Fly Fishing Rivers: Freestone vs Tailwater vs Spring Creek

There’s amazing diversity in the rivers we fish, but at a pinch, all of them fall into one of these three categories (although we’ve added meadow streams as another category …

There’s amazing diversity in the rivers we fish, but at a pinch, all of them fall into one of these three categories (although we’ve added meadow streams as another category for completeness). In this article, we are going to explain the characteristics of freestone rivers, tailwaters, spring creeks, and meadow streams, how this influences fish behavior, and how you should go about catching them.

Freestone Rivers Explained

Get the right drift with your fly, and you’ll be rewarded on a freestone stream.

Freestone rivers are the most common type of river and stream in trout fishing. The description “freestone” can be interpreted fairly liberally and really describes any river with a stony substrate. This could be a big bouldery headwaters stream right through to a river with a pebbly bottom further down in the valley.

Freestone streams feature pools, runs, and pocket water, as well as other features such as glides and back eddies. They are fun to fish in the traditional way by walking upstream, casting into likely spots, and aiming for the crucial drag-free drift.

Fly changes are important as the type of water you’ll encounter is quite diverse – if you are fishing dry flies, you’ll want a buoyant fly for the pocket water to keep it afloat. The takes in the foaming water can be very quick and easy to miss if your fly isn’t floating high.

But walk on a bit, and you could be fishing a pool or glide, and you’ll perhaps want to change to a small emerger pattern.

Keeping vigilant and fishing actively are the keys to success.

Five Favorite Freestones

  • Yellowstone River (Montana)
  • Madison River, Upper Section (Wyoming)
  • Roaring Fork River (California)
  • Au Sable River (Michigan)
  • Connecticut River (New Hampshire)

Tailwater Tactics

The big water of a tailrace means sometimes you’re best off “swinging” wet flies.

Tailwaters are rivers emerging from a dam or impoundment. While they don’t have to be, they tend to be larger rivers.

The cool water released from the bottom of the dam wall means tailwaters stay nice and cool in their upper reaches – handy in very hot areas where freestone rivers and spring creeks can be too hot to sustain reliable trout fishing.

Because of their size, tail races are often fished from drift boats, and this is a popular and enjoyable way to fish. It’s a great way to introduce people to the sport as it is relatively easy, and the chances of catching a fish high. They are also home to some really large trout, as tailrace fisheries have enough insects and biomass to sustain bigger fish.

Usually, fishermen and women drifting the water will cast ahead of the drift boat targeting fishy pockets and structures with either streamers or dry flies.

The one thing to watch with tailwater fisheries is they are subject to sometimes rapid changes in river height with water released according to the demands of irrigators or, if part of a hydroelectric scheme, power generation.

This means you need to be flexible in your approach, and the locations where fish are holding will vary every time you fish the waterway. In our favorite tailwater, flows can vary extensively – at its lowest, in winter, you can wade it easily, whereas, in peak summer flows, it is a raging torrent. So fish can be up on gravel bars at low flow rates but will retreat to backwaters and the margins when the flow rate increases.

Five Top Tailwaters

  • Deschutes River (Oregon)
  • San Juan River (New Mexico)
  • Henry’s Fork River (Idaho)
  • Green River (Utah)
  • Bighorn River (Montana)

Spring Creeks

Smooth water and lots of bugs: fishing spring creeks is great fun.

Spring creeks are streams where the initial source of flow is a spring rather than a river catchment. A spring creek will often rise on a flattish plain and flow gently down to the nearest river. Spring creeks are usually short but sweet in terms of fly fishing opportunities. The nutrient-rich water, and insect-friendly substrate, mean they have more aquatic life than a freestone river or tailwater.

The best spring creeks have languidly flowing gin clear water and patches of aquatic weeds, courtesy of the nutrients, that hold a large variety and quantity of insect life and large populations of fat and healthy trout, including some large fish.

Fishing a spring creek is rarely easy as trout will punish slopping casting. A badly presented fly will send them scurrying to the depths, but land it softly and get a drag free drift, and you’ll get a typical spring creek trout to bite.

The other benefit of a spring creek is that it will rarely color up in the event of heavy rain. When a cold front dumps a lot of rainfall or snow in a catchment, often the freestone streams will be unfishable for a day or two, but a spring creek will be running clear along with the upper reaches of tailwater fisheries below the dam or reservoir and can be fished in any weather.

Spring creek fishing is very visual as you can often see them rising. A good day on a spring creek will see you cast to maybe fifty fish and land 10 of them.

Meadow Streams

Meadow streams contain some large trout.

The last category of trout river that we’ll cover is the meadow stream. A meadow stream is the section of a trout river where it comes down from the mountains and reaches the flat section of the valley. It broadens out and becomes less boisterous, and the banks more stable. As a result, the amount of insect life tends to increase, and the fish size too. Water quality may now be as good as the upstream section, but the added nutrients in the water make for greater weed growth and more biomass to sustain a population of larger trout.

Trout in the slower flows the meadow stream have more time to inspect an angler’s offering, so casts must be precise and gentle. Decent falls of grasshoppers and other terrestrials bring meadow streams to life and are one of the most exciting fishing scenarios you can encounter.

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Rick Wallace is a passionate angler and fly fisher whose work has appeared in fishing publications including FlyLife. He's appeared in fishing movies, founded a successful fishing site and spends every spare moment on the water. He's into kayak fishing, ultralight lure fishing and pretty much any other kind of fishing out there.
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