Early Spring Trout Fly Fishing: Catch More Fish in Seasonal Transition

As the days flip flop between ice in the guides temperatures and sunglasses weather fly fishers engaging in early spring trout fly fishing need to modify some techniques to produce fish during seasonal transitions. Flexibility with both fly selections, rigging, technique, and location are key. Don’t get tunnel vision on one fly or technique because you had a take or even three, or landed a nice fish. I’ll bet your best fish days don’t come from fishing one fly one way all day this time of year! Catching good numbers of transition fish is all about effectively testing a few variables over the course of your fishing day, and here are some tips on how to do that!

Trout are ready to eat- if you're willing to get 'close enough'!
Trout are ready to eat- if you’re willing to get ‘close enough’!

Fans and readers of the MonthlyFy.com blog know we always drop this little tidbit in our articles for first time readers: We try to share straightforward techniques you can implement easily the next time you go fishing. We try (try) not to wax poetic or delve too deeply into the underlying philosophy of fly fishing- while a worthy pursuit and wonderful to read we leave that to others more eloquent or to your own personal ruminations on the water. Lastly, we are the premier fly subscription service out there- we send you 15 flies each month for just $9 to ‘Match the Hatch’ for your local waters. Automatically. No contracts, no commitments. Cancel anytime. If you like what you read- give us a shot- we earn your business each and every month. Now, on to the fun stuff!

What does the Trout want?

While I do not personally subscribe to the ‘BE the fish’ school of fly fishing for trout, I ALWAYS devote a moment to consider: What does the fish want? It’s late winter/early spring. In general they’ve been on a forced diet for many months now. Foraging for small nymphs on the bottom, perhaps scuds as well, with an occasional bigger protein bite like a stonefly or sculpin, and sipping miniscule midges and BWO’s has made them leaner and ready to eat. Breeding is probably completed, and that sapped a bunch of energy as well. It’s a calorie in / calorie out equation- if calories out exceed calories in for too long, you’ve got a dead fish, and their instincts know it. So we’ve established they’re hungry, and feeling it. I find spring transition trout more open to sampling patterns that aren’t precise imitators, or a ‘close enough’ pattern to one of the main food sources. Consider fly choices that have that ‘buggy’ quality and might be ‘close enough’ to a variety of potential food sources. One of my favorites is a Montana Yellow #12.

Bumble bee? Nope- winter time stimulator.
Bumble bee? Nope- winter time stimulator.

It’s a big bushy black thing with a flash of yellow and black hackle and I’m sure many of you reading this are well familiar with the pattern. Closest thing it resembles (to me) is a bumble bee. I don’t see bumble bees in the winter, but darn it gets eaten well.

A second consideration when answering the question ‘What does the trout want?’ (Don’t hum that to the tune ‘What does the Fox say?’- it’ll be there all day) is the type of water you’re fishing. Deeper pools probably contain lethargic trout that don’t move too far or too fast to take a meal. They’re hunkered down looking for warmth or a low energy place to rest up. So of course the methodology is low and slow. If you’re fishing a nice run or riffle, it’s more likely those fish are actively feeding, and perhaps looking for more precise insect imitations, but also willing to chase a little more for the right fly presented the right way. If searching new water or big broad featureless runs we suggest those general patterns, the ‘close enough’ looking fly that if you squint could be a whole bunch of different bugs. Remember, they’re hungry. Soft hackles are a great example of such an early spring pattern over a lot of the US.

One of our favorite early spring flies- the soft hackle.
One of our favorite early spring flies- the soft hackle.


In early spring we suggest a few adjustments to rigging as well. These are merely suggestions but we’ve found them to be productive. When nymphing in early spring (often in tandem and often when searching for biting fish) try increasing the length between weight and fly, and between lead and trailer fly (Authors note- I personally prefer to fish weightless flies lacking wire or lead wrap as I believe they move more naturally with the current and install weight through a number of methods including small shot or lead wrap above the lead fly- it’s a personal choice). Try putting as much as 12 – 18 inches between any weight and the fly, and the same between the lead fly and the trailer. This can be an ungainly and sizable rig and takes some getting used to. You might miss some strikes due to the length but I believe there are two big advantages- both flies move more naturally in the micro currents and carried more naturally along an appropriate path to a feeding fish, and you’ll pay much more attention to subtle takes and changes in the behavior of your line. Both are desired results! The same concept applies to dries in tandem- when using a larger dry as a strike indicator when fishing tiny winter dries- give yourself more cushion between the two. While it is certainly harder to figure if that trout sip was YOUR fly, it’s going to increase the number of takes.

Be ready (and willing) for expected and early hatches

We also suggest always carrying some flies you might consider atypical for the season should expected future hatches begin early, as well as be willing to devote more time to some common winter patterns, like midges and BWOs. Hey we understand having a fish sip a small midge or BWO dry isn’t the most exciting thing in the world- but it sure feels good when you net the fish! We find fly fishers don’t fish the winter food source patterns like the above enough. When these bugs do come off, even in sporadic quantities, we’ll remind you again- these fish are hungry. Time to be flexible, put up your search pattern or meat fly, and switch over to those tiny dries and nymphs that are trout winter staples.

In the same vein- keep an eye open. How many times in early spring have you spotted a bug you didn’t expect to see? There are so many micro climates and micro variables that could spur ‘atypical’ insect activity on a stretch of even a few feet of river they are too numerous to list. A stretch of water shaded by gorge or mountain may take a turn and line up properly to receive much more sun. I know of a few spots like this, and I fish them with different flies than spots just 50 or a 100 feet away a number of months out of the year for just this reason! Keep it simple- don’t try to ID the bug or peg it’s Latin name- just get your best guess on color and size- and go to your fly box. Fish caught this way can be so much more rewarding!

In summary, when trying to dial in trout in seasonal transition, and amidst your regular lineup of winter bigs and tiny imitators, sprinkle in some pattern flexibility, give yourself more space in your rigs to let your flies naturally play into fish feeding lanes, and take a moment to ponder “What does the trout want’? Then try and deliver.

Tight lines,


P.S. If you sign up now for our Match the Hatch subscription (deadline March 15th) you can still receive our March subscription for just $9- that’s 15 flies each month specially selected for your area. No contracts, no commitments, shipping included. What have you got to lose but catching more fish?!?

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