Hurry Up and Wait, Race Against Runoff
Hangry - Throwing small to mid-sized streamers sizes 12-4 can produce aggressive takes from ravenous browns like this Central Alberta snake.
Each year April 1 marks the opener of some spectacular brown trout water along Alberta’s Eastern Slopes. Browns that live here are hardy survivors that emerge from the winter battle-scarred and desperate for calories. Once the ice retreats enough for sections of water to link up again, large trout move to find food and establish territory. Streamers will attract predatory or territorial strikes while covert nymphing techniques can fool trout that have no intention of moving from cover. With luck it is possible to enjoy a day of brilliant blue sky following a dusting of fresh snow, and a little hatch of dainty winged insects. Dries and nymphs will be in the #16-20 range, except for the Skwala stonefly which runs from #8-12. Pre-runoff conditions mean that water levels are low and crystal clear. Stealth is essential for success and patience is a virtue as conditions are hit or miss. A stream that was fishing well last year may still be entombed under ice this season. Here are some tips to target brown trout in early spring - get there before runoff does.
Motivated - This healthy fish moved out from under cover to take a size 20 pheasant tail nymph in about 18 inches of ice cold water.
There are advantages to targeting small water brown trout at this time of year. Fish that are notoriously shy have not seen flies all winter. Far less vegetation makes casting easier on overgrown creeks. Fewer crowds, and the opportunity to fine tune (or re-learn) your cast before the season really gets underway. As always there are unique challenges to fishing the early season, especially if it’s your first time out. Unpredictable weather, unpredictable insect activity, and unknown stream conditions make things tough. Each sunny day brings runoff season closer. Some of these streams are true spring-fed creeks and will not be affected as much by runoff. Most of them are connected to larger drainage systems and might run through farmland, pulling sediment into the water. Around mid-May to mid-June, the Rockies will give up the snow they’ve been accumulating all winter. Peaceful streams will swell into chocolate milk and while fishing isn’t impossible (or necessarily bad), it’s a different game with it’s own challenges. Anyways, look at this time as a great way to jump right into technical brown trout fishing before some of the more well known waters open in June. It’s great experience and even if you don’t bag any trophies now, these creeks are open until October 31 so you’ve got time.
1. Have a valid license! This happens all too often. Don’t forget that your license expired on March 31st.
2. Be prepared to get skunked or spend lots of time travelling. If you haven’t been to a particular stretch of water yet this season, there’s no telling what may greet you. At worst, you’re on a reconnaissance mission instead of a fishing trip.
3. Plan to fish nymphs and streamers - but keep an eye out for risers. Fish are mostly eating subsurface meals at this time of year but winged insects are starting to hatch. Midges, BWOs, March Browns, and Mother’s Day Caddis are are all on the horizon.
4. Water temperature is important. Insect hatches will occur only sporadically when temperatures are below 54 degrees Fahrenheit. At 54 or above, you’ve got a much better chance of a decent hatch going down. Carry a stream thermometer.
5. When nymphing, try using weightless yarn indicators like the NZ Strike Indicator system. With these indicators you can achieve a much more natural cast. Heavier indicators will splash and spook those sensitive browns.
6. Leeches, and not too big. It’s fun throwing triple articulated half-chickens, but you’ll have far more luck with small to medium sized streamer/leech patterns. Brown trout love leeches. Think sizes 12-8.
7. Use longer leaders and finer tippets. Pre-runoff conditions mean very low, clear water. Fish find creative spots to tuck themselves away and can effectively disappear. Try a 12’ 4X leader paired with 5X tippet.
8. Watch your shadow. Bright afternoons, long shadows, little vegetation to break up your outline. Approach from well downstream and avoid false casts over likely holding water. You could also try making a long downstream drift towards a target using stack mends to manage drag. Don’t walk up and cast right across the pool.
9. Try fishing single flies. This will help fine-tune your cast if you didn’t get out much over the winter, or spent it chucking heavy bobber rigs. It will also spook fish less. A single Skwala pattern at the right moment can clean up.
10. Fish to cover, but don’t forget to scan the shallow runs and riffles while moving in between pools and structure. As fish are moving through newly open water in search of food and territory, you may find a decent-or-better fish holding in unlikely water taking a break while in transit.
Flies To Consider:
“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take” - Wayne Gretzky