Updated: Mar 26, 2021
Spring creeks are great for a number of reasons, one of which is that fly fisherman can enjoy them year round without concern of freeze up or blow out.
This however, also means the trout who live there are spoiled by a constant “conveyor belt” of food. Fish living in some water types have a short window of time to pack on calories, so they don’t have the luxury of letting food float past their noses until something looks “just right”. Fish in spring creeks on the other hand, feed steadily year round and stay selective about their meals. So to pursue these trout successfully throughout the year, it’s helpful to have different “go to” fly patterns to match the changing seasons.
Wintertime on spring creeks has its advantages in some regards. Other seasons have multiple insect species hatching throughout the day, and often, more than one hatching at the same time. This can cause hair pulling frustrations when trying to match the hatch! In winter though, there’s a limited number of species hatching, increasing the odds of successfully identifying the correct bug and pattern to match it. So what are the best patterns for winter fly fishing on spring creeks?
I have vivid memories of a certain day on the water last winter. Fish were sipping bugs in the film at a steady pace, but every time I stalked and make an effective presentation to one, I came away with refusals. Almost every trout would come up and look at my fly, only to throw on the brakes at the last millisecond. I tried every fly in my box. I’m a true believer that proper presentation trumps fly selection the vast majority of the time, but I knew I was getting solid drifts, so pattern change was the only option I had left. I ended up fooling one gullible little fish, but the others just weren't interested. This gnawed at me on the truck ride home. What the heck were they eating and what do I use to imitate it?
Over my early morning cup of coffee the next day, I pulled out the book Fishing the Film by Gary Borger. I’d read the page (36 in my copy) about the floating nymph in the past, but had given it little attention. I thought the pattern looked too simple and very similar to other flies I already carry in my box. Out of curiosity more than anything, I decided to tie a few up in sizes 20 and 22.
A week later I hit the same section of stream that had given me the frustrations mentioned above. It was deja vu. I tried all my usual go to’s with no success. Then I remembered the floating nymphs I had tied up, ( I’d put them in a small box I reserve for newly tied patterns to “try out” that’s usually buried deep in my pack). I tied one on and caught fish on my next four casts. These were the exact same fish who had been giving me nothing but refusals all morning, and here they were, almost racing to see who could get to the fly first. Since that day, I’ve had similar luck with the floating nymph when trout are feeding at the surface and refusing or ignoring everything else.
Why it's so effective:
The sparse hackle creates an “sparkle” impression on the surface that looks almost identical to that of a midge riding on the water.
The body of the fly sits below the surface, giving the appearance of a midge stuck in the film.
Keys to this pattern:
The sparse hackle. Made by only ONE wrap around the dubbing ball post.
The supple tail. If the material used for the tail is too stiff, the tail will float instead of sit UNDER the surface film.
The dubbing ball used for the post must be tight and compact, and must be created without using any head cement or glue. It needs to be tight enough to wrap the hackle, but head cement will add too much weight, causing the fly to sink in a matter of seconds.
Must be tied in small (20-26) sizes to imitate the midges the fish are keying in on.
These little guys can be next to impossible to see on the water. One way to increase visibility is to attach them to the hook bend of a larger fly and fish it as a tandem rig.
Invented by Hans Van Klinkken in the early ‘80s to chase Grayling, the Klinkhammer’s uniqueness comes from how it rides in the water. Thanks to the methods used when tying it, the majority of the fly sits in and below the film, while the brightly colored post stands high above the surface and provides excellent strike detection. It’s buoyancy is thanks to an over sized hackle wrapped “above” the fly.
My fishing partner could probably point you to the exact bank side log that caused me to fall in love with this pattern. We’d been fishing upstream, working a section of water we knew held fish because of our success there the previous day. That second day was shaping up differently though. We fished hard starting at sunrise, and by mid morning were skunked and about to head back to the campsite to recharge. In a last ditch effort, I threw on a new pattern I’d tied up for no other reason than I saw it online and it looked different and interesting. The first three casts with the Klinkhammer toward the same log I’d tried numerous times, produced hookups with three different rainbows. That’s one way to gain a confidence pattern, but I knew better than to gauge its effectiveness without a larger sample size.
Since that day, I’ve been out on the water several times with similar results. While it’s effective during some hatches due to its resemblance of a struggling nymph, I usually reserve it as a searching pattern when there's no apparent hatch going on.
Why it’s so effective:
The curved shape of the hook hanging below the water is an almost exact imitation of an emerging nymph or pupa stuck in the surface film. Often times, fish in the wintertime are holding close to the bottom, and the only way to get their noses up is to present a large and easy meal that’s worth their effort of moving to the top of the water column.
The hook hanging so low in the water coupled with the high buoyancy, creates the ultimate top fly for a dry dropper rig. It’s crucial to have one of these in your arsenal because no matter how much fun dry fly fishing is, most of the time it’s pretty challenging in the winter, when all the trout want to stay tucked in close to the bottom.
Keys to this pattern:
Must be tied on a nymph hook in order to create the underwater curved shape to imitate an emerging insect.
Oversized hackle needs to be used for buoyancy.
No heavy materials can be used for the abdomen because they will cause the fly to sink very quickly.
When asked the age old question of, "if you could only fish one fly for the rest of your life, what would it be?" the RS2 would rank right up there with any of them. It's an extremely versatile fly that can be fished in or on the surface film by adding floatant to it, or if squeezed wet, it makes for an extremely effective dropper on a dry dropper rig. Although I typically stick with the original Adams grey, by changing the body color it can imitate just about any mayfly nymph out there.
During the winter months, I’ve found the most success with RS2s by squeezing them wet and fishing as a dropper under a dry fly. (Such as the Klinkhammer mentioned above). It’s a great way to get the fly in the correct water column, and I’ve also seen it get the fish’s attention only to them have them come up and hit the dry it’s attached to.
Why it’s so effective:
Ask 10 fly fishermen and you'll get 10 different answers! There's just something about it that make trout salivate.
In my opinion, it has something to do with the outline appearing similar enough to the natural to get the trout's attention, but also vague enough they use their imagination and see what they want to see. (Like when the psychologist holds up a card with black spots on it and asks “now what do you see?).
Keys to this pattern:
A slim, tapered body. Trout see much better below the surface than they do above it, In order to pass the “eye test”, it must match the silhouette of the natural as close as possible.
The material used for the body should absorb water, think hare’s ear dubbing instead of superfine. This helps the fly get down in the water column instead of floating on the surface.
Winter fly fishing on spring creeks can be both challenging and rewarding. By carrying Floating Nymphs for midge hatches, Klinkhammers for attractor patterns, and RS2s for droppers, your fly box will be well rounded to cover almost any situation you find yourself in.