By Miles Nolte
Most people seem to fetishize summer: warm, languid days dripping sweat and sunshine; nights like 70s basketball shorts.
As a child of the 90s who never completely shed grunge era ethos or fashion, I enjoy the darkness and shorts that at least graze my knees. Summer certainly burns in the hearth of nostalgia—I liked the freedom that came with aestival vacation as much as the next kid—but given the choice I’d take early spring over core summer. If you’re a trout angler, there’s really no comparison.
Of course, there is no choice. Seasons are temporal and cyclical. Though damn near over, March still smolders with opportunity, and early April holds much of the same appeal and benefit. If you've wasted the past few weeks pining for cookouts and cornhole, give me five minutes to try and change your perspective. You still have time to enjoy the Mustache Month.
Frostbite is the last thing on your mind with good gear and a better stache.
If I had to pick one month of the year to trout fish in the West, that month would be March.
The Magic Water WindowWhile I do love winter fishing, I don’t love iced-up guides or slicing leaders against shelf ice. March brings the first consistent temperatures that hover above freezing. Depending on where you are, and how your luck runs, you might hit a very comfortable 55 degree high, but more likely it’ll peak in the high 30s to mid 40s. This, my friends, is the sweet spot: Warm enough to vanquish the ice, clear the valley snow, and stir up the bug life without triggering melt in the high country or headwaters. Once spring comes in earnest, it’s turd soup. By August, many of the major western rivers face low, warm flows ticking 70 degrees and churning with free-floating aquatic vegetation.
You'd be hungry too when the size 22 midges turn into size 8 skwalas.
Happy, Hungry Fish
That water window is magic partially because of its stability and clarity, but also because the slow increase in water temperature causes trout to begin feeding more aggressively and spreading out. While it’s cool to know that 90% of the fish are stacked in a handful of deep slow pools all winter, that also limits your options for where to fish productively. Don’t get me wrong, plenty of fish are still in those same deep slow pools, but they’re starting to move around. Best of all, though, they’re EATING. Warmer water means increased metabolic needs, more active bug life means more abundant food, and the hormonal shifts in spring spawners mean a greater caloric intake. In August, however, those same fish are starting to experience stress and hypoxia from warm water and low levels of dissolved oxygen.
While my favorite flies to fish are small, drab dries, my favorite flies to tie would fit right in on Liberace’s Christmas Tree. I don’t know what it is about opening a box and having my face light up like Vincent Vega’s that brings me so much joy. Perhaps I’m easily amused. Whatever. If you like shiny objects as much as I do, then we both have something in common with spring trout. Bust out your tinsel and flash, because it’s a celebration! The most productive fly in my box for the month of March is a bright red Gamakatsu Octopus hook wrapped in a thin strip of florescent red Edge Bright. Dirty? Maybe. Effective? Incredibly.
Do You Like Dry Flies?
Of course you do, unless you’re one of those hardcore Euro nymphers. No judgement, I just confessed to loving a blinged-out dirt snake. While some rivers, mostly tailwaters, see midge rises throughout the winter, the bug party usually starts in March. I’m not saying March is the best month for surface action. If you’re part of the dry-or-die crowd, you’re still fondling your hackle pliers. March is still mostly a nymphing game—but this is the first month when you have a legitimate shot at banner surface action. In addition to midges, baetis start to hatch consistently on some rivers. While they’re called March Browns, I don’t actually see very many March Browns in March, but they do come out in some places. Of course, our favorite namesake stonefly, the skwala, makes its appearance this month and continues into early April some years. Come August, the vast majority of hatches have tapered or stopped. You’ve still got tricos in the morning, and if you want to get on the water at 6 am to throw size 22 spinners, god bless you. Terrestrials become the main daytime insect game on most rivers. They’re fun, but the fish get wise when they’re seeing 200+ fake hoppers a day.
All By MyselfUnlike Eric Carmen, I do want to be all by myself, or with a handful of chosen co-conspirators. On all but the most popular Western trout rivers, March still offers a good chance at solitude. This is probably the main reason I love this time of year, because so few other people are around. Yes, I realize the irony of what I’m doing right now, extolling the virtues of a fly fishing “secret” in public and therefore jeopardizing the very thing I love. But here’s the thing: it’s not really in jeopardy. I’ve been loudly proclaiming the superiority of early spring for decades. In the 15 seasons I spent as a guide, I can’t tell you how many times I told clients to come in March after another disappointing day in August. I can count on one hand the number who actually showed up. People fear inclement weather. They’d rather have terrible fishing in shorts, than banner fishing in waders and underlayers.
All smiles when the snow is falling but the fish are rising.
Braving the ElementsThat brings me to the final reason why I prefer March to August—I enjoy cold fishing days. Let’s be honest, if you’ve got the right gear, you can fish very comfortably in 40-degree weather, even rain. And there’s a certain satisfaction, a charging of core fortitude, that blooms when your extremities tingle for a few hours. Cold weather snaps me into focus, whereas heat turns me into a puddle of sloth. Plus, whiskey tastes better when you’re cold; it’s like a sweater for your insides. Summer is coming, soon enough, but March is quickly skipping out. Do yourself a favor and go fishing, right now. Before you know it, runoff will descend. After that, crowds will arrive. Spend August exploring the high country. The next few weeks likely offer some of the best fishing you’ll see all year on the major rivers.
About the Author
Miles Nolte probably burned your favorite spot in some fishing publication or another over the past couple decades. He also made a living pimping out the rivers of Southwest Montana and parts of Bristol Bay, Alaska for much of his adult life. He was the cohost of the fishing podcast, Bent, which pissed off fly anglers and bait fishermen alike. In his twenties, he waited tables at a country club, which is why he hates golf and golfers.