The Best Techniques for Early Season Trout

March 18, 2024 By: Kubie Brown

Image by Mike Doughty

Winter is a tough season for fly anglers. The rivers are frozen up and the banks are choked with snow, locking anglers in their homes like chained dogs—waiting to be unleashed. Once the first rays of spring sunshine break through the gray, many anglers will practically sprint to the nearest river. Frantically tying on their favorite patterns and splashing them down on any pool of open water, these early season warriors don’t go to the river to catch fish or even expect to catch any. Their early season adventures are all about shaking off the cobwebs and enjoying standing in the spring sun after a long winter. Catching fish is secondary. However, it is possible to have the best of both worlds.

Despite sluggish trout and high, off color water from snow melt making it hard for fish to find your fly, early season angling can actually catch you a lot of fish. If you’re willing to use the right techniques in the right places, you can celebrate the early season by putting some bends in your rod and the first trout of the season in your net.

Stoneflies, Midges, and Worms… Oh My!

High, cold water at the beginning of run-off or during a low-snow year usually means that trout will move with all the vigor of a sumo wrestler after a big lunch. They’re sluggish, and slow, and only willing to feed on flies drifted right in front of their faces. What’s more is that these trout are in search of the warmest water possible, meaning that they’re going to be holding close to bottom, or stacked up in the froggy pond water near the bank. It can be a hard sell to get these fish to take a fly, unless you’re using the right combination of bugs.

During the early season, you’ll want to use flies that will attract a lethargic trout’s attention and offer them an easy meal. This often means fishing with two nymphs, with one acting as an attractant to draw a trout closer and the other being an irresistible tidbit the fish can’t help but eat. Your best bet for this is fishing with a stonefly and a midge or a worm as a dropper.

To set up the rig, attach a small indicator to your leader at about the same length as the depth as the water. Tie a larger stonefly pattern such as a Riot Stone or a 20-Incher to the line and add either a San Juan Worm or a larger midge like a ICU or an Ice Cream Cone about six inches below the stonefly as a dropper.

Fish the rig in the slowest moving, deepest water you can find or as close to the bank edge as you can get in stretches of the river with little to no current. The key to success is keeping your flies close to the bottom or close to the bank edges while adding lots of mends to ensure that nymphs are drifting as sluggishly as the trout. If you don’t get any strikes after a couple drifts, hit the run again with a shorter leader that will keep the flies higher in the water column and add in the occasional gentle twitch to the drift. It might be just the thing to trigger a lazy spring trout into striking.

Big Bugs in the Mud

When run-off is a bit more advanced and the water starts to dirty up, it’s time to put the nymphs away and to pull out the streamer box. However, fishing streamers in the early season isn’t the same game as the stripping and ripping madness you played in the fall. Early season streamer fishing during run-off calls for low and slow work where you dead drift the fly at the same speed of the current and strikes can be as gentle and delicate as a butterflies wing.

To start, choose a streamer pattern such as a Dirty Hippy or a Fish Taco which have a lot of natural movement and don’t require a lot of twitching or stripping to give them action. In dirty water the color of the fly is incredibly important because you’ll want it to stand out so bright colors like white or yellow or dark colors like black or brown are your best bet. If you want to cover all your bases, try tying on a larger white or yellow fly first and then adding a smaller darker fly about 12 to 18 inches below it as a dropper.

Fish the streamer rig by casing slightly upstream and dropping the fly as close to the bank as possible. Give it two quick strips away from the bank and then throw a short downstream mend that will allow the streamer to drift downstream with the current. Trout during this time usually aren’t up for running a streamer down so try to move the fly as little as possible during the drift, adding in only an occasional twitch or two. Strikes can be extremely subtle when you’re fishing like this so set the hook hard anytime you feel a slight bump or even if you just see the line twitch or move in an awkward way.,

Stop Going Through the Motions

As much as we all like to say that we just like being out on the water, the real reason that we all go fly fishing is to catch fish. In fact, there really shouldn’t ever be a time in your fishing career that you are just going out on the water just to cast. Afterall, no matter how nice it is to just be on the river with the sun on your face and your line in the water, the fact is that winter is coming. Even in the early season when the long cold seems so far away, you still only have a limited amount of time to fish before freeze up. So why not go out and try and catch as many trout as you can as soon as you can because before you know it, you’ll be stuck inside watching the snow float past your window and wishing for brighter days once again.