Freestone Streams vs. Spring Creeks: What Are Trout Eating?

Fly fishing is a sport accompanied by many technicalities, water sources being one that is often overlooked. Imagine yourself, gathering your gear, tying flies, and heading to one of your favorite streams in search of feisty native brook trout. It’s one thing to just head to the stream and start fishing, but have you ever considered investigating what the trout are eating before grabbing your rod? Trout live in freestone and spring-fed creeks in general but also live in tailwater streams and rivers. Both of which are similar but also different in terms of food sources, stream characteristics, and water flow. Here we break down the difference in trout food sources between freestone and spring-fed creeks.

Freestone Stream Characteristics

Freestone streams are flowing bodies of water where the flow is dependent upon the weather conditions. Rain run-off and snowmelt are two contributing factors to sustainable flows in these creeks and streams. It is typical for freestone streams to start at higher elevations, oftentimes in mountainous areas, and gradually widen as the flow continues toward the mouth. That being said, these specific streams are subject to variability in terms of conditions and food sources. Temperature is not regulated like spring-fed creeks therefore water temps rise and fall during summer and winter.

Freestone Stream Characteristics

What Food Sources do Freestone Streams Have to Offer?

Freestone streams and creeks are known for their abundant mayfly populations. No matter the time of year, you can count on seeing mayfly nymphs such as stoneflies, caddis, march browns, sulfurs, etc. Freestone creeks, like many other classifications, have multitudes of midge larva ranging in different colors and sizes. During the early spring and summer months, you can find trout munching on caddis and various other mayfly species. Trout tend to go nuts for midge larva during the transition to colder temperatures and throughout the winter months. It is common to find small baitfish such as black nose dace or freshwater sculpins darting throughout freestone streams. These food sources can vary in size giving trout quite the variety when it comes to their feeding hour.

Golden Stone Fly
Golden Stone Fly

What Fly Imitations Should you be Using?

As we all know, there are tons of imitations out there for anglers to utilize. Often times, nymph imitations can resemble multiple different species of flies but some are different than others. If you are looking to imitate a mayfly nymph, you can’t go wrong with using the traditional pheasant tail. This fly resembles multitudes of mayflies and has been known for fooling trout for decades. Stoneflies can be imitated by a stonefly pattern but also can be imitated by the famous Prince Nymph. Larger, more predatory trout tend to feed on larger food sources. Know this information, utilizing large baitfish or sculpin imitations such as feathered Game-Changers or the infamous “Sex Dungeon”, will definitely play to your advantage.

Spring Fed Creek Characteristics

Spring fed creeks are very common for regulated water temperatures due to continuous water flow from natural springs. Rather than having rigid stone-like creek beds, spring fed creeks are known for having silt-like bottoms typically created from limestone. These silty bottoms are the perfect breeding ground for aquatic insects and larvae in which trout feast on. The silt creek or river beds are typically accompanied by thick vegetation and water cress.

What Food Sources do Spring Creeks Have to Offer?

Like freestone creeks, spring fed creeks offer a selection of mayfly species such as caddis, midge larvae, and various others. Although, spring fed creeks are formally known for the abundance of cress bugs. It is also common to find sculpin populations inhabiting spring fed creeks offering a more diverse food source for trout. Due to the nature of spring fed creeks, the temperature is regulated due to the constant flow of water. This also means that you will find common populations of aquatic life throughout the year which slightly differs from freestone creeks. As mentioned previously, cress bugs, freshwater shrimp, sculpins, and various mayfly populations are what you will typically find trout feeding on.

What Fly Imitations Should you be Using?

Based on the abundance of cress bugs and freshwater shrimp in spring-fed creeks, you won’t go wrong with patterns imitating these food sources. Simple scud patterns are proven to be highly effective when it comes to fooling trout in spring creeks. Another very effective pattern would be a simple hares ear nymph which imitates various aquatic insects in which trout feed on. It never hurts to throw a few small sculpin streamers in the box for those overcast/rainy days and trout tend to feed more aggressively during these conditions.

The key takeaway here is that no matter where you are or what type of fishery you are fishing, there is going to be variety. Although freestone and spring-fed creeks differ in terms of water temps, creek beds, etc, they also share common similarities. Next time you visit a freestone or spring-fed creek, take time to observe the quality of life in these areas. Without a doubt, you will be fascinated.

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