Don’t Be Afraid of The Spring Creeks!

Depuy's - 6-4-14With the first blue-winged olive (baetis) mayflies starting to appear on the Paradise Valley spring creeks, I thought I’d post a few words (ok, a few more than that) I recently wrote about these world-class fisheries:

Before I had even moved to Montana, back in 2004, I knew about the Paradise Valley spring creeks. I knew that they were world-famous fisheries, where the best anglers paid a fee to challenge themselves against highly “educated” trout. That they hosted prodigious hatches of mayflies that had to be imitated nearly perfectly. That they were clear and shallow, with tricky currents. I knew all this. And frankly, I was intimidated. Intimidated enough that I never set foot on any of them the first 5 or so years that I lived half an hour away, despite the thousands of hours I spent waving my rod over the local waters. Then one day I screwed up my courage and booked a day at DePuy’s Spring Creek. Armed with a little advice and a few flies from a local fly shop, I made my way to the creek. And, lo-and-behold, I caught some trout. Not a lot, mind you, but enough to make my former trepidation seem a bit foolish. Since then, I’ve fished the creeks in all seasons, with nymphs, dry flies, and even streamers. I’ve guided them a few times. I’m far from a spring creek expert, but I’ve learned that even an intermediate angler can be successful on these storied waters, if prepared with the right approach.

Notice that I said an intermediate angler, not a novice. The spring creeks are challenging, to be sure. To be successful, the angler needs to be able to cast fairly accurately, if not particularly far. A drag-free drift, at least for moderate distances, is a must. A day on one of the creeks is likely to be an exercise in frustration, and a waste of money, if the basic skills haven’t yet been mastered. All that said, the spring creeks are actually a great place for relative novices to improve their nascent fly fishing skills with the help of a guide. They tend to reward good technique, and a guide can help you develop that technique. In truth, a day with a guide is a good idea for anyone who’s new to the spring creeks. If you’ve already spent a bunch of money travelling to Montana for a multi-day trip to the spring creeks, one day’s guide fee is a small price to pay for some expert instruction to get you started in the right direction. Some anglers who fish the spring creeks multiple days every year still hire a guide for every one of those days. Don’t just read this article and head to one of the creeks. Hire a guide; you’ll be glad you did.

But let’s say you’re a committed DIY’er, or that hiring a guide would be an undue financial burden. You can still be successful doing it on your own. Go ahead and book a day on one of the spring creeks. Leave your intimidation, and your box of size 12 Princes, at home. Stop at one of the Livingston-area fly shops (preferably Sweetwater Fly Shop) and tell them where you’re going. They’ll help you select some flies for your day and provide some advice about where and how to fish the particular creek you’re visiting. And then go and have fun. And remember to look up once in a while. The creeks are surrounded by some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. They don’t call it the Paradise Valley for nothing.

First, let me say a few words about the Paradise Spring Creeks (and their trout). The three creeks are really two. The first flows into the Yellowstone River from its west side. It rises from the ground on, and flows through, the O’Hair’s Ranch, where it is known as Armstrong Spring Creek. It then flows through the DePuy’s Ranch, where it is not surprisingly known as DePuy’s Spring Creek. Those two creeks are really different stretches of the same creek. The second (or third, depending on how you’re counting) flows through the Nelson’s Ranch on the east side of the Yellowstone River. This is, you guessed it, Nelson’s Spring Creek. Depuy’s is the most beginner-friendly, as its riffles, runs, and pools are the most like a classic freestone. Nelson’s is the most challenging, and probably not the best of the creeks for a first-timer.

Spring creeks, by their nature, have a nearly constant flow and temperature (around 52 degrees). The constant temperature means that the trout in the creeks tend to feed consistently all year round. The spring creeks also contain a high concentration of nutrients. This leads to a high concentration of insect and crustacean life, at least of certain types of trout food, most of it relatively small. They creeks are conducive to midges and small mayflies, not to large stoneflies, for example. Most of the food available to spring creek fish tops out at around a size 16, and much of it is considerably smaller. If you’re my age, some magnifying glasses can be almost a necessity, if you ever want to get your tippet through the eye of these diminutive flies.

One of the most useful tidbits of spring creek wisdom was offered up by master spring creek guide Brant Oswald. Spring creek trout are not actually any smarter than other trout, Oswald pointed out. They can, however, afford to be more selective in their food choices. Because of the plethora of food that is available to them, particularly during hatch periods, spring creek trout can “key in” on a single bug (or even a single stage of that bug) and still get enough to eat. The simply don’t have to be as opportunistic as freestone trout. It is possible to catch trout on the creeks with attractor dries and nymphs, but you’re likely to do better if you do a good job of imitating what they’re currently feasting on.

For this reason, the spring creeks can actually be a bit easier to fish during times when no hatches are going on. In the winter, for example, the fish are somewhat more opportunistic in their feeding. Because the water temperature stays relatively warm even during the cold months of the year, spring creek trout continue to feed steadily, unlike their freestone brethren. And they’re not feeding as selectively as during the summer. A well-presented mayfly nymph, midge pupa, scud, or sowbug can be quite effective on a warm day in the winter. As a bonus, the rod fees are lower ($40) and you’re less likely to be aced out of a good-looking spot by another angler.

