Protecting the Future of Fly Fishing

future of fly fishing

Cormac McCarthy’s novel, The Road, tells the poignant tale of a father and son traveling through the ravaged landscape of America. The novel does not fill in back story. Yet the gray snow and ever-present ash suggests the aftermath of nuclear war. The novel ends with these haunting words:

    Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. . . . On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.

While this grim conclusion unsettles any reader, it particularly troubles fly fishers.

Imagine there are no longer brook trout in mountain streams!

These days, our greatest threat to trout and the waters they inhabit may not be nuclear war. Rather, it’s likely a hundred smaller threats belonging to categories like invasive species, disease, pesticides, predators, mishandling (by anglers), and development. As another year ends, we might ponder what we, as fly fishers, can do to protect the future of fly fishing.

Here are four small practices that can make a big difference:

1. Pack out trash

There’s simply no excuse for littering the banks of a river with beverage cans or candy wrappers. Yet I frequently find these items along the rivers or streams I fly fish. My sense is that most fly fishers are eco-friendly; yet there are always a few bad apples in the bunch. Blessed are those fly fishers who not only pack out their own trash but do the same with the garbage others leave behind.

2. Handle fish carefully

This amounts to a bunch of small but significant habits:

    Land fish as quickly as possible
    Use a net. If you want a photo
    Keep your hands wet
    Don’t squeeze the fish too hard
    Stop fishing if the water temperature exceeds 68 degrees (or even well before).

I keep a thermometer in my fly fishing vest for the last habit.

3. Don’t spread aquatic invasive species

No one does this intentionally. At least I hope not. But we can unwittingly spread invasive species if we fail to clean waders, boots, and drift boats after use. So get the mud off! Rinse your boots and waders. Let gear dry. Switch from felt soles to rubber soles with some kind of metal studs or traction bars. All of this is especially critical when you’re moving from one river to another.

4. Donate to conservation efforts

Your local Trout Unlimited (TU) chapter is a great place to start. I’m also partial to The Missing Salmon Project of The Atlantic Salmon Trust. You can also donate your time as well as your money. Your local TU chapter may sponsor some cleanup days on a local river or some kind of restoration project.

We need a few thousand fly fishers pursuing these small practices. Then, hopefully, we will never have to utter words like “once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains.”

5 More Suggestions for Safe Wading

Of all the pieces we’ve published, by far the most popular (per our tracking data) is “The 10 Commandments of Wading.” Based on your feedback, and on further reflection and on additional experiences, here are five more suggestions for safe wading. They may not be on the level of “commandments,” but they at least deserve consideration.

1. Use a second wading belt

This may seem like overkill, but it’s a wise strategy if you insist on wading in deep water.

Typically, a wading belt will go around your mid-section. The place to add a second belt is around your chest—that is, near the top of your waders. It can keep the top part of your waders from filling up, especially if they do not have some kind of a drawstring or mechanism to seal them around your chest.

2. Use a Personal Flotation Device (PFD)

Alright, this one might really strike you as extreme. But I can see the value in it if you need to wade in deeper water.

I remember floating the Wyoming Bighorn a few years ago and stopping to wade a few stretches. I was surprised how much deeper I could wade because the current was not as swift as, say, Montana’s Yellowstone River. Also, the river bed consisted of gravel instead of greased cannon balls (what I suspect lies on the bottom of the Yellowstone). But whenever I waded into deeper water, I noticed how the current gently drifted me into deeper water. I struggled to get momentum to back out of it or to turn around and walk towards the bank.

A PFD would have provided a great safeguard. I’m not suggesting that fly fishers need to take one along in most conditions. But if you insist on wading into deep water, a PFD might keep you from getting in over your head.

3. Wear Patagonia Foot Tractors

Full disclosure: I am not secretly sponsored by Patagonia!

I only mention this particular brand and model because I haven’t found any other wading boots (aside from those with felt soles) which provide such good traction. The aluminum bars in zig-zag fashion on the soles of these boots really do the job. Felt soles seem to be on the way out. They are now illegal in Yellowstone National Park, and I expect other watersheds or even states to follow suit.

