The Southwest Spring Challenge

From the Pacific Coast to alpine lakes, the Southwest offers a wide variety of springtime fishing opportunities. 

by Al Ritt

The Southwest offers a terrific range of spring fly fishing opportunities. The region encompasses waters from the Pacific Ocean to the Rocky Mountains: reservoirs, alpine lakes, freestone streams, spring creeks, and tailwaters. In addition to the variety of water types, trout are available from near sea level to above an elevation of 10,000 feet. These elevation changes afford us the option of extending spring fishing by beginning our season at lower elevations and moving higher as the weather warms.

For example, here in Colorado, eager spring fishermen begin their seasons in late February or early March on local streams because ice does not come off the alpine lakes in the headwaters of these drainages until late June or even as late as mid-July. Habitat and conditions this diverse result in a wide array of fishing options. Many patterns are effective across this broad spectrum of water types and climates, but timing varies greatly. Consulting a hatch chart for the specific area you’ll be fishing will help determine the timing and sizes of insects you’re likely to encounter.

Water Types

Freestone streams are typically fishable early in spring, then succumb to runoff and may not be easily or safely fished again until summer. These waters originate from snowmelt, alpine springs, and marshes, and are often in deep canyons with steep gradients. Freestone streams are subject to rapid influxes of rain and snowmelt. They tend to be the most challenging fisheries in the spring because they are easily altered by rain or snowmelt. The additional water raises levels and current velocities, and carries sediment and debris. Sediment reduces visibility, and debris can make wading hazards for unwary anglers. Cold snowmelt and rain can also lower the overall water temperature and reduce the metabolism of coldwater organisms such as fish and insects.

Ritt’s Fighting Crayfish

Hook: Daiichi 1730, sizes 6 to 2.
Thread: Orange 3/0 (210 denier).
Weight: Medium lead dumbbell eyes.
Antennae: UV orange Krystal Flash.
Eyes: Black round rubber.
Claws and arms: Orange foam claws mounted on orange barred rubber legs.
Carapace: Mottled orange Thin Skin.
Underbody: Orange yarn.
Legs: Whiting Eurosaddle or Woolly Bugger Hackle, grizzly dyed orange.
Rib: Hot orange Ultra Wire.
Body: Burnt orange Crawdub SLF Dubbing.

Spring creeks are generally not so susceptible to runoff, because they originate underground. This moderates the water temperature, making them fishable year-round if there is no closed season. Spring creeks tend to be found at low to middle elevations, 6,000 feet or less. They are also typically found in flatter terrain with shallower gradients, so flows are moderate and weed growth is plentiful.

Tailwaters act much like spring creeks. However, since they occur below impoundments, they tend to be located in the same steep terrain as freestone streams. In the case of bottom-release dams, the water flowing into tailwaters has moderated temperatures throughout the year; tailwaters are less apt to freeze in the winter or overheat in the summer. Reservoirs trap silt and debris, removing it from the downstream section of these waterways. They also catch rainwater and snowmelt, allowing it to be released in more stabilized flows. The results are streams that are less impacted by runoff and maintain relatively stable water temperatures year-round, much like spring creeks.

Stillwaters can be real game savers in the spring. Spring rains and snowmelt are early-season threats to blow out freestone rivers, but have little or no effect on lakes. On ponds and lakes, water near shorelines warms first and spurs insect activity, bringing feeding fish within easy range. Fish, feeling the urge to spawn, congregate on shallow gravel flats and near the inlets of streams. Fly fishers can take advantage of these fish by conscientious wading and restricting fishing to perimeter areas rather than fishing the actual spawning redds.

Midges Are Important

After identifying the best types of water, you’ll now have to select the correct flies. What are the early food sources available to the trout?

Midges are very populous and active throughout the year. You’ll find midges in lakes, ponds, reservoirs, tailwaters, spring creeks, and the sections of some freestone streams. Midges are extremely prolific where they occur and are available throughout the season.

ARF Midge Pupa

Hook: Tiemco TMC2487, sizes 16 to 10.
Thread: Black 8/0 (70 denier).
Antennae: White organza.
Bead: Silver glass.
Underbody: Thread.
Rib: Silver wire.
Overbody: Clear Micro Tubing.
Wing: Organza.
Thorax: Peacock Sybai Fine Flash Dubbing.

Midges come in a dizzying range of sizes and colors, but you can match most of them with a few patterns tied in a variety of sizes and colors. I primarily use either black or red larva and pupa imitations. I also carry olive, tan, white, blue, gray, and sometimes unusual colors like purple, but black and red are my most consistent producers. I reduce the number of colors I carry to imitate adult midges; in most cases I can get by with dark (black or slate gray), medium (olive or medium gray), and light (white or cream).

As for size, I generally find that while midges can be size 14 and possibly larger in the summer, early in the year most midges are smaller, usually size 18 or less. Larvae are very simple wormlike organisms, and patterns such as a Thread Midge are quick to tie. The pupa stage sports a darker, somewhat enlarged thorax; a Brassie, WD-40, Chromie, and ARF Midge Pupa are typical of patterns I use to imitate a midge pupa.

An adult midge has no tail and one set of wings that are no longer than the body. The wings lie flat along the back of the insect when it’s at rest. It is not uncommon to see scaled-down mayfly imitations fished as midge adults, and they can be effective; more accurate imitations have no tail and flat wings. Small caddisfly and stonefly patterns work well, as do Griffith’s Gnats and various fore-and-aft patterns. Cripples or “stuck in the shuck” patterns can be deadly; my favorite is Roy’s Midge Emerger.

Roy’s Special Emerger

Hook: Tiemco TMC100 or TMC101, size 16 or 14.
Thread: Gray 8/0 (70 denier).
Trailing shuck: Brown Antron.
Wing: White polypropylene yarn.
Body: Gray dubbing.
Hackle: Dun.

The cranefly doesn’t fit the midge stereotype. Unlike many people’s concept of a midge, this is a very large critter. Adults are not common until later in the summer, but the larval stage can be as big as size 4, 2X or 3X long. That’s a mouthful! These insects are bottom dwellers, but rising spring flows often dislodge and carry them helplessly along. Because they do not hatch at that time of year, they often go unnoticed by anglers, but the hungry trout are aware of them. Cranefly larvae are common to many freestone and tailwater fisheries.

Spring Mayflies and Caddisflies

Blue-winged olives, which come in several sizes and varieties, are notable early- and late-season mayflies. They are very prolific and are typically the first mayflies to appear in the spring. They are often mistaken for midges, but to the careful observer the upright wings gives them away. Small Pheasant-Tail Nymphs and several other small patterns work well for matching BWO nymphs. A wide range of dry flies imitate the adults, but the Sparkle Dun and Parachute Adams are my favorite patterns. Plan to fish size 18 and smaller imitations. You’ll find blue-winged olives on freestone streams, tailwaters, and spring creeks. (continued on page 2)