There is something special about March trout fishing in the high country. While most fishermen simply reminisce over the previous summer’s exploits while dreaming of future summer hatches, a hardy few continue to enjoy some excellent fishing through the cold months of winter. Deep winter is the toughest fishing of the year, but as March approaches, there is a rising optimism of better fishing on the near horizon. The arrival of spring finds awakening trout with a growing appetite just as the aquatic insects come to life after a long winter rest.
Winter catches are usually measured in single digits, but success isn’t always measured in numbers. A couple of years ago, I stepped out into a frigid 5 degree morning to see some subtle rise rings nearby. A few casts later, I had done battle with a couple of huge rainbows, neither of which I got to the net, and watched a few other lunkers ignore my offerings. The bright morning sun and idyllic winter setting in absolute solitude made for a perfect, satisfying day on the water.
Frigid winter water temperatures (35-40 degrees) so decrease trout metabolism that they tend to lie virtually motionless, congregated in the deepest holes. These fish will feed perhaps only every other day, surviving mainly on the only active insect life in the rivers — midges. To maximize nutrient value from such tiny fare, these lethargic fish will not waste energy by moving very far to intercept a bite. Winter waters are very thin and crystal clear, making the trout super-spooky.
Increasing daylight in late February begins to warm some waters enough to invigorate the trout as well as the aquatic insect base upon which the fish feed. Even in the depths of winter, a radiant sun will sometimes stimulate the trout to respond to midge hatches, making for a superb fishing experience. However, in early March, winter conditions will probably still prevail.
As mentioned, lethargic winter trout congregate in the safety of deep holes leaving much of the water devoid of fish. Sight-fishing to find feeding fish becomes important under these conditions. Occasionally, hunger pangs will strike and fish will move into feeding lies. Feeders will be found at the head of holes, in shallower water that has been sun-warmed, or they’ll be suspended above the bottom. Spooky trout demand precise presentations; very long, fine leaders and, generally, tiny midge or mayfly nymph patterns. To attract interest, your offering must be placed right on the fish’s nose. Rather than relying on an indicator, which can miss subtle strikes, watch the fish to signal a take. Lethargic strikes demand a gentle set. A 9-foot, soft-action rod is perfect and helps to protect the delicate leaders.
The astute angler will fish gentlemanly hours during this frigid period. Personally, I seldom hit the water prior to 10:00 a.m. In the morning, midge larvae are readily available as they drift in the current, so, normally, I will begin the day drifting a pair of midge larvae patterns deep. As the day warms you may well notice occasional light surface water disruptions as midge larvae evolve into the pupal stage prior to hatching. In this situation, I’ll change to a midge pupae pattern with another pupae or larvae dropper. If it becomes evident trout are feeding on adult midges, change to an adult with a pupae dropper. Snow or shine, sometimes a midge hatch will produce incredible fishing for an hour or two after lunch. By 3:00 p.m., I’ll usually call it a day.
Depending upon climatic conditions and altitude, late March usually heralds the transition from winter to spring trout fishing. Just as a slight water temperature increase stimulates increased trout metabolism, it also drives an increase in aquatic insect activity. As March progresses into April, more rivers and streams will become productive and accessible as spring surges ahead. March trout will respond to the warming water like a bear abandoning hibernation, feeding ravenously to sate their increasing appetites. Old Man Winter begins to loosen his icy grip and blue-winged olives (BWOs or baetis) awaken, leading to hatches that attract trout like a magnet. These active little olive/brown insects love nothing better than a dreary, drippy day to come out to play. Some incredible, dramatic fishing can occur as blizzard hatches of both midges and BWOs occasionally occur simultaneously. I have found that during hatches, fishing sub-surface or emerger patterns is often more effective than fishing adult patterns. Spring is happening and it is likely that some of the best fishing of the season is at hand. Enthusiastic fishermen head for the rivers when the forecast is gloomy.
By late March or, more likely, early April, restless caddis will begin to toss and turn in preparation for their annual spring fling. Even the stoneflies begin to stir as the water warms slightly. The spring trout buffet line will soon be complete and the dinner bell will ring more frequently as the variety of food in the fishes’ pantry increases.
Another major annual trout happening is also occurring that further beckons the spring fisherman. In March, the rainbows begin their spawning ritual, especially on the South Platte tailwaters. Increased daylight and warming water sparks the primeval urge to reproduce, and mature rainbows migrate up out of the reservoirs or lower river, gathering like the swallows returning to Capistrano each year. The big males arrive early to locate and stake out their love nests, then await the arrival of the females. They will be followed by big browns anticipating the upcoming egg buffet. Fishing droppers off an egg pattern from mid-March to mid-April is likely to attract one of these huge trout. As a reminder, if you do fish during the spawn, please don’t disturb the spawners and avoid wading through the redds.