When I began fly fishing for trout, I was fortunate to be living in Virginia. The Blue Ridge mountains in Virginia boast over 2,000 miles of native brook trout water. Such small mountain streams offer the ideal venue for learning how to fly fish for trout. They require stealth, accurate casting, and good presentation. In addition, their inhabitants feed agressively. Now, roughly fifty years later, I continue to love wading freestone streams of all sizes. But I must admit, fly fishing spring creeks has taught me more about fly fishing for trout than any other water-type.
Spring creeks get their name because they are formed by water “springing to the surface” from underground aquifers. Little of their water comes from surface run-off. In the East, a geologic formation of limestone runs from New York to Georgia. Spring creeks arise all along this formation. Their water is rich in bicarbonate, released from the limestone (CaCo3). The bicarbonate maintains a high or alkaline PH, and provides a nutrient-rich environment for invertebrates, which in turn become food for trout.
Mike Lawson (Spring Creeks) has written that in the West there are three types of spring creeks. Most commonly they arise from basalt, the porous rock left from volcanic eruptions. The calderas in and around Yellowstone National Park give rise to numerous spring creeks, including the Firehole, Gibbon and Henry’s Fork.
Limestone spring creeks are less common in the West, as are creeks arising from rivers that become subterranean and re-emerge. The spring creeks in Paradise Valley, Armstrong’s, DePuys, and Nelson’s, are examples of the latter.
Regardless of their source, spring creeks have many characteristics in common. They have a steady flow of water all year long. Rather than tumbling down a mountainside, they meander through flat valleys. Their bottoms usually consist of mud or fine gravel. This promotes a robust growth of aquatic plants.
Spring creeks have a narrow temperature range. The emerging water is typically 52-56 degrees, year ’round. As the creeks flow further from their source, sun and ambient temperatures alter them somewhat, but rarely more than few degrees.
In some respects the constant nature of spring creeks is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, they remain fishable year-long. However, their constancy of flow and temperature leads to a reduction in biodiversity.
Although lacking the large number of invertebrate species found in freestone streams, the species that do inhabit spring creeks flourish. Thus spring creeks are noted for their reliably robust hatches.
Most spring creeks host midges, tricos, sulfurs or PMD’s, and sometimes olives. Fast-water flies, like stoneflies and caddis, are typically not found in spring creeks. But the meadows through which they flow harbor a broad spectrum of terrestrial bugs over the summer. Many of these bugs tumble into the creeks where they become an important food source for their trout.
Brown trout seem best suited to the environs of spring creeks. They love the slower flows and structure. With the rich supply of food, they grow rapidly to a surprisingly large size in these generally small streams. However, they can be challenging to catch. The heavy, reliable hatches lead to a greater selectivity than seen on freestone streams. After gorging themselves during a hatch, they seem content to wait for the next hatch. Thus if there is no hatch, the stream can seem barren. Prospecting with dry flies or nymphs is not very productive, but streamers may draw some trout from their holding lies.
When encountering a hatch, it is important to study the riseforms created by the feeding trout.
Many authors have studied and named the riseforms. This peaked in Trout, authored by Ernest Schwiebert. He identified twenty different types of riseforms! While interesting, I think there is only one riseform that must be discerned, that created by a trout feeding on the surface. All others are caused by trout feeding near the surface, but not on the surface.
When feeding on the surface, a trout’s mouth breaks through the surface film. As it sucks in its prey, air and water are sucked in as well. The mix of air and water is then expelled through the gills, leaving a series of bubbles within the riseform. Therefore, if bubbles are present, the riseform was made by a surface-feeding trout. Riseforms lacking bubbles were created by subsurface feeding. Making this distinction is vitally important in the selection of flies to be fished.
Many times my ears catch the first evidence of trout feeding on or near the surface. Their subtle, sucking take may cause a kiss-like sound. More vigorous takes produce a gulping sound. The sounds created by feeding trout as they turn in the water also provide clues as to the size of a trout. Small trout turn or push only a little water, resulting in a high-pitched sound. Large trout displace more water, and make a deep, swirling sound.
Spring creeks are more demanding of the fly fisher than other water types (Fly Fishing Freestone Streams). Their trout’s hatch-dependent/selective feeding necessitates that a fly fisher learn the hatch cycles of a stream. Otherwise, one will spend a lot of time, sitting on a bench, waiting for the action to begin!
Once a hatch has begun and trout are feeding, it is usually necessary to identify the hatching bug. The next step is to identify whether the trout are feeding on duns, cripples, or pupae and nymphs trapped in the film. This can be done by studying the riseforms, as described above. But sometimes it’s necessary to wade to the foam-line and inspect the water’s surface to detect the bugs. Having done this many times, I’m always surprised at the high proportion of flush-floating cripples.
Because of the small size and muddy bottoms of spring creeks, much of the fishing is done from the bank. To avoid detection, the savvy fly fisher keeps a low profile, and strategically uses streamside brush for cover. Due to their generally clear water and quiet surfaces, longer leaders, sixteen feet, may be necessary to avoid spooking the fish. Precision casting is a prerequisite. Many times, one cast is all that a wise, old brown trout will allow!
All told, one must bring their “A game” to spring creeks to consistently catch their trout. Indeed, the pinnacle of fly fishing for trout may be to consistently put trout into the net when fly fishing spring creeks. But developing one’s ability to do so is what it’s all about. Such fun!
additional related reading-
written by Al Simpson, July 2018.