Published by: Mike Wallace
As spring runoff ramps up, we watch as the big rivers swell, water gets stained and fish seek cover from the surging flows. While these rivers remain fishable, we navigate the high water by carefully selecting locations; mainly for safety but also for reaching fish available to present flies to. The fish are obviously hungry due to a combination of fattening up from the winter and burning calories on the spring runoff treadmill. As far as food sources go; midges of course, lingering baetis nymphs and spring caddis are now on the menu with some early stoneflies.
However, it’s not always about the big rivers this time of year. The small creeks and streams have a unique offering for the fly angler willing to explore with a 3wt or 4wt rod. These waters are also swollen with runoff but tend to run clearer than their larger counterparts down valley. Granted, after a rain or late season snowfall, they’ll stain up a bit. The difference is they clear up somewhat sooner than the bigger rivers.
On a recent tour up a high alpine valley I found a small to medium size creek with an abundance of places to find fish. The flows were high relative to the terrain but what I found were many side pools holding hungry fish. The main currents were fast but the banks were dotted with nice deep eddies holding some cutthroat and brook trout. A well placed small hopper with a bead head trailing 6” to 10” under it got a lot of attention from the brookies. Sight casting to a few larger fish with only the hopper also produced some action. While not red hot, it’s still nice to get a few dry eats while most of the productive fishing this time of year is subsurface.
Along the subsurface lines, deeper eddies and side pools require some alternate rigging. A medium sized indicator may be required for supporting the necessary weight. Beaded flies and maybe some split shot is how we get those nymphs down into the depths and below any moving water that will push your flies away from the fish. These trout are holding deep in the softer currents and very near the bottom. Trout will also tuck themselves under cut banks and out of the faster flows but will sometimes venture into the current for a hearty meal if shown the right fly. Finding that “Goldilocks” water that is “just right” will give your flies the drift needed to entice a take. These targets are the “not too fast” and “not too slow” seams that are holding the real food fish seek. Placing your flies on the slower side of these seams and letting them sink while getting pushed into the slowest water or the back eddy is the most natural presentation. The feeding fish will usually be waiting on the edge of this transition, mostly at the lower depths. But don’t discount a hungry fish that may be holding near the faster water aggressively feeding. Make quite a few drifts before changing spots as your flies may need the chance to swirl around different micro-currents and onto the nose of a waiting trout.
The usual fly selection for smaller tributaries this time of year can be Hoppers and Stimulators in the size #12 or #14 range. For droppers behind these surface flies and stacked nymph rigs, a #12 or #14 jigged or standard beadhead will work as the attractor. Below this get small and deliberate with the species with #18 - #20 or smaller in the Midge and BWO categories. I had success with a #14 BH stone pattern (TDJ Stone) for attractor with a #18 Gray Darth Baetis about 10” behind it. Both got ample attention from the brook trout. Smaller dries to try depend on what you see flying around so the standard “Match the Hatch” rules apply.
As far as crowds, I was mostly alone. And when I did meet another person or two, we’d chat a sec and go our separate ways easily finding room for isolation and beautiful water to try.
If you're interested in learning more about fly fishing an alpine stream stop in the shop and check with our knowledgeable staff. For more in depth adventure, our guide staff will gladly take you into our many permitted small streams and get you going. One thing to note, small trout streams present some fun challenges unique to the high alpine environment. Read more about small trout stream fly angling here. For those up for the adventure the rewards for both beginner and avid fly angler can be amazing.