But “matching the hatch,” particularly with dry flies, is what makes the spring creeks a draw to anglers from around the world. Fooling a rising fish with your floating imitation will make you feel like you really have this fly fishing thing down. Especially if you’ve had to change your fly several times to find just the right one. The Paradise Valley spring creeks are most renowned for their mid-summer Pale Morning Dun (PMD) mayfly hatches. However, I find the spring and fall baetis (blue-winged olive) mayfly hatches to be more friendly to the angler who’s still on a spring creek “learner’s permit.” The creeks aren’t as crowded (in fact, it can often be difficult to get on any of the creeks on short notice during the summer months), the rod fees aren’t as high, and the fish aren’t quite as wary.

Regardless of which hatch you are fishing, there is a predictable sequence of events that unfolds. The nymphs swim to the surface, where they shed their nymphal shucks. The newly emerged duns rest on the surface for a brief time while their wings harden, and then they fly away. A few of the emerging duns get stuck in their shucks and others emerge with a crippled wing. These become easy pickings for trout. Your fishing strategy can follow this sequence. Before the hatch begins, fish nymphs progressively closer to the surface. If you’re able to spot feeding trout, “follow” them up the water column as they feed higher. Just before the hatch begins, you may only have a few inches of tippet below your indicator. During the hatch proper, you’ll be tempted to switch to a dun pattern. After all, you’re seeing hundreds of duns floating down the river past you. And yes, you can catch fish, sometimes may fish, on duns. But it pays to remember that duns are “risky” food for the trout. The duns have the tendency to fly away just as the fish rises up to slurp them off of the surface. Energy wasted. An emerging nymph or cripple doesn’t present this risk. For this reason, it often pays dividends to fish an emerger or cripple pattern, either on its own or as a dropper off of your dun pattern. It also pays to remember that more nymphs are swimming to the surface, even as duns are emerging. An unweighted nymph dusted with a powdered floatant, such as Frog’s Fanny, can be an effective dropper fly.

If you’re planning to be on the creek into the evening (or in the early morning), don’t neglect the spinner fall. The mayfly completes its life cycle by metamorphosing from a dun to a spinner. The spinners fly in clouds over the riffles, where they mate. The females then fall the water, where they lay their eggs and expire. The males also fall spent. Trout will eagerly feed on the fallen spinners. Though the spinner falls typically take place in the riffles, the biggest trout will usually be found feeding in the slower water below the riffle, where they can expend less energy.

Presentation is probably the most important determinant of whether an actively rising fish will take your fly. A drag-free presentation is critical. Mayflies rarely skate across the water’s surface, and your dragging fly will immediately alert the trout that it’s not the real thing. Always take a moment to plan out your presentation strategy before you begin casting to a riser. How can you present your fly such that it’s not dragging when it passes over the fish? Casting from upstream and across from the fish can often be your best bet, and also assures that your fly will reach the fish before your leader does. You can also cast from directly above the fish, using a pile cast to provide slack line to feed down to where the fish is rising. Just remember to tip your rod tip to the side after the fly has passed the fish unmolested, so that you’re not picking up directly over the fish. A longer leader can also help prevent drag, particularly in the complex currents of the spring creeks’ flat water. If you’re getting refusals, try tying on a bit more tippet. Don’t go wild and end up with a rig you can’t cast, but a couple of feet of extra length will give you a few seconds more of drag free drift, and that can make all the difference. And you can also go to a thinner diameter of tippet. I usually start with 6X and then go down to 6.5X (yes, TroutHunter makes half size tippet material) or 7X if I’m getting refusals. Any lighter than that, and you’re likely to break off any fish that you do hook.

Entire books have been written on spring creek flies. I won’t go into specifics about particular patterns here. Your best bet is to stop in to one of the fly shops near the spring creeks and ask a friendly employee (most are) to point out a few favorite patterns. Just be sure not to head out to the creek undergunned. Get one or two patterns in each of the types I’ve discussed, nymphs, duns, emergers, and probably cripples (and maybe spinners). Get them in the size suggested by the expert, and possibly also in one size smaller. Switching the size of your fly can often entice a wary trout to take. But I’ve found that it’s usually a smaller bug that the trout are looking for, not a larger one. And don’t sweat the color too much. Artificial flies vary in color from fly to fly, but so do the naturals. Get the profile and size right, and you’ve got a good chance of fooling the fish, regardless of whether you’ve got just the right shade of olive. And get at least 3 of each pattern. Yes, it’ll end up being a bit of an investment, but you don’t want to work hard to find a fly that’ll work, then lose your only one to the first fish that takes it, or to a tree on the bank.

Remember to wade slowly and stealthily at all times. Waves travel far in the relatively slow and flat water of the spring creeks. And there can be fish just about anywhere. If you’re “blind” nymphing (i.e., not fishing to a sighted fish), cover the water systematically, first with short casts, then with progressively longer casts. Then move a few feet and start the process over with. And don’t worry if you spook a fish (you will). There are plenty more fish out there.

Above all, enjoy your time on these special creeks, regardless of how many fish you catch. Pause and relish each fish that you do catch. Fishing the spring creeks is not a numbers game. Think of it as a puzzle that is yours to solve. There’s little more satisfying in our sport than to put those pieces together.

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[…] Planning your first trip to the spring creeks? Check out some advice that I gave in a recent Sweaty Waders blog post. […]

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