitation. As of February 2023, 51% of the contiguous United States was covered in snow. It seems hard to believe, but that’s what our friends at NOAA tell me.  Enjoy this blog series, Jeff Faulkner Presents: Fly Fishing Spring Run-off.

Now if you are a Westerner, you have had an especially wild winter. The Sierra Nevada’s Donner Pass saw more than 44’ of snow this snow year with 12’ falling in a Feb 23 – March 1. That’s an amazing amount of water that poses serious threats to people and places, but it is in a region that needs it. As the snow melts off it will refill reservoirs and lakes that are in dire need of water. Some habitats that are vastly depleted will get much needed relief this season.  

As I sit here at my home in the Uinta Mountains, I can hear the sandhill cranes calling. The entire sedge (the taxonomic name for a group of cranes) is enroute, but the pair that’s already here remind me it’s time for some Spring fishing. I personally spend the more time on the water in the Winter than I do Spring, but Spring fishing can be so rewarding I can’t help but get out and chase fish. With erratic flows, constantly changing temperatures and water clarity fluctuations, Spring fishing can pose a real challenge for even the most seasoned of anglers. Even though you fish the same stream or river year after year the environmental challenges are never the same. That’s what keeps me coming back.  

Here are some tips to increase your success rate in the Spring     

  1. Come into Fishwest and have your setup cleaned and primed for the fishing season. If you feel like giving your gear a clean on your own, we have a few blogs from the past that you cna review. Here and here!
  2. Look for areas where the water is slightly warmer. As the weather starts to warm up in the spring, the water in the rivers will also start to warm up. Trout will often move to areas of the river where the water is slightly warmer, as this is where they will find the most active insects and other food sources. I have gotten in the habit of carrying a thermometer with me to check temps. I am an intolerable nerd, so it has been a good learning and research experience. I have found that when temps cross over in to the low 50’s fish will change behaviors and become a little more aggressive. 
  3. Fly selection is pretty vital in the spring. Trout will often be feeding on insects such as mayflies and caddisflies, but those are all dependent on myriad factors. If you are lucky enough to live near a tailwater you will see a more consistent hatch and less volatility in water flow and visibility. If you don’t have any tailwaters near I would recommend big and flashy. Open your Fishpond Tacky River Mag fly box, close your eyes, imagine Elton John in 80s, open your eyes and tie on the fly that looks most like what you saw. If you are too young for Elton John then substitute your generations most flashy and loudly dressed entertainer with an immense presence. Flash, sparkle, rattles, really anything that will command attention from a fish on the feed.  

Here is a short and certainly not exhaustive list of flies that are highly visible and have a lot of movement to attract fish: 

  1. Midge Patterns – BWO, size 20-26. Mother Shucker, Quigley Clusters, Magic Flies, Emergers, etc. Gink it up and let it fly!
  2. Woolly Bugger – This fly is a classic for a reason. The marabou tail and hackle provide a lot of movement and the heavy, weighted body helps it sink quickly, making it an effective fly for fishing in murky water. 
  3. Coffey’s Sparkle Minnow – This minnow is another versatile fly that works well in stained water. The weight helps it sink quickly and the sparse, flashy body is highly visible to fish. This is my personal go-to for Spring hogs.  
  4. San Juan Worm – When the water is especially murky, sometimes a simple, high-contrast fly like the San Juan Worm is the best option. The bright color and worm-like shape can be irresistible to fish. In the run off worms are plentiful in the soil and end up in the river. 
  5. Beadhead Prince Nymph – The Beadhead Prince Nymph is a great all-purpose nymph that works well in stained water. The flash and movement of the peacock herl and white wings can be especially effective. 
  6. Egg Patterns – Like the San Juan Worm, egg patterns like the Glo Bug are high-contrast flies that can be very effective in murky water. The bright colors mimic the color of salmon or steelhead eggs and can trigger a feeding response in fish. 

If you want to remove the confusion or frustration around picking flies you can order Fishwest Staff Picks for Dry Fly, Nymph and/or Utah Essential Flies.

With the right technique, you can successfully catch trout in rivers during spring. Remember that each river system and fishery are unique, so it can be a good idea to ask local anglers or fishing store if you have any specific question, or if you are in a new area you are not familiar with. You also shouldn’t throw out the tactics that caught you fish all winter. Keep things slow and easy until the trout behavior changes.  

Apart from Tenkara, I will fish most fly fishing disciplines. I prefer throwing dries year-round, but Spring requires compromise and ingenuity to catch fish. In 1953 the philosopher Isiah Berlin published an essay called “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” This essay, though somewhat controversial, details the difference between the behaviors of the hedgehog and the fox. The hedgehog has a singular competency and world view whereas the fox is sly, sophisticated and informed by a variety of experiences. I know, and have been on some days, the hedgehog who would rather get skunked than lace up a San Juan worm. Whether it’s vanity or ignorance I have gone home with no tales to tell many times. As I mature (or just get older), I have embraced other techniques in order to not only be a more well-rounded angler, but also to get some fish in the net. Those foxy days on the water usually produce more fish. Sure, sometimes I have hiked two rods in with me and it’s a pain in the butt, but it’s put me on the board more often than not. If you don’t already buy yourself some bobbers… um strike indicators and try something new. If I am dunking bugs, I only use the Oros brand and highly suggest them. 

In conclusion

I think this year will pose unique and challenging conditions for everyone on the water. Snow melt isn’t predictable, and neither are Spring storms, so keep an eye out for subtle changes in water temperature and clarity.

Trust your gut during highwater flows and remember no fish is worth your life. Also, this is a good time to remind you to keep your dogs at home until the flows decrease. Having less worry about them being swept down river and allowing you more focus on the water! Don’t worry, when the water levels come down, bring the pups back out to the river!

Good luck and stay safe. 

Sources 
  1. NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information, Monthly National Snow and Ice Report for January 2023, published online February 2023, retrieved on February 27, 2023 from https://www.ncei.noaa.gov/access/monitoring/monthly-report/snow/202301. 
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