Ten Tips for Springtime Success: Fly Fishing Freestone Rivers

Jack lands a lunker A Rare Brown Trout Gem McCloud River Magic Ten Fly Fishing Guide Tips for Springtime Success on Northern California Freestones:

Fly Fishing in Northern California: The McCloud River, The Upper Sacramento River, The Pit River(click on any pic for more photos of local streams)

Fly Fishing in springtime is often when the bounty of freestone rivers can be most apparent.  The weather is warming, a variety of bugs are hatching and trout are hungry after a long cold winter.  To best take advantage of these conditions anglers should adopt strategies and techniques best suited to these conditions.  Below is a brief list of some of the most important considerations to help plan a successful springtime fly fishing adventure.

These tips are garnered from years spent on stream by seasoned local guides and aimed at anglers searching for wild trout (only some tips apply to hatchery trout).  We have found them to work well on the rivers in the shadow of Shasta, most should work on your favorite river as well.  Drop a line and let us know!  Of course if you’d care to cut to the chase you can always secure one of the finest local guides and have then share their top tips!

Tip # 1. Be in the Right Place at the Right Time.

This is the most important consideration when planning any fishing trip but is critical in spring when weather and flows can affect conditions so dramatically in such a short period of time.  Check the historical weather and flows before you go and again just before you expect to arrive.  While most everyone wishes for sunshine, the best catching is often on overcast days with drizzle, save the wind for summertime & hoppers please.  Some rivers draw large crowds in spring particularly on the season opener and weekends after.  Check with local shops and guides to assess the fishing pressure you should expect.  Check for alternative options to fish in the area and/or have a back up plan should conditions not turn out to be as good as expected.

Tip #2.  Fish Productive Water.

The pocket water you fished last summer and fall will not be holding many if any fish.  In high water the pockets may not even exist.  Plan on fishing the bigger pools, slots and runs.  Also expect to find fish, particularly Rainbow Trout podded up in these bigger runs.

Tip #3.  Systematically Cover the Water.

If no fish are showing, plan on searching for fish systematically.  Find a productive run (#2 tip) and search it from the near bank towards  the far bank one lane at a time to avoid spooking fish.  If you are lucky enough to discover a hatch is in progress plan on casting to the nearest risers first and work you way towards distant fish to avoid spooking them all.  Of course if a particularly large head shows all bets are off and a new game begins.

Tip # 4.  The More Water You Cover the More Fish You Will Find.

Springtime most often means prospecting to find fish.  It only stands to reason that the more water you cover the more fish you find.  We witness an amazing number of folks who park on a run for hours hoping to dredge up a trout.  They probably stopped fishing for trout some time before and now are fishing only for a type of flounder.  A Fluke.  Covering water also presents the best opportunity for finding rising fish that you can then sometimes park on and catch until the hatch ends (see tip # 6).

Tip # 5 Fish Fresh Water

Frightened fish don’t feed.  Even if an angler didn’t catch a fish in the run you’ve been eyeballing they likely spooked the bulk of them.  On crowded rivers be willing to walk.  Look for wet footprints to avoid fishing a run other anglers just vacated.  Wade deeper and cast farther.  Cover water others haven’t.  Find trout that haven’t been disturbed.  The more fresh water you fish the more fresh fish you will find (see tip #4)!

Tip # 6.  Don’t Leave Fish to Find Fish.

Fish often are podded up in spring in the prime water (tip # 2).  While the first objective is to find them, the second one is to catch them.  We’ll often search with dries and droppers and when we find fish we’ll take another pass through holding water with a nymph rig after searching systematically (tip#3) with the dry dropper rig.  We’ll fish the top of the water column nymphing with a shallow drop and if the run has deep portions we’ll follow through the holding water again fishing our flies on a deeper drop and/or or with more weight.   This can be particularly productive on crowded rivers when it can be a challenge to find fresh water (tip#5).

Be careful not to over do it, fish systematically (tip #3) and move (tip #4).

Tip #7.  Match your Technique to the Water Type.

Most folks have their best success covering big water in spring with an indicator and nymphs but it is not necessary to limit your strategy to one technique.  Trout in springtime have been hungry for a while and a surprising number of them can be drawn to the surface opportunistically.  Covering the water with a large dry fly with some weighted dropper nymphs can be equally or even more effective than deep water nymphing.  Taking the indicator off and high sticking the heads of runs and pools also can aid in getting your flies down  in front of the fishes face to get a grab.  Save your small mayfly dry patterns and finer tippets to match the hatch should you be so lucky.

Tip #8.  Change is Good.

If you are not catching fish doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is counter productive.   Avoid parking on a run (tip #4).  The first fish can often be the toughest.  Of course if you are not catching fish changing your approach has little risk.  If you are nymphing try adding some weight to make certain your flies are getting down to the fish in the heavy flows of spring before changing patterns.  Fish the head of a run without an indicator (high sticking) as well.  It sometimes helps to also think of your flies less as individual patterns representing insects and more as types of flies, large, small, light, dark, bright, drab, weighted and unweighted.  We often prospect with a mix of flies, nymph with a large dark dark one and light small one.  Add fast sinking nymphs to big dries or a small emerger to a large high floating mayfly dry during a hatch often turns the trick.

Tip #9 . Be Observant.

Because there is so much bug activity in spring and so many different bugs hatching it is far too easy to miss the obvious.  In springtime there are so many options it is important to check the menu before deciding on your course.  To paraphrase John Geirach, “There is nothing quite like discovering a hatch and not only tying a fly to match but designing your own creation only to find you were completely and totally wrong but catching fish after fish anyway”.  Even though we may have fished a river or even a particular piece of water the day before, we make it a point, particularly in spring, not to decide on our fly selection prior to enjoying a few minutes to sight for fish and check the menu.  We’ll look closely for bugs on the water, in the air and on streamside shrubbery, and perhaps even turn over a few rocks.

Tip # 10.  Enjoy Yourself!

It’s SPRINGTIME, you’re on  river, it’s beautiful.  Life is Good!  You are not at work and not looking to cure cancer.  Will it really matter in the overall scheme of things if you don’t catch the first fish, the most fish, or the biggest fish?

We fly fish merely to amuse ourselves, take the time you need to enjoy your surroundings and learn something new about the fish, their environment and of course yourself.

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