It’s April, a month of transition in the Virginia Piedmont region. For the trout fisherman, it’s a time of transition too, from days of mostly tying flies to days of fly fishing. Spring fly fishing offers some of the year’s best dry fly fishing. Trout emerge from their winter holes, hungrily looking for food.

Just ten days ago, there was snow on the ground, and as seen in the cloudy sunrise picture below, more is on the way.

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a winter sunrise

But yesterday I took this picture of a witch hazel bush, the Piedmont’s first floral harbinger of spring’s arrival.

blooming witch hazel, a harbinger of spring in the Virginia piedmont

With spring comes the promise of increased trout activity and an increase in bug hatches. For the fly fisher, this means an increased likelihood of having a banner day, especially for those who prepare. I think that 90% of what leads to a good day of trout fishing occurs before the car ever leaves the garage. But if your planning begins and ends with a quick check of the VDGIF stocking schedule, you need read no further!

“Spring Fly Fishing- Strategies for Trout” is intended for those who prefer to fish mountain streams for wild brook trout, or those streams managed as trophy trout, delayed harvest, or catch and release. I will also add the stipulation that one has the luxury to select a day and/or time to fish.

Spring Elements

The primary elements that I take into consideration as I plan a fishing trip include the weather, water conditions, and hatch activity. While they are of course inter-related, each contributes separately to the feeding activity of the trout. The same elements also determine my fishing strategy. I also take into account recent fishing pressure that a stream has experienced, as well as the likely density of fly fishers I will likely encounter.

Let’s begin with the weather. I start monitoring the weather a few weeks in advance. I’m interested not only in the weather forecast for days I might want to go fishing (? every day), but the preceding weeks’ weather as well. The USGS no longer provides stream temperatures on their website.  Therefore, ambient temperatures, including night time lows and day time highs, combined with the number of days of bright sun versus cloudy skies, are the best surrogates available.

Over the winter, the water temperature is often less than forty degrees. When the water is this cold, being cold blooded, trout become very sluggish and their feeding activity is markedly diminished. With the arrival of spring, the water will begin to warm into the ideal range for trout, fifty to sixty-five degrees. The trout will be famished from reduced winter feeding, and during the first several weeks of warming water, they will feed ravenously. These are ideal weeks to be on the water. But don’t forget to bring a thermometer to check the water temperature. If you misjudged conditions, on-stream data will you adjust your plans.

In early spring, the daily forecast is also helpful in determining the time of day to be on the water. Clear nights will often lead to night time lows dipping into the thirties, cooling the water. A bright sun will usually raise the water temperature five to ten degrees by mid-day. This will mean better fishing in the afternoon, similar to winter fishing. In contrast, if the preceding day was warm and the night cloudy, the air and water will remain warm, and an early arrival may be just the ticket.

For water conditions, I monitor the USGS website. This provides a week of data, including CFS, or cubic feet per second of water flow, and water depth. It is presented in a graph, and includes the historical average of each. I find the CFS to be most helpful. If the current CFS approximates the historical average for that day, the water will generally be clear, the fish comfortable, and in a mood to feed. But if the CFS is one and a half times or more above average, the water is likely to be silty and the fish will not be feeding as actively.

I also look for weather events, that is, evidence of a storm that substantially increased the CFS several times normal. During such periods fish will not be able to feed very well. If one is streamside when the CFS has tapered back to near-normal, you will generally find hungry, feeding fish.

Spring Bugs

During winter, the primary bug activity is limited to midges, interspersed with some olive hatches. With spring, the menu increases progressively to include a variety of mayflies, stoneflies, caddis, and hapless terrestrials. Today, I took this picture of a Quill Gordon dun, named after Theodore Gordon of Catskill fame. It was resting on our home’s foundation. The Quill Gordon is easily recognized, being a large, dark brown mayfly with slate gray wings and a two-forked tail. It usually is the first spring mayfly to hatch, and is greeted by eagerly feeding trout, and wise fly fishers!

Quill Gordon dun, the first spring mayfly

I keep diaries of hatches on the streams that I most often fish. But lacking these, local fly shops are a good resource. Most have websites, and will post fishing conditions weekly. I think they have a tendency to exaggerate fishing results (but don’t we all?) and suggest an overabundance of artificial flies to have at hand (a common malady). But they do a credible job of reporting current bug hatches on their local streams. Whatever your resource, check and be sure you have the appropriate artificial flies to “match the hatch”. This is the best time of the year for dry fly fishing on most of our streams.

The Competition

The last consideration I take into account, is fishing pressure. I find it interesting that for several centuries, fly fishing authors have bemoaned the increasing number of fly fishers on their streams. But the number of streams is unchanged, and both population and interest in fly fishing continue to increase. So if we want a bit of stream to ourselves, some effort and planning are necessary. Sadly, from the perspective of a cardiologist, it is amazing how few fly fishers will walk more than fifteen or twenty minutes from an access site. However, from the perspective of an avid fly fisherman, this is good news! I simply look for streams with several miles of water between access points. Then I plan to walk a half mile or more to water I will fish. The more challenging the terrain, the better!

Another condition that thins the crowds is inclement weather. If the forecast is for scattered showers, I grab my gear and go. A light rain, or freshet, often triggers a bug hatch, and the resultant fishing can be outstanding.

If one takes all these factors into consideration, selects the best day and time to be streamside, armed with the correct flies, and away from pressured water, a productive day of spring fly fishing is almost assured!

Written by Allan Simpson, April, 2014.                                                Edited November, 2017.