It’s now February. According to my calendar, next month will be March, which means that despite the snow and cold temperatures currently slamming most northern states, early-season fly fishing is right around the corner.
Early spring is a time when a lot of Montana guides hit the water hard. Our schedules are pretty wide open, and we’ve been cooped up all winter, so we are more than ready to get after it. So are the fish. Especially the BIG fish. For the most part, they’ve been relatively dormant since the fall, making them hungry and willing to be aggressive. This combination can produce some epic streamer and dry-fly action if the timing is right.
But how do you know when the timing is right to give yourself the best opportunity to hit the fishing when it’s hot—when those big browns will throw themselves recklessly at a streamer, when a rainbow will look for any excuse to break the surface?
Everything I know about early-season fishing I learned from fellow guide Pat Kane. Pat wrote the book on Western trout. His parents didn’t conceive him; they “spawned” him. I look forward to every opportunity I get to fish with Pat, especially during the spring, as it’s always a great learning experience and he was the first person to show me that early-season fly fishing can be lights-out.
When Pat and I look for opportunities to hit the early-spring bite, we consider three things: flow (measured in cubic feet per second, or CFS), clarity, and water temperature. All three play a part in dictating eating habits and aggressive feeding of trout in the spring. Each river can be different, so find a way to stay in tune with your local waters. We use the USGS’s website (https://water.usgs.gov/), which provides data for most rivers in each state.
To start with, the flow needs to be stable or dropping. It’s amazing how trout will turn off when a river’s water level begins to rise. With freestone rivers, snow runoff and rain are the two most critical factors that dictate flow. If you hit it wrong, you’ll find yourself fishing a river that is blown out. (We call it fishing “chocolate milk.”) No fun.
But with a level or dropping flow, the water clarity will start improving, sometimes rapidly. The more clarity, the more visibility for the fish, meaning they are more likely to chase, follow, or rise to a fly. Again, each river is different, but a good starting point for streamers is 6 to 8 inches of visibility. Use rocks under the surface to help you gauge this distance. For dry flies, you’ll want it closer to a foot of visibility. Also, when visibility is low, you want to hit the inside banks. (For instance, if a river bends to the right, you want to focus on the right-hand bank). Normally, an angler would target the current on the outside bank, where trout hold along the seam lines that collect food. But with tough water clarity, the visibility is always better along the inside bank, which is where big trout, especially browns, will often move to feed.
Water clarity and flow are important, but the water temperature influences a trout’s aggressiveness more than anything. If the water is too cold, the fish are sluggish and have no interest in working for a meal. Water temperatures also dictate insect hatches. Here in Montana, our early-spring hatches include midges, spring Baetis, March browns, and our favorite, Skawalas (an early season stonefly that drives trout crazy).
Always pack a thermometer and over time you will dial-in the point at which a specific river turns on. Fishing water in the upper 30s is not unheard of, although it means working the slowest water you can find, usually in the form of long, slow runs and eddies. (If you are fishing a streamer, you want it crawling along bottom, almost at a dead drift.) Once the water hits the mid-40s, the fish will be livelier and you can work a dry fly in the faster seams or start giving that streamer little more pep on each strip.
Lastly, remember to consider what’s going on above you. An overcast sky will prevent a river from warming up until later in the day, making the afternoon and evening the prime fishing time.
Have fun getting a feel for your local fisheries and how they behave in the spring. Try to be flexible and move according to the conditions. But it’s worth the effort—you’ll have some unbelievable early-season days. This is the reason why Pat and PRO Outfitters started offering their spring “pub crawl,” where they remain mobile and follow the hot fishing, taking their clients to whichever river has the best conditions at that time. It makes for some legendary days and unforgettable fish.