By Zach Lazzari
Early spring is touch-and-go in terms of weather. But seasoned tailwater anglers know the magic of this season. Tailwaters deliver consistent and stable water temperatures and early spring delivers stable hatches, slightly longer days for anglers and hungry trout that have been more unpressured throughout the winter months.
Form a strategy and hit the water hard this spring. You might turn over the biggest fish of the year during this window of opportunity.
Plan Your Gear Accordingly
Tailwater fisheries trigger constant debate about the best approach to equipment. Every tailwater system is a little different but a 6-weight rod and floating line is ideal in most scenarios. While a 5-weight fly rod is fine in many cases, the 6-weight offers a little more power in windy conditions and it has the backbone to manage heavier nymph rigs and large trout. Keeping a 5-weight handy for delicate dry fly days is never a bad idea. Also carrying a sink tip streamer rod never hurts either.
Early spring often means the sun is shining one minute and the next you are dodging hail or snow. The weather changes constantly and anglers should never underestimate the conditions. Dress in layers and wear the warmest socks you own. Cold feet will quickly end a day that could have otherwise gone along for a few extra hours of fishing. If you do catch a chill, simply split the day into sessions and take breaks to warm in the car. Stashing a sleeping bag and even a propane heater in the vehicle makes a big difference. I carry hand warmers on the coldest of days and drop them in my waders to stay comfortable while wading through ice-cold rivers.
Lastly, plan out your fly selection, leaders and tippet. Rigging rods at home is ideal as you can keep the gloves on and begin fishing immediately when arriving at the river. Rigging in the cold is far more difficult as you lose finger dexterity.
For flies, small bugs to imitate midges and blue wing olive or baetis mayflies are imperative. Also bring along a few streamers and your general attractor style nymphs. Anything with a red or pink beadhead is a good move as some tailwaters have an early spawning season for the rainbow trout.
Leaders rigged at 7-9 feet in length are the norm and while many anglers advocate for 6x and 7x tippet strengths, I prefer 3x, 4x and 5x when targeting big fish. Use the heaviest tippet that will fit through the eye and do not reduce the size until the fish are clearly refusing and demanding a smaller tippet class.
Beat the Crowds
Fishing a freestone river in the spring calls for later start times as the water is too cold early in the day. The noon to late afternoon window is perfect on a freestone. But fishing tailwaters is much different. The water temperatures are steady and arriving early is a good approach. If the river has little traffic, show up anytime. But choosing to arrive early on popular waters means you have first shots at the fish. They become more weary throughout the day as more anglers present flies and cast shadows. Beat the crowds and hit it early or show up late and take a shot at last light.
Watch the Weather
You can fish many tailwaters in just about any weather conditions but certain days will really trigger the hatches and bring trout into an active feeding frenzy. Stable weather conditions that last for three or more days are perfect, as the barometer is not fluctuating. Plan trips around these stability windows for consistent fishing.
Also, look for partly cloudy days with intermittent snow. The snow offers two major advantages during the early spring. Other anglers will check the weather and decide to take the day off while it snows. A light snowstorm however, can produce serious results as the baetis mayflies hatch in large numbers, bringing trout to the surface. The small mayflies hatch when the humidity spikes enough to hydrate their wings and the trout really key into this hatch throughout the spring.
Break the Rules
The one rule of thumb you should NEVER break during the early spring is fishing over spawning rainbow trout. Also, keep an eye out for redds and stay clear of these reproduction zones.
Otherwise, work through the proven tactics and nymph fish your smallest mayflies and midges to big trout. When things get tough however, change up the game and go big. Roll a big stonefly nymph along the bottom or fish your favorite streamer patterns. You might turn a nice fish or two by going against the grain. Even if you don’t, changing the pace and taking a different approach adds variety and excitement to the day.
Recommended Fly Rods:
Early spring fishing on tailwaters is prime 6-weight territory. Our M-Series 10' 3" 6-weight is a versatile fly rod. The extra reach is ideal for mending, roll casts, and line control. From nymph rigs to streamers to hoppers, this rod has a great combination of finesse and power.
Alternatively, take a look at our popular Reaper X 9-foot, 6-weight. This rod offers a crazy level of performance for the price. It’s quick but not stiff – what we’d call a medium-fast action rod. It has great touch, it’s forgiving, and it’s just plain fun to fish.