By Patrick Straub EBS Fishing Columnist
Mention spring creek fishing to your angling friends and you’ll get a myriad of responses—the trout are selective, the flies are too small, the leaders too long, and you have to be sneaky.
Fishing, like alcoholic beverages, offers something for every palate. Fishing double nymph rigs below an indicator from a drift boat may be the canned light beer of the fly fishing world, while stalking finicky trout with single dry flies on a gin-clear spring creek is akin to a Napa cabernet.
In the eyes of this veteran guide, spring creek fishing can be like a fine wine, but it’s still fishing so I’ll liken it to drinking wine out of the bottle. Spring creeks offer a mix of angling intimacy, just the right amount of challenge, and often fish well when other rivers are in runoff, too cold or too warm to fish, and can be found in many places throughout the world. Here’s some advice on how to best enjoy these unique waters.
What is a spring creek? A spring creek results from springs or flowing water that emerges from the ground with enough flow to produce a creek or stream large and cool enough to harbor trout. Most spring creeks are less than 50 feet wide, with a few exceptions like Amstrong and DePuy creeks in Montana, Silver Creek in Idaho, and Big Spring Creek in Pennsylvania.Spring creeks can be especially challenging because they have clear and consistent water flow, and the aquatic environment corresponds with a similar consistency. Trout become used to this stability and adjust their behavior accordingly. When a prolific hatch occurs trout are opportunistic and feed in abundance, however their feeding often is on a specific insect during a specific phase of a hatch.
Adjust your angling attitude. Like a Napa cab, spring creeks are not found everywhere, and therefore your objectives and expectations when fishing a spring creek are unique as well. When fishing a spring creek, attention to the angling process is paramount—satisfaction should be based in quality of experience over the quantity of fish caught. It’s best to embrace a spring creek as an opportunity to improve and appreciate your angling rather than reaffirm your skills in an easy situation.
Problem solving must be enjoyed, not scoffed at. An interest in understanding the hows and the whys will result in more enjoyment.
How is that fish feeding? Is it eating insects below the surface, on the surface, or near the bottom? These questions can aid in appropriate fly selection and tackle adjustments. Acute adjustments are often crucial—changing fly size from 20 to 22 could be the difference between catching or observing. Using a dry fly powder instead of a dry fly gel may allow your emerger pattern to float more naturally, enticing a strike versus a refusal.
It’s a bug’s life on a spring creek. Advanced knowledge of trout entomology is important. Learn the life cycle of midges, mayflies, and caddis. Know the difference between an emerger, an adult, and a spinner and be able to recognize them on the water.
Study riseforms as trout breach the surface. If you see a nose or mouth, they are most likely eating adults. If you see a back and a tail fin, they are probably eating emergers. Splashy rises could mean emergers or they are eating adult caddis. Nervous water but no breach could mean they are keying into active nymphs. Observe, observe, observe before choosing a fly or making a cast.
Your tackle must be lighter and more sensitive. Fish smaller weight rods and more supple fly lines. Choose leaders that are longer and softer and no less than 12 feet long. Tippet sections tend to be longer, but smaller in diameter—5X is heavy for most spring creeks. If you use weighted nymphs while sight fishing, be prepared to use micro-sized split shot to obtain the ideal drift.
Learn some fundamental skills to obtain better drifts. Presenting your fly so a fish thinks it’s a natural offering is paramount. Mastering a drag-free drift is a key component of proper presentation. Learning a reach cast, stack cast, or pile cast is a must. Practice adding slack line during a mend to allow your fly to float longer, and more naturally, throughout its drift. These refined skills are not difficult to master, but they do require practice and patience.
Like the water emerging from the earth to create spring creek, the passion for spring creek fly fishing is deep-rooted. It commands the desire to understand the process of fly fishing, embracing the unique approach of fishing spring creeks, and attempting to understand why we go fly fishing in the first place.
Unlike a canned beer that immediately loses quality once opened, pleasure from fishing spring creeks often gets better with time.
Pat Straub is a twenty year veteran guide on the Paradise Valley Spring Creeks, the cofounder of the Montana Fishing Guide School, and the author of six books, including “The Frugal Fly Fisher,” “Montana On The Fly” and “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Fly Fishing.” He and his wife own Gallatin River Guides in Big Sky.