4. Beware of Mud

I’ve had a few situations over the years where my feet have sunk a ways into the mud—both in the west (Montana’s East Gallatin River) and the Midwest (Canfield Creek in the Minnesota Driftless).

This fall, I was wading the inlet of Quake Lake (not far from West Yellowstone, Montana) when my boots started sinking into a sandbar. I was standing in knee-deep water at the time. I moved too quickly, and actually fell down. It was a bit tricky to stand back up with both feet being stuck.

It reminded me to test any suspicious looking spots before stepping into them. It’s quite a fight against suction to pull out your boots when they get stuck in the mud. Add a couple feet of water into the mix, and the situation can become downright dangerous.

5. Slow down

Per my previous point, the worst thing you can do when wading (or trying to stand up after you’ve fallen!) is to panic and hurry. I tend to hurry this most when I’ve crossed a difficult stretch and I’m nearing the bank. It’s tempting to run those last few feet. But a couple times, I’ve hurried too quickly and have slipped into the water. I have to remind myself to slow down. Slower is safer in most cases. It preserves your balance and helps you keep your legs together so that you’re providing only one pressure point – not two — for the current.

Admittedly, it’s a bit of a hassle to following some of these suggestions. But your life may depend on it. Whatever you can do to stay safe while you’re wading is more than worth the inconvenience.

What New Fly Fishers Need Most

New fly fishers have a long list of needs. They need to learn to tie knots. To improve their casting. Remember to mend their line. Figure out which fly to use. And to read water so they can cast their fly where the fish are feeding.

new fly fishers

But there is something more basic to success:

The Secret of a New Fly Fisher’s Success

What new fly fishers need most is intel. That’s right. They need intelligence about where to fish and what to use. I know, you can’t catch a trout if you can’t cast a fly. True. But I’ve watched brand new fly fishers catch fish because someone told them where to go and what pattern to use.

Poor casting in the right place at the right time always beats great casting in the wrong place at the wrong time.

A Colorado Success Story

My belief that new fly fishers need intel more than anything else came from a text message I received this fall. My nephew, who lives in Colorado, had tried his hand at fly fishing a few times. But every time he returned home with zero success. Then, he asked a generous fly shop owner for an idea about where to fish. A day later, I received a text from my nephew describing a couple of big browns he caught. He had the photos to prove it. I realized that while he needs work on casting, mending, and streamside entomology, his greatest need is for intel. He needed to go where the fish were hanging out, and he needed to use the kind of patterns they were attacking.

Where to Get Intel

If you are a new fly fisher, where do you get good intel?

The key is to develop a relationship with a more experienced fly fisher. Often, the place to start is at a fly shop. The best time to ask where you might fish and what you might use is immediately after you have purchased half a dozen flies—or better yet, a new fly rod or waders.

Also, a good friend who is an experienced fly fisher is invaluable. Birds of a feather flock together. This means that if you’re interested enough in fly fishing, you’ll develop some friendships with others who like to fly fish. If these friends are better than you, don’t resent them. Take advantage of their expertise. Hopefully, your friendship adds value to their lives, too. If it does, they will be happy to share some intel which will put you into some good fishing.

Of course, you can always hire a guide. This is the ultimate way to get good intel because your guide will take you to a good stretch of water and then help you fish it effectively. Believe me, it’s worth the cost.

Intel as Preventative

Sometimes, intel works as a preventative measure.

Last fall, my podcast partner, Dave, and I planned to spend a couple of days on the Gardner River in Yellowstone National Park. We had visions of brown trout dancing in our heads as a result of the success we had the prior fall. When we stopped by Parks’ Fly Shop in Gardiner, Montana (yes, the river and the town are spelled differently due to a mistake) for some intel, Richard Parks told us that the fishing on the Gardner for fall runners was the worst it had been in 25 years!

That was not encouraging. But it forced us to come up with Plan B (the Yellowstone River), and we ended up doing quite well.

