Repost: 5 Keys to Spring-Creek Trout

Spring Creeks 1

A gorgeous trout from Armstrong Spring Creek in Montana’s Paradise Valley..

photo by Brant Oswald

When cold weather rolls into the mountains, many rivers freeze or become very difficult to wade. Spring creeks, however, usually maintain a near-constant water temperature throughout the year, which makes them prime winter fisheries. In the early 90s, I guided at Hubbard’s Yellowstone Lodge in Paradise Valley, Montana, where I got the chance to fish all three famous spring creeks there. But it wasn’t until two years ago that I got the opportunity to experience a spring creek in winter. On a day when the mercury never got above 20 degrees, we were able to cast to feeding fish for most of the day on Armstrong Spring Creek. It wasn’t comfortable, but it was challenging and fun.

The late writer Bill Tapply, a friend and fishing buddy, was addicted to spring creeks. He wrote that he fell in love the very first time he laid eyes on the Paradise Valley streams that bubble from the ground, clear and cool, and then flow into the Yellowstone. Bill enjoyed spring creeks wherever he found them—from Montana to Argentina—and he developed a system for targeting the wary fish that live in these waters. Because spring creeks are generally clear and slow-moving, the fish are hyper-aware of their surroundings, and stealth is key. Here is Bill’s five-step plan to approaching a spring creek.

Step 1: Locate the Fish.

Sometimes this easy, and sometimes it isn’t. Rising fish take all the guesswork out of it, as do fish holding over a light bottom in shallow water. But honing your fish-spotting skills is a good idea before you head to a spring creek. The ability to spot a silhouette, a shadow, a fin edge, or the white of a trout’s mouth will give you a big advantage. And if you can’t see any fish, concentrate your efforts on the likeliest holding water.

Step 2: Approach with Caution.

Your first impulse, once you spot a fish, is to start casting immediately. Resist this urge. Instead, take the time to plan your approach, and determine from where you can make the best presentation. Move slowly, and keep a low profile. Stay out of the water as much as possible.

Step 3: Study the Fish.

When you’ve made it to your spot, it’s still not time to cast. First, study the fish’s behavior to determine what it is eating (duns, emergers, nymphs?) and to get a feel for its feeding rhythm, which you will want to match.

Spring Creeks 2

Even when the air temperature is 17 degrees, spring-creek trout will rise to a hatch
of blue-winged olives. But the fish are just as hard to fool as they are in summer.

photo by Brant Oswald


Step 4: Tie on the Right Fly.

Based on your observation of the trout’s feeding behavior, anything you see on the water, and what you know of local bug life, tie on your best-guess pattern. In most circumstances, Tapply argues, an exact imitation is less important than a good presentation. Don’t change flies until you know you’ve made a couple good drifts.

Step 5: Make Your First Drift Count.

Although you’ll usually get more than one chance to fool a trout, your best opportunity to is on the first cast, before the trout has a chance to get spooked by your line or a shadow or some underwater noise. Before you cast, picture exactly where you want the fly to land and how you can make it drift perfectly. Once you think you know where to drop the fly, how to manage your line, and when the fish will strike, make that first cast.

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