If I'd have to make a projection as of this date of our forthcoming angling conditions in the mountains; my collective conscious says the season will be a MINIMUM of four (4) weeks later than a "normal season and I'm thinking 6 weeks behind as more likely. So plan you angling venues...timewise... accordingly. As mentioned in the last paragraph of the article; this is not intended to be complete primer on projecting springtime angling strategies. The intent is to pique anglers' thinking, regardless of the previous winter's precipitation and snow.
Musing About Spring
"With some initial reluctance, we were hesitant to write this article on spring-time fly fishing strategies on California’s moving waters. Then on second thought, considering the below precipitation and the dreaded D-word, fly anglers should envision thinking tactics 6-8 weeks earlier than a “normal” season; as in late-April and May, replicating June and early-July conditions.
Planning early season fly angling can be a conundrum. Some consider May and June as the two best months for fly fishing on the Sierra‘s west-slope and valley waters of California. But, the same months are generally the critical times for both rain and snow melt to adversely affect fishing conditions. Spring days are longer, water is warmer and the most prolific hatches occur. Progressively the fly angler wanders up-slope to higher elevations during July and August for prime-time along the Sierra crest and its east slope. Eventually, they will strap-on a back-pack and trek the golden trout waters during August and September.
In truth, not all of the below ideas may be pertinent because this the third straight year of waaaaay below rain and snow in California. All can change on the west coast if we experience another “Miracle March” as happened several years ago. Since this is being written in early February; only time will tell if we experience a “miracle” weather event.
The below concepts may be more appropriate for mid-western and east-coast readers because those regions have had a really wet year. Then, the bulk of the chronological strategies suggested may apply. Nevertheless, as fly anglers we always have to adjust what Mother Nature dictates; so be flexible. As always, success will be determined by being on the water at the right time and the hackneyed “what, where and how".
Spring trout are hungry, making them aggressive and not too finicky. They have waited the whole winter for the increasing cornucopia of food items in the drift. The best plan during this period is to appear stream-side at midday because the water’s temperature is at its warmest. Warming flows triggers both hatches and trout activity.
A sunny day in early spring can activate a midge hatch and sipping trout. Also, an emergence of early-brood Baetis mixed with sporadic March Browns may be on the menu. Be alert for fading remnants of both little winter and Skwala stoneflies. This season, at least in California, anticipate premature emergences of Golden stones, Green Drakes and Pale Morning Duns accompanied by caddis at dusk. For the latter four aquatics it is suggested that one fishes sub-surface, deep, bouncing along the bottom. If one is a trophy-hunter, big river trout require large caloric intakes…in one bite…so streamers and bucktails are always a good play in early season.
So, how does one plan for early spring angling excursions in the Sierra? During a normal season consider that most alpine streams are snow-fed, and the thaw is in progress. This melt means that your preferred mountain stream may be a ragging cascade. Then what? Consider these reasoned options: 1) fish “pre-melt” freestone streams above snow-line, 2) venture below snow-line during run-off, and 3) seek controlled flows, below dams; fish tail-waters.
In early spring above snow-line, the melt is weather related; it can be steady or erratic dependent on the climate changes. The amount of sun exposure dictates the rhythm of the melt and affects when the stream temperatures start rising. Sudden sun exposure results in turbid water and quick run-off; usually about the time when the willows, alders and cottonwoods start sprouting buds. In the Rockies, this upper-elevation, pre-melt period is called an “Indian Spring”. It happens here in California, most especially in the Sierra and Cascades ranges. Everything is energized; wild flowers bloom, birds sing, insects hatch…trout feed.
Streams, below snowline, are good choices for springtime fly fishing. Generally, snowline is about 5000 feet. Good planning entails perusing U.S. Geological Survey topographic maps. There you will get a perspective of gradient which will assist you in determining what type of stream you will encounter.
Timing is critical. It is always good strategy to seek a stable or falling river rather than attempting to fish when the flows are rising and/or discolored. Be aware of snow-pack above; its percentage of water-content is more critical than the existing depth. As already mentioned, weather patterns impact the speed of snow melt and corresponding run-off. Rising water, whether snow melt or rain, forces trout from habitual lies. It will take a trout a few days to acclimate after a rapid rise in flows before they settle into both predictable holding lies and commence feeding regularly.
During melt and run-off periods, tail-waters are more predictable fisheries than freestone streams. The flows are generally stable and water temperatures constant. Another of those pesky conundrums is that, assuming most of us are fishery conservationists, we consider dams as needless and harmful. So, the positive view is that we utilize those streams which are already dammed…for our unabashed, angling pleasure. They’re there, might as well use them. A term I use for such behavior is being a “situational ethicist”.
Get to know who operate dams, use appropriate apps or bookmark websites which will likely have charts on existing and/or a history of prior releases. If you visit a specific water regularly, you will establish what the optimum flows are for your best fly angling success.
This article is not intended to be a complete primer on assessing springtime water conditions and how they will affect success or failure on your early season outings. The intent is to pique anglers’ interest to focus attention on weather and its impact on hydrology and seek different types of water that can provide optimum fly fishing prospects. During the unpredictable climate of spring remain optimistic, one can find streams with near ideal water conditions, wild trout, and solitude…if one is inquisitive, does some research and thinks out of the box."