Sure, we would have figured out soon enough that the fishing on the Gardner was not great. Yet without the intel, we probably would have spent much more time trying to catch fish on a river that was not as full of fish as in prior years.

If you’re new to fly fishing, learn to cast, mend, read water, and identify the hatch. But there’s simply no substitute for good intel. Don’t leave home for the river without it.

Thanksgiving Day Double

It is Thanksgiving Day 2004. My son, Luke, and I rise before dawn to spend the morning hunting whitetail deer. Hunting deer or elk on Thanksgiving morning has been a family tradition as long as I can remember. Luke is eager to join me even though he is a year away from being old enough to buy a license and carry a rifle. My son, Ben, is in his senior year of high school and wants to sleep in a bit.

So Luke and I head for the Dry Creek area north of Belgrade, Montana. The Dry Creek Road transitions from pavement to gravel where the Gallatin Valley floor gives way to the foothills at the base of the Bridger Mountains.

We turn off onto a side gravel road and drive past a grain field which sits below the butte we want to hunt.  I park my truck at the side of the road, and we close the doors quietly. Six years ago, my dad and I just missed getting off a shot at a big buck on the hill on the opposite side of the little creek we will need to cross. I tell Luke this story before we get out of the truck, urging him to be as quiet as possible. We cross a barbed-wire fence and prepare to sneak through the tall grass towards a plank that bridges the little creek.  Six steps after we cross the fence, Luke whispers, “Dad, there’s a buck!” Sure enough, a 4×4 whitetail peers at us from across the creek, about ninety yards away.

We are five minutes into legal shooting light, so I aim, fire, and drop the buck in its tracks. This is the easiest deer hunt I have ever had! Luke helps me field dress the buck, and then we drag it to the truck, the length of a football field away. It is now 7:55 a.m. We arrive home fifteen minutes later and hang the buck in our garage. I prefer to let a deer hang for a day before skinning it.

By the time we finish this, it is only 8:30 a.m. An idea begins to take shape. It is a rather warm day. Already, the temperature has risen past forty degrees. We have four or five hours to kill before we gather with some friends for Thanksgiving dinner.

So, why not spend it fly fishing!

Nice Buck, Fat Rainbow

Ben is up by this time, and he joins Luke and me in search for our waders, fly fishing vests, and fly rods. By 9:30 a.m., we reach the Warm Springs parking area on the Madison River where it exits the Bear Trap Canyon. Predictably, no one is parked here today. We enjoy the warmth of the sun as we walk in the trail. There is a bit of wind, but the conditions are pleasant. So is the fishing.

It would be an exaggeration to say that we slaughtered the trout on this day, but in the next two hours at our favorite spot, affectionately known as “Rainbow Run,” we each land three trout. One of mine is a seventeen-inch rainbow, which I catch on a San Juan worm. This is the easiest fly in the world to tie.

You simply tie the middle of a piece of red chenille to the shank of the hook Then, you burn off each end with a lighter or a match to make the ends bead. It may be simple to tie, but it is effective.

The wind picks up about 11:30 a.m., so we begin the twenty minute hike to the parking lot, then make the forty minute drive home.  By 12:30 p.m. on Thanksgiving day, I have accomplished something I have never done before. I’ve taken a nice whitetail buck and caught a seventeen-inch rainbow with my fly rod on the same morning.

It’s a Thanksgiving Day double! I don’t recall the Pilgrims doing anything like this on the morning before they sat down with members of the Wampanoag tribe at Plymouth Plantation to eat the first Thanksgiving Day meal.

If you spend enough time fly fishing, you’ll have days that humble you and some that elate you. You’ll even have some that are crazy enough to provide a deep sense of satisfaction.

Taking Time to Be a Good Fly Fisher

If you want to be a great fly fisher, it’s going to take some time — perhaps time you can’t afford to spend. Recently, I saw a blog post claiming it takes a minimum of 50 days a year on the water to be a great fly fisher. 100 days is ‘way better,’ and 200 days is “better yet.” According to the post, if you spend only ten days on the water per year, you can only be an “adequate angler.”

good fly fisher

I don’t dispute this. Yet, I’d argue that you can be a good fly fisher if the 10 days you spend on the water are well-spent. Not every day on the river is created equal.

