If you give any credit to Darwinian theory, human beings evolved from primates living in caves to the most advanced species on the planet by responding to and overcoming environmental and intellectual challenges. Whether we’re training to run a marathon or figuring out how to beat a boss in a video game, we’re genetically programmed to take on what is most difficult, learn how to be successful, and eventually advance to the next level.
In the world of fly fishing there are many such challenges. From first figuring out how to cast, learning about entomology, and catching a notoriously difficult gamefish like steelhead or permit, there is a seemingly endless number of trials within the sport. However, if you were to take a census among veteran fly anglers as to what is the most frustratingly difficult task in fly fishing, you can bet a good-size chunk of them would vote for catching a trout in a spring creek.
What’s the Deal with Spring Creeks? Spring creeks are fantastic and truly unique water systems formed when underground springs produce enough water to feed a free-flowing stream. Continuously filled with crystal clear water, these creeks are pristine environments with uniform flows and water temperatures throughout the year. The purity and consistency of the water makes spring creeks absolutely teem with life. From the aquatic insects like mayflies and stoneflies living beneath the surface to the frogs, muskrats, and waterfowl that call the creeks home, everything living in these small pure oases often becomes large, healthy, and hearty–including the trout.
Trout living in spring creeks are so sought after by fly anglers because every one of them, from the most massive brown to the tiniest brookie, is usually living its absolute best life and has the muscle and beauty to prove it. There’s just something special about spring creek fish. However, managing to land one is a whole different story, and therein lies the challenge.
We tend to give trout a bit too much credit for being smart when in reality their brain is the size of a BB. Yet it often seems like spring creek trout have a master’s degree in avoiding being caught. No matter how heavily the fish are feeding or deeply they’re stacked in a pool, they’ll avoid any fly that isn’t perfectly presented. Furthermore, all it takes is one lousy drift or splashy cast to cause the fish to completely shut down and go scurrying for cover. This isn’t because the trout in spring creeks are especially smart, but rather because they are products of their environment.
In the gin-clear and often slow-flowing water of a spring creek, trout can scrutinize every potential food item that drifts past them. Insect hatches are timely and consistent, so if your fly is the wrong shape, color, or size, they simply won’t eat it. The calm water conditions in spring creeks also give the trout the ability to detect every movement within and just above the water. They’re able to sense every little shadow and every movement of potential predators, which makes them extremely wary. You have to approach them stealthily and use the right equipment to be successful.
The Best Equipment for Fishing Spring Creeks Mastering the art of spring creek fishing is all about making accurate casts and fishing with tiny and delicate presentations on equipment that can still handle battling a big fish when necessary. Because spring creeks are such life-rich environments, just what the trout are in the mood for can change on an almost hourly basis. You may face a scenario where you’re fishing a size 22 midge nymph in the morning, a giant foam hopper in the afternoon, and a small mayfly spinner pattern in the evening. You never know what the creek will throw at you, so you have to be prepared to throw right back.
Fly rods for spring creek fishing should either be a size or two smaller than your average trout rod or have a relatively slow action. A 5- or 6-weight rod will work for most spring creek scenarios but should have a full flex action. However, if you’re looking for a spring creek-specific rod, your best bet is a 3- or 4-weight mid-flex rod.
“I think 3 and 4 weights were designed for spring creeks,” said David Force, head guide for Hubbard’s Yellowstone Lodge in the spring creek-filled Paradise Valley. “The rods have a slow-ish action, giving you the ability to pin-point cast tiny nymphs or small dry flies but still have enough backbone to give you complete control over both your flies and the big hooked-jawed monster of a trout you’ll eventually hook.”
Leaders for spring creek fishing should be as long as you can make them while still being able to comfortably cast, mend, and set the hook—usually somewhere between 10 and 15 feet is best. Fishing with leaders this long greatly decreases the chances of spooking a fish with the shadow of a fly line and creates distance between the fish and a splashing fly line. You’ll want to choose a light tapered leader in 5X or 6X range with 6X or 7X fluorocarbon tippet material.
Fly selection is critical when fishing spring creeks. While you can often get away with fishing general attractor patterns like the Stimulator or Adams on other rivers, this is mostly a useless practice on a spring creek. The fish are incredibly selective, so you need to familiarize yourself with the entomology of the creek you’re fishing and use high-quality flies and match the hatch as closely as possible.
“I usually spend at least a half an hour or more looking over the creek before I let my client’s fish it,” Force said. “I’ll try to see what’s buzzing around the water and even try to catch a few bugs and look them over if I can so that I know I’m matching my dry fly just right.”
The Best Techniques for Fishing Spring Creeks Nymphing will be far and away your best technique to use anytime the fish aren’t rising. Your best spots for success on a spring creek are any narrow areas in the creek where the water is moving fast and the fish have less time to look over your flies. Set up by tying a length of fluorocarbon to your leader and then adding a small bead head nymph pattern such as a size 16 or 18 Hares Ear or Pheasant Tail to the end. This fly will act as both an attractor pattern and a weight that will pull your presentation down into the strike zone. Then take a lighter section of tippet between 8 and 12 inches long and tie it to the bend of the hook with a clinch knot so that it hangs directly below the nymph. Add a second weightless nymph like a size 18 to 24 English Pheasant Tail or Disco Midge to the terminal end. Finally, attach a small wool or yarn strike indicator to your leader at about twice the length from your first fly as the depth of the water you’re fishing.
Start casting at the top of the run where the water is moving the fastest, mending when necessary, so that the indicator is traveling at the same speed as any bubbles on the surface of the water. After making a dozen casts with no strikes, take a few steps downstream and repeat the process until you locate where the fish are feeding.
Getting a drag-free drift is essential when fishing dry flies on spring creeks. The best way to do this is by perfecting the downstream drift. Difficult to learn but easy to master, downstream drifting consists of casting a fly well upstream of but directly in line with a rising trout and then mending out slack so your fly drifts downstream and passes directly over the fish.
When you spot a riser, position yourself 50 to 60 feet upstream of the fish with the line of current the trout is rising in a few feet off your rod tip. Peel a few handfuls of line off your reel and loop it in your free hand until you feel you have enough slack to drift the fly over the fish. Make a short cast directly in front of you so that your fly is in line with the rising trout. Then start mending upstream, dropping the slack loops in your free hand as you go. It takes a bit of practice to mend gently enough so that you don’t move the fly as it drifts downstream while still maintaining enough tension in the line to set the hook. One of the best things about spring creeks though, is that there are usually enough trout rising that you’ll have plenty of targets to practice on until you get the technique down.
Welcome to the Show Spring creeks are perhaps the most technical waters an angler can fish. The picky trout and haphazard hatches make them places of continuous uncertainty that can frustrate anglers to hair-pulling, rod-breaking madness—and therein lies a spring creek's true attraction. These streams are a challenge waiting to be met. It helps a lot to approach these waters as if you were hunting: slowly, analytically, unobtrusively, and on your hands and knees if you have to. If you spook a big trout, he’s gone. Game over.
When it all goes right and you end up holding a beautiful spring creek trout in your hands, you find an unforgettable feeling of satisfaction. Having a good day on a spring creek is a sign that you’ve reached the upper echelon of the fly fishing class, and there’s no challenge in the angling world that you can’t overcome. After successfully fishing a spring creek, the sky is the limit.
Feature image via Tosh Brown.