Over in the Meadow

Over in the Meadow

When spring runoff blows out the rivers, head to the rills of the meadows to find fish

  • By: A. K. Best
Each year I eagerly wait for spring, with its attendant mayfly hatches. I try to get out as often as I can to take advantage of the early season Blue-Wing Olive hatches before the spring runoff begins. But inevitably, snow melting on the mountaintops eventually gathers in the rivers and streams and raises them to dangerous levels--all but canceling stream fishing until late June or even August in extreme years. This is the time when I seek out those little-known and seldom-fished meadow streams.Although the springtime flow in them is usually a foot or more higher than mid-summer norms, the flow rate is nowhere near the knee-shaking speed of the streams that come tumbling down out of the mountains. And the water in the meadow streams usually is still clear enough to use dry flies even at this time of year. This doesn't mean you can be careless about how you fish meadow streams, however. In fact, you need to apply all the stealth you can muster, just as you would on a Paradise Valley spring creek; meadow trout are very wary creatures. They have learned that if they are to make it through another day, they need to fear every shadow they see and vibration they feel. When fishing meadows, you will probably catch a bunch of little four- to six-inch trout. But at every bend and undercut bank you have to anticipate that there is something much bigger living back in the dark water--quite possibly a 16-inch "monster." Approach each possible lie with the thought that there is a bruiser in there that you don't want to spook. Long ago I lost count of the number of lunkers that broke me off as they charged back into an undercut bank and tangled my leader in a root wad. There's just enough bend in any fly rod to allow a 14-inch or larger trout to do this, so you probably won't land many of these big fish. But the knowledge that you fooled them should be of some value. (A broomstick and 20-pound-test line would be a surefire way to bring them in--but then they likely wouldn't eat your size 14 beetle, would they?) My favorite rod for fishing little meadow streams is an 81/2-foot bamboo rod with a double-taper 5-weight line to which I attach a 13- to 15-foot leader tapered to 5X. A well-designed leader that will turn over with almost no fly line out of the tip-top guide is mandatory. Late in the summer, I may have to go to 6X because of the low flow level and the clear water. Meadow casts are usually fairly short up-stream casts, often no more than 15 or 20 feet, and that's when I really appreciate the long, delicate leader and the 81/2-foot rod. They allow me to drop a fly next to some overhanging grass or in a notch along an eroded bank while keeping the fly and false-casts far above and to one side of any possible trout lie. One of my rules in meadow fishing is to never false-cast over the stream if I can avoid it. If I use a rollcast pickup I can place the fly back where I want it with only one short false-cast. If I need to dry my fly with a few false-casts, I turn my back to the stream and do my false-casting over the meadow grass where no trout will see it. This also keeps any water droplets that cling to the leader and fly from spraying down on the water's surface and spooking fish. And when I have to get down on my knees to make a cast, I make sure I can keep the fly and leader higher than my head so I don't catch grass on my backcast. My favorite fly pattern for meadow fishing is a size 14 black- or bronze-wing beetle. By winged beetle, I mean a beetle pattern with wingtips exposed at the rear of the fly; all beetles you will see on the water have their wingtips exposed. If it seems to be a good year for hoppers, I will carry a few size 10 and 12 yellow hoppers. And of course, there are always a few size 18 through 14 red and black ants in my vest, both winged and plain. I also carry a box of Olive Quill duns, parachutes and spinners in case there's a Baetis hatch. But it seems that most often I start the day with the winged beetle pattern and never see the need to change. Why the strong preference for beetles? It's because meadow-stream trout are somewhat like those that live in riffles and pocket water in larger streams in that they are opportunistic feeders. If something floats by that looks like a bug, they'll eat it, especially if it's something they are accustomed to seeing and feeding on. Most meadows have a healthy population of beetles, and beetles invariably are a little clumsy in the morning when the temperature is still on the cool side. Many of them end up klutzing their way right into the water, where they make easy prey. I try to be on the water just after sunup to take advantage of this, and will fish until it gets too hot or windy to be comfortable. This usually makes it a four- to six-hour outing that almost always satisfies me. Another reason for arriving at the stream in the early morning is that the sun's low angle at this time of day provides more shady areas that encourage trout to venture a little farther from cover than they will under bright sunlight. Try to get your fly to land just upstream of some overhanging grass and let it float down between the grass and the bank. Another good technique is to get your fly to lightly strike the overhanging grass and then tumble down to the surface. These are killer techniques because there is a very good chance that a trout will be either back under the overhanging grass or right next to it. Think about how bugs fall into the water and you'll be on the right track. Early morning fishing usually also means there is no hatch, and few if any rises to be seen. It's the time when you should make at least a half-dozen casts to the same possible lie before trying another spot in the stream. It's also a time when you must be able to read the stream for possible lies. These could be located in small riffles, current creases or even in deadwater areas and small pools. In spite of all our experience and the advice of others, a trout could be anywhere between the two banks of the stream. This unpredictability makes thorough-ness an important virtue, and I try to fish every square foot of surface on a meadow stream. My first casts are to likely looking areas with overhanging grass, under willows or very close to undercut banks. By "very close," I mean within an inch of the grass or eroded bank. Meadow trout seem to hold in such areas in order to take advantage of the ants and beetles that fall in as well as the quick escape to cover. Not only is fishing in small meadow streams a lot of fun, it's good practice in casting accuracy because you will need to drop your fly in an area the size of a tea cup if you're going to have any luck. One of the best ways to gain pinpoint accuracy is to keep your rod as vertical as possible. This will create a vertical casting loop that will deliver your fly exactly where you are looking. Another thing that will improve your accuracy is to always fish with a leader that is of a consistent length. I never fish with a leader that is much shorter than 13 feet, regardless of what the conditions are.