Practice makes permanent

There’s an old adage that piano teachers and basketball coaches and, perhaps, fly fishing instructors quote: “Practice makes perfect.”

Well, not necessarily. The truth is, practice makes permanent. It takes practice to get better. But if your next practice is not better than the last one, then you are only reinforcing bad habits. This is the reason why a couple days on the water with a professional guide or with a fly fishing friend who is better than you will be more productive than ten days on your own — at least when it comes to the rudiments of fly casting and reading water.

Substitute for time on the water

Another comment I frequently read in fly fishing blogs is that there is no substitute for time on the water.

Actually, there is — provided that it takes place between the times you spend on the water. I realize that casting in your backyard is not quite the same as casting into a river. But I’ve seen newbies learn casting basics in their back yard and then translate those same basics into good casts on the river.

Between trips to the river

So then, if you can only fly fish 10 to 15 days per year, the key to improvement is what you do between trips to the river.

In addition to practice your casting, you can watch videos and read fly fishing books. Taking a fly tying class at your local fly shop will boost your skills as well. Even if you never tied a fly once you completed a class, your knowledge of streamside entomology (what bugs are hatching in what stages) will help you the next time you cast your fly upon the water.

Another difference maker

There is an additional difference maker that factors into whether you move from adequate to good to great.

It’s your natural aptitude and your athletic ability.

Perhaps “athletic ability” isn’t quite the right descriptor. But some people just have the fly fishing gene. I think of a guy who fishes fewer days than I do per year. He has not read nearly as much as I have about fly fishing; nor has he ever taken a fly tying class. Yet this guy is a natural fly fisher and can outfish me any day of the week.

Here, then, is the takeaway. You can be a good fly fisher if you make the most of the 10-15 days you spend on the water and if you use the time between them strategically.

I honestly don’t know if I’m an “adequate” or “good” fly fisher. I definitely know I’m not great. But as one who spends 15 days or less on the water a year, I get better every year, and I catch a lot of fish when the conditions are right. At the end of the day, that’s all that matters.

Why Fly Fishers Should Stop Wading

I have a novel proposal for fly fishers who are not catching fish. It may seem a bit extreme. But hey, if you’re not catching fish, you’ll try anything, right?

stop wading

If you think you have the right fly size and pattern, if you mend your line to reduce the drag on your fly, if your casts don’t send fish fleeing for cover, and if you’re getting your nymphs deep enough, then here is my suggestion:

Step away from the river.

That’s right, stay out of it. Stop wading.

What Fly Fishers Do

I told you my suggestion sounded a bit extreme.

Wading in the river is what fly fishers do. That’s what a friend figured the other day when he heard I was a fly fisher. He is not. But he was interested and said, “Oh, is that the kind of fishing where you stand in the water?”

Yes, I suppose that’s our mental image of fly fishing. And yes, I will admit there’s something enchanting about standing in a river as you cast—especially on a late fall morning when the snow is softly falling or at dusk on a warm summer day.

But I’m more and more convinced that fly fishers who are not catching fish should stop wading. It’s not a punishment! Nor is it always and forever. But fishing from the river’s edge should be your default mode; wading is the exception. There are at least two reasons why.

Fishing near the bank

First, follow the lead of the fly fishers in drift boats. They typically cast to the banks. That’s where the trout are lurking. Sure, there may be some runs on the other side of the stream or perhaps fifteen feet away from the bank. But a lot of feeding lanes crowd the bank.

If you must wade, find an entry point between runs and walk out far enough so you can cast back toward the bank.

Whenever I hike up the Yellowstone near Tower Fall in Yellowstone National Park, I leave my waders in the truck. I’m not a fan of hiking 3-4 miles up the river in waders before I start fishing. Surprisingly, there are few places where not having waders puts me at a disadvantage.

Honing your observation skills

The second reason is related to the first. If you commit to fishing from the bank (at least for awhile), you will likely pay more attention to what is happening near the river’s edge.

