DUTCH JOHN, Utah Looking to catch one of the biggest trout of your career? This is the time to find big, kipe-jawed rainbows stacked up on gravel shallows, snapping at streamers and crankbaits as they ramp up to their springtime spawn.
But you can't just walk up to big trout and yard them out of the water. Many of the best stretches of spawning water are closed for the season.
Others are too remote, or their rainbows spawn in so many areas it's hard to target the accessible fish. And some rivers are just too large and technical to routinely reward anglers, no matter how hot their fish may be.
But here are a trio of rivers that offer great springtime rainbow fishing. They're each a bit different, and require different strategies. But each one Utah's Green, the Missouri below Hauser Dam and the Bear River in southeastern Idaho all feature good numbers of spawning rainbows.
They're open right now. And each one can produce the biggest trout you've ever netted. Plus, they're unique enough that strategies that work in one can easily be converted to other rivers of the same size and type.
Green River, Utah
There's nothing obscure about this world-renowned tailwater.
With trout densities that hover around 10,000 fish per mile, this stretch of water in northeastern Utah boasts both high catch rates and good numbers of trophy rainbows.
And this is the month to boost your odds of wrangling with a rainbow in the 4- to 6-pound class.
Timing: From early March through April, the Green's rainbows will transition from their winter pods to their spawning gyrations on the river's shallower gravel bars to gorging on the baetis mayflies that come with the return of warmer water from Flaming Gorge Dam and increasing sunlight on the water's surface.
Where you find them in that transition will depend on air and water temperature in the deep gorge, said Denny Breer at Trout Creek Flyfishing (435-885-3355) in Dutch John, Utah.
"As spring progresses there will be some big changes in the trout and insect activities from those of winter," said Breer. "
Typically, longer days with longer periods of sunlight will move trout back towards reversal of what occurs in winter, a noticeable un-podding and restationing in the more typical river lies. This reversal will occur over time and overall create some great fishing."
And if you miss the peak of the spawning activity, Breer notes that one of the best conditions of the year is right on its heels.
"We are seeing the blue-winged olive mayflies sporadically, but they will be more important to the fishery as we enter early April."
Fly box: Breer recommends fly fishing to these spawners with either a large, gaudy streamer or an egg imitation. His "Hot Six" selection of patterns includes Glo Bugs and Scuds in orange and pink and streamers, including the locally popular Playboy Bunny and Goldilox Bugger in addition to the venerable Double Bunny and Woolly Buggers in gold, tan, pink and white.
Breer said San Juan Worms, in red, will also appeal to spawn-minded rainbows this month.
Top spots: In terms of where you can find spawners, the entire river from the dam down past Little Hole to Browns Park features midstream riffles and shoreline gravel bars that attract rainbows through March.
Some of the best, said Breer, are Secret Riffle up by the dam and the shallows around Little Hole. Stay above Red Creek, which can run high and muddy after spring rains.
Missouri River, Mont.
While the "blue ribbon" reach of the Missouri below Holter Dam gets all the national press and the armada of drift boats another reach of river actually fishes better through March.
Top spots: That's the relatively short stretch from Hauser Dam to the mouth of Beaver Creek. This area is just northeast of Helena, Mont., and while Hauser can be difficult to find, the river is as accessible for hikers as it is inaccessible for boaters.
Most of the river's rainbows are seasonal visitors from Holter Dam downstream. They were stocked in the lake three and four years ago and make this probably futile spawning run as a vestige of their anadromous heritage.
Anglers can see anywhere from a couple dozen to hundreds of deep-sided, brick-red rainbows stacked up on the riffles in the 3 miles below the dam.
Fly box: Fishing for them can be frustrating. By mid- March they will have seen dozens or even hundreds of flies, lures and baits, and it takes a perfectly dead-drifted pattern or a well-placed bait or lure to appeal to these clear-water fish.
A good tactic is to quarter-cast upstream and let your offering swing in the current down to the fish-holding water. Fishing in the low light of early morning or evening is another way to stack the odds in your favor.
Good flies include Egg-Sucking Leeches, purple and brown Zonkers and Buggers, and small, bright nymphs and egg imitations.
Drifting double-nymph rigs under strike indicators is a good way to detect bites in water that can range from just a foot to over 4 feet deep.
Special concerns: The current is typically fairly constant through March, but it's heavy enough that one of these 20-inch fish will put up quite a fight when it gets in the current. And Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist Steve Dalbey reminds anglers to not wade across gravel bars, even shallow shoals close to shore.
"We're trying to protect those habitats and the spawning that occurs there," he said.
"We have evidence of wild-spawned fish in this reach of river."
Beaver Creek, an important tributary about 3 miles below Hauser Dam, is closed to fishing through late May. But enterprising anglers often set up near the mouth and fish to spawners stacked up in the main Missouri.
Bear River, Idaho
Mountain whitefish and walleye will compete with rainbows for anything you throw in the Bear River below Oneida Dam, but if you target shallow gravel bars all the day downstream to Riverdale, you'll have a great day on pound-and-better 'bows.
And mixed in with the rainbows is a growing population of cutthroats and a few bruiser browns, reports Bob Taylor at Taylor's Sporting Goods (208-847-1150) in Montpelier, Idaho.
Timing: The key to consistent action on rainbows through March and April is timing a trip to coincide with relatively low flows both through the canyon and through the Oneida Narrows, said Taylor.
You can check the flows by calling (800) 547-1501 and following the phone prompts.
Fly box: Bring a variety of egg-imitating nymphs, from Glo Bugs to bright orange, pink and chartreuse Scuds.
Spinners such as red-and-yellow Panther Martins and the smaller Jake's Spin-a-Lure are both good hardware options.
Top spots: The multi-species action extends through the Black Canyon reach of the Bear below Alexandria Dam and then again in the Oneida Dam tailwater.
You'll find rainbows stacked up on shoals in the very middle of the river. In fact, there are relatively few gravel bars in the canyon reaches of the Bear, so find active fish by looking for current changes, holes and riffled water below deeper holes.
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