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Spring on the River

Posted in: Fishing Articles

Spring weather lifts the burden of old man winter off southern Alberta and coaxes fly fishers from their vices onto open rivers. As some of the only open water around, early migrants bring the river to life. Franklin’s gulls break the silence of winter, ducks are flashing their breeding plumage, and soon swallows will fill the sky in a frenzy. Itching to just get back on the river, expectations are tempered with shaking the dust off your cast and soaking some rays in mind. Low water temperatures hold fish from being active early, but quality trout still show themselves.

seagulls and ducks on river row boat and tree line in the distanceseagulls and ducks on river row boat and tree line in the distance
Franklin's gulls on the bow river

From late March through April, fish feed in deep, slow, ‘winter’ water. This water is slower than we want to believe, we’re drawn to fishing the riffles and runs our lines go tight in in the summer. But until water temperatures warm up, fish will not feed in shallow or fast water. Instead, they’re stacked up in deep, slow wintering holes.

Nymphing will tally up the highest numbers. The most reliable setups are combinations of the staples; worms, leeches and size 16 or smaller beadhead nymphs fished at least 9-feet deep under a bobber (yeah, I said bobber). Heavily weighted flies can be fished without split shot, but a safer bet is adding one anyway. The next challenge is getting far enough out to the fish. A little exploration can pay dividends when you find accessible quality water for this time of year.

adult male skwala stonefly on sediment rockadult male skwala stonefly on sediment rock
Adult male skwala stonefly

Skwala stoneflies also make an appearance around early April through early June. Approach early stages of the hatch with size 8-12 skwala stonefly nymphs. When you see adults, or an abundance of stonefly shucks on the banks and rocks, try your luck with a skwala dry fly. The timing can be tricky to nail, but who doesn’t need another excuse to throw foam?

Swinging streamers or leeches is the other go in early spring. A sink-tip line will contribute to a more effective swing. If using a floating line, a longer leader, up to 15-feet, with heavy weight will get you into the zone. Cast down and across, let your fly sink to the bottom while letting your line out, then hold the line tight and the fly will swing up through the water column towards shore. Casting at about a 45-degree angle downstream is a good starting point, but you will often need to cast more across the river at about 90-degrees to give your fly time to get to the bottom before the swing. Gain efficiency swinging with a trout spey rod – a fun alternative while fish are still waking up. Trout spey reaches further out and helps cover more water with ease. Pulsate your rod or mix strips in to add action to your fly, sometimes this is all the fish are waiting for. Woolly buggers and leeches are tough to beat, switch between black, olive and brown. Sculpins are a fun alternative that come with the weight you will need to get into the zone. 

close up of brown trout held by hand in riverclose up of brown trout held by hand in river
Brown trout caught on a guide's choice hare's ear in May

As the snow line pushes into the mountains, water temperatures rise and fish feed more actively, moving into shallower water. A window of stable river conditions presents itself in May before the flush in June. Rainbows are mostly out of the system doing their dirty deeds, providing the opportune time to sink your fly into a brown. Without those pesky rainbows around, browns dominate feeding lanes until high water in June when the rainbows return to steal your fly. This is one of the best times of year to catch browns and they consistently dominate catch rate.

Similar techniques apply with a change in focal water. Fish spread out and move into shallower water and structure like riffles, seams, buckets, shelves and troughs to feed. Structure in the riverbed forms when water erodes around debris such as ice shelves, boulders and root wads. Fish like to sit with their nose on the front edge of riffles, buckets and shelves. Get your flies in upstream so they have time to sink to the bottom and drop into the front of the bucket. Browns are also partial to flat water with moderate flow. Spend more time in tailouts and flat inside edges with structure like boulders.

Air temperatures persisting above 18 degrees Celsius in mid May can initiate the notorious Mothers Day caddisfly hatch. While caddis are out, cloud cover will trigger them to deposit their eggs by repeatedly tapping the water surface. This unique behavior produces an exciting dry fly opportunity as trout sporadically chase down dancing caddis. You want to land your fly near the active fish and taking more casts can be beneficial. You can’t go wrong with the classic elk or deer hair caddis in sizes 14-18. This is also the time the hare’s ear stands out from other nymphs, my favourite is the guide’s choice hare’s ear.

Warmer water also puts fish on the chase. Streamers become much more productive and should be stripped quicker. By mid May, many streams and tributaries are flowing high and dirty. Reduced visibility is not always your enemy. Browns can be very active and act predatorial when there are even a few inches of visibility. This is a great time to beat up the banks. Fish are tucked away in undercuts and beaver dams along shore, so focus efforts on the first foot or two off the bank. Take lots of casts and smack your streamer to announce its presence. Ensure you put a fly in every little hidey hole. Chances are the strike will happen as soon as your fly hits the water.

man with sunglasses holding brown trout with both his hands sitting in boat man with sunglasses holding brown trout with both his hands sitting in boat
Streamer eating brown trout

Runoff eventually ramps up and chases us off the river. A good flush acts as a healthy reset and prime fishing is soon to follow. For the time being, many anglers look to spend some time on lakes.

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