I remember a time on Montana’s Madison River when I was getting ready to wade out to a run about 20 yards from the bank. Seconds before I stepped into the water, I saw two trout rise five feet in front of me. If I had not seen them, I would have sent them racing for cover when I walked through the little run where they were feeding.

Have I over-stated my point? Perhaps. But with so many prime places for trout to feed along the bank, it’s worth fishing that area before you think about setting foot in the water.

So, when all else fails, step away from the river.

My Favorite Fly Fishing Streamers

I love fly fishing with streamers. I suppose it reminds me of those days long, long ago when I fished Mepps spinners with an ultralight spincast rod and reel. Streamers also catch large trout — especially in the fall when brown trout are on the move. Mainly, though, I love the shock of a trout attacking the streamer as I retrieve it.

favorite fly fishing streamers

If you’re new to fly fishing (or fly fishing with streamers), the good news is that there are a few basic patterns which work consistently — from season to season and year to year.

Here are my top five favorites.

Woolly Bugger

The Woolly Bugger is the poster-child of streamers. I’ll bet I fish with one 85% of the time I fish with streamers.

The construction of this “fly” (if you can call it that) is simple. It’s basically a chenille body – with hackle wrapped through it — followed by a maribou tail. This pattern looks lively as it darts through the water.

I prefer garden variety colors—black, brown, and olive. The color combinations are endless, though.

For example, I tie my olive Woolly Buggers with black hackle and sometimes with black maribou. I’ve even used red chenille with sparkles along with black hackle and then black maribou with a couple strands of red crystal flash.

Fly fishers often refer to patterns like this as Crystal Buggers.

My preference for size is anywhere from 6 to 10, and I rarely fish a Woolly Bugger without a beadhead or conehead. Weight is important.

You can find more information on Woolly Buggers here: Know Your Pattern.

JJ Special

Technically, a JJ Special is a Woolly Bugger with a bit different color scheme.

But the pattern is so popular and unique that it deserves (in my opinion) its own entry. The JJ Special features a brown (chenille) body with gray hackle and yellow rubber legs. Then, the tail is brown over yellow maribou.

The brown and yellow color scheme makes the fly resemble (you guessed it) a young brown trout. This has been a go-to pattern for me when I’m fishing browns in the fall. Also, I am partial to the conehead version of this fly — although a beadhead will work just as well.

Muddler Minnow

To be honest, I rarely fish with Muddler Minnows. It’s not that they don’t work. They really do. It’s just that I do so well with Woolly Buggers and can tie them rather easily.

A Muddler Minnow imitates a minnow (surprise!) or a sculpin. Or, if you skim it on the surface of the water, it can imitate a floundering moth or mouse.

The head consists of spun deer hair. Some fly tyers enjoy the artistry of spinning hair. Others, like me, find it time consuming compared to slipping a conehead or a bead onto the hook! The other prominent feature is a wing and an underwing.


This is another pattern I rarely use since a Woolly Bugger works so well. But the Zonker is a classic. It can be terrific on big rivers because it is a super-sized meal for large trout. A long strip of rabbit fur with the hide attached gives this fly its heft.

Dolly Llama

I don’t always fish with something the size of a 1957 Chevy Wagon. But when I do, I opt for the Dolly Llama (aka Dali Lama, aka Dalai Lama).

Like a Zonker, it uses a strip of rabbit fur attached to the hide. But this fly is long because it includes a second hook which is connected by wire to the first hook, trailing behind a couple inches.

This fly worked superbly a few years ago when I fished Alaska’s Clear Creek a few hundred yards upstream from where it emptied into the Talkeetnah River. I caught several 19-20 inch rainbows on a white Dolly Llama. To be honest, I haven’t used it in the big rivers in Montana (that’s why Woolly Buggers exist), but my friends in the Pacific Northwest like the Dolly Llama for steelhead.

You can’t go wrong with any of these patterns. Learn to fish them effectively and you’re bound to have a blast.

