Every fly fisher has favorites, whether it be a rod, a fly, a lucky shirt or hat, a certain stream, or a type of stream. Not the least of these for me is the type of stream. Days spent fly fishing freestone streams are sheer nirvana for me, and they continue to fill my memory bank. I began throwing flies into ponds and streams over fifty years ago. I have had the joy of fishing all types of water, moving and still, fresh and salt. Yet the freestone stream remains my favorite type of water to fish, especially if filled with wild trout. I love the sound of their rushing waters, and the tug of their flow as I wade and ply them with my flies. They offer every imaginable fly fishing challenge, with the only constant being that every time you fish them, they will have changed.

Stream Types

What is a freestone stream? Streams are typified by their primary source of water. Tailwater streams receive most of their water from dam releases, while spring creeks receive most of their’s from underground springs. In contrast, the flow in freestone streams is more dependent upon surface run-off from rain and/or snowmelt. Because of this, they have wide seasonal variations of both flow and temperature. They are subject to drought and channel altering floods. And on a daily basis, sun exposure can lead to wide temperature fluctuations.

Most freestone streams begin at a much higher elevation than their eventual outlets or mouths. In their upper sections, they usually have a steep gradient. As they tumble downstream, they have falls which carve out pools.

mountain trout stream, Va

headwaters of a mountain freestone trout stream

As the gradient lessens in their mid-sections, their character changes to riffles and runs.

trout stream

midsection of the Firehole River, a freestone trout stream

In their lower sections, they have slow, broad stretches, where they may transition from cold-water to warm-water fisheries. This diversity of water character fosters a greater speciation of trout and other fish than tailwaters and spring creeks. Although freestone streams host a much wider variety of insects, their hatches are generally more sparse and less predictable.

Fishing Freestone Streams

As a result of these variables, the fly fisher is faced with more challenges than either tailwaters or spring creeks present, the so-called “technical waters”. The first time I fish a freestone stream, I don’t expect to catch many fish. Rather, I view it as a scouting trip, with a bit of fishing. First, I focus on access issues, wadability of the water, and the location of structure and lies. I try to locate all the prime lies, those that offer trout both food and cover. Then I look for feeding lies, holding lies, and riffles. I make a special note of the most and least fished stretches, as evidenced by signs of foot traffic. I prefer to return to those least fished.

A bigger challenge is to identify the resident bugs and their hatch schedules. It can take several years of frequent fishing (but someone has to do it!) and the accumulation of meticulous notes to recognize annual patterns. Even then, there is variation, mostly dependent upon the occurrence or timing of seasonal changes. In other words, the “first day of spring” does not arrive on the same calendar day every year. My notes and the calendar serve as a rough guide, but riparian foliage changes are a more proximate guide. Therefore, I try to note the streamside foliage changes with my hatch observations. For example, in Virginia, when the witch hazels bloom, I expect to see March browns begin to hatch. In Montana, the ragweed blossoms signal the onset of trico hatches.

Fortunately, today it is much easier to come to a stream armed with this information. Most fly shops have websites, and many post fishing reports of their local streams. Typically, they will include information regarding water levels and temperatures, the current hatches and imitative flies to use. If you visit a shop, for the price of a handful of feathers, they will usually share even more information. Whether you “buy or tie”, accessing such information in advance is extremely helpful. In addition to the recommended flies, I always bring my most reliable or favorite fly patterns. Having them at hand seems to provide a measure of reassurance that the day won’t be fishless!

Having taken these preparatory steps, the final step to a more fruitful day on a freestone stream is flexibility. I think that flexibility to change tactics or presentation is the most important element. When fishing tailwaters or spring creeks, “changing tactics” is mostly a matter of changing flies to “match the hatch”. But on freestone streams, the presentation of flies must be changed as well, often quite frequently.

When fly fishing freestone streams,  every time you turn a bend, you are likely to encounter a complete change in stream character. A small dry fly just used for rising fish on a quiet glide will not work on a boisterous riffle. A riffle will require changing to a large, bushy fly for visibility and flotation. The addition of a nymph, suspended from the indicator fly, will also help, as most of the trout will be eating nymphs. Or, perhaps changing from a floating line to a sinking-tip line with two subsurface flies would be better. And around the next bend, there may be a deep pool or run, which would be best fished with a sinking line to probe its depths. It may even take a streamer to draw the attention of its satiated, smug inhabitants.

For me, this is the fun of fly fishing freestone streams. Almost every turn presents a different challenge, requiring some thought and a change of tactics. Being prepared to make such changes, and the willingness to do so, will determine how often you reach for the net!

fly fishing freestone streams

sunset on the Jefferson River, a freestone stream

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written by Al Simpson, October 2016