And if you haven’t yet listened to our episode with Dave Kumlien, fly fishing guide and streamer fisher extraordinaire, you can do so here: Catching More and Bigger Fish with Streamers.

The Truth about Trout Lies

If you want to catch trout, you need to know the truth about trout lies. I’m referring to the places where trout lie — as in “hang out and spend their time.”

trout lies

Gary Borger is the expert on this. In his book, Reading Waters, he defines a lie as the “place that the fish holds in the current.” Then, he identifies three basic categories of trout lies. Fly fishers who understand these will know where to look to find trout:

The Sheltering Lie

Trout need protection from predators.

According to Borger, these “sheltering lies” exist under something. This might be a place under the bank, under a rock, under a log, under deep water, or under vegetation. Typically, fish do not eat when they are in these places. Borger says they zip their mouths shut and hunker down until they feel it is safe to go out again.

The Feeding Lie

Trout, of course, need to eat.

They need protection from the currents in the river, yet they need those currents to bring food. So they will often lie in slower current, right at the edge of faster moving current. We refer to this spot as a “seam.” Borger notes that the slow current behind a rock or another obstruction is a great place for trout to feed.

One of the easiest ways to spot a feeding lie is to look for the line of bubbles which meander down the current.

This is the food line! It’s where insects drift through the current.

The Prime Lie

Fly fishers hit the jackpot whenever they fine a prime lie.

According to Borger, this is both a sheltering lie and a feeding lie rolled into one.

A classic example is an undercut bank. The bank itself provides protection from birds of prey. Yet, the current brings the food close to the bank. That’s why trout will dart out from under a bank to take your hopper pattern or even a tiny dry fly. Sometimes, you’ll find a prime lie in a deeper pool or in water under a foam patch. The key is to look for places which provide both cover and food.

Good fly fishers shouldn’t tell lies. But they should be able to spot them.

Surviving the Fly Fishing Off Season

fly fishing off season

My nephew texted me a few days ago to ask me about winter fly fishing. He said, “I’m not sure I want to wait until spring to fish!” The same day, I saw on Facebook that a guide-friend from New York state thanked his clients and fellow fishing guides for a spectacular season.

It reminded me that the fly fishing off-season is here — or almost here. I consider the off-season November through February. If you’re a fly fisher, what can you do to survive it?

1. Go fishing

Personally, I’m not a big fan of winter fly fishing.

One year when I lived in Montana, I caught trout on a fly rod every month. But after doing it to say that I did it, I rarely made it to the river in December and January.

Other than Midges, the hatches are minimal. Plus the temperatures are frigid most days.

Still, if you’re patient and content to catch fewer fish, you can do well in the winter on nymphs and even on the surface with Midge patterns (yes, a size #20 Parachute Adams will work). My podcast partner, Dave, and I had a fantastic February day last year on the Blue River (really, a small creek) in Wisconsin. The temperatures were in the high 50s, and the browns were hitting our nymphs.

If you live near brown trout fisheries, play close attention to when these waters close for the year.

For example, the fishing season in Yellowstone National Park runs through the first Sunday in November. If I still lived in Montana, I’d take a break from elk and deer hunting to make one last trip to fish the Gardner River for the “runners” that are heading to their spawning beds.

2. Reflect a bit

I’m convinced we (fly fishers) need to get better at this. We need to savor the moments we’ve had over our past year of fly fishing.

So go back through your photos to re-live your best fly fishing memories. Review your journal if you keep one. If you don’t keep a journal, grab a sheet of paper (or open a file on your word processor) and write down your top ten favorite memories from the past season.

The tendency to rush from one run on the river to the next one can carry over into rushing from one season to another.

Stopping to reflect a bit on the past year of fly fishing can provide a lot of satisfaction. It will also create anticipation for next season.

3. Get ready

Use the time from November through February to do what you can never find time to do during the prime months of fly fishing (March through October).

Tie some flies. Watch some You Tube videos on fly casting. Read The Fly Fisher’s Book of Lists (couldn’t resist). Go through your gear and take inventory. Re-organize your fly box. If you’re planning on purchasing a new rod or waders or whatever, the off season is a time to do some research—whether online or in your local fly shop.

It’s almost November, but March is coming! We will all survive the off-season (I think).

Photo credit: Jim Keena

Know Your Waters: Three Kinds of Rivers

When my son, Luke, played tight end for the University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks, he played football on two kinds of surfaces. All his home games took place on artificial turf in an indoor stadium. He even played on red turf at Eastern Washington University on a field dubbed “the Inferno.” But when he traveled to the University of Northern Colorado, the game took place on a natural grass field.

three kinds of rivers

These two different kinds of surfaces — artificial turf and natural grass – required different kinds of cleats and different approaches.

This is true of the rivers you fly fish as well. While every place you fish is unique, you can group rivers into one of three kinds of rivers. The better you understand the characteristics of each type, the better you can make adjustments and set yourself up for success.

1. Freestone Rivers

Surface waters provide the main source of water for freestone rivers and streams.

This means rainfall and snow runoff.

Not surprisingly, then, freestone rivers rise and fall with the conditions. They can flood easily. When the spring temperatures warm and the snow melts, freestone rivers swell with water. This heavy water churns through the river or stream bed, displacing stones—hence the name “freestone.”

All this has a definite effect on fly fishing.

Of the three kinds of rivers, freestone streams may be the most volatile. Anglers must re-learn familiar stretches of river from year to year. A flood may scour out a larger undercut bank where large trout lie in wait for food. Alternatively, the same flood may deposit silt in a productive channel or run so that trout abandon it as a feeding lie.

Conditions can change rapidly, too.

I’ve had good fly fishing on Montana’s Yellowstone River one day, only to find it swollen the next day. In dry years, water levels drop, and water temperatures rise. This means staying off rivers when water temperatures creep into the high 60s. Fighting fish in such warm conditions endangers their lives.

One year, my podcast partner and I fished a creek that Dave and his brother had fished a couple years earlier with great success using hoppers. The stream is a smaller creek that flows into the Gallatin River. But the year Dave and I fished it, we could hardly find a run that was deep enough to fish. There was little snowfall the winter prior, and the creek was so low that the fish were bunched up in small pockets of water.

2. Spring Creeks

Since their main source of water is underground, spring creeks are more uniform in water level and temperature throughout the year. They typically flow through mineral-rich soil. This translates to significant aquatic plant growth which translates to an abundance of aquatic life (insects, scuds, crayfish, leeches, worms, etc.) which translates to a healthy fish population — both in terms of numbers and size.

The spring creeks I fish in the West and in the Midwest tend to have more silty areas than rocky areas. This makes for easier wading.

Spring creeks typically run crystal clear, so trout have the advantage.

When I used to fish Nelson’s Spring Creek south of Livingston, Montana, I found the trout to be more selective than spooky. These clear spring creeks have a few riffles, yet the runs tend to be gentle with slower current. Trout get a clear, long look at what you offer them. So fly size and tippet size matters.

In recent years, Dave, my podcast partner and I, have fished more spring creeks than freestones, given that we both now live in the Midwest. I’ve come to appreciate the more technical chops needed to catch fish in a spring creek.

3. Tailwaters

A tailwater is essentially the river or creek that flows out of a reservoir or lake created by a dam. These, these fisheries resemble spring creeks with their even flow. Because water is often released at the bottom of a dam where it is cooler and where the sediment is rich with nutrients, tailwaters can produce some large fish.

Tailwaters are often a bit off-color, so the fish tend to be less spooky.

I have been able to sneak up a lot closer to feeding fish in the Owyhee River in eastern Oregon — a fine tailwater full of brown trout—because it is slightly off color on most days. Like spring creeks, tailwaters resist the volatile swings that weather conditions create on freestone rivers. Conditions are more likely to change from of a discharge from a dam than from a snow runoff or a heavy rainfall.

So the next time you head to the river, identify its type. A little bit of understanding can go a long way towards success. All three kinds of rivers have their challenges, but all three are fun to fly fish.