Trout are finicky creatures. If the water is too warm or cold, they don’t want to bite. If the water is too high or too low, they don’t want to bite.
Between mid-April and mid-June, conditions in West Virginia are about as good as they’ll be all year. Water temperatures and levels are, for the most part, pretty much ideal to make trout active and ready to feed. In short, it’s a fine time to fish.
Trout are considered a “cold water” species, and they feed best when water temperatures are in a certain range. Mike Shingleton, head of trout fisheries for the state Division of Natural Resources, explained that the term “cold water” is a little deceptive.
“When the water is really cold, 35 to 40 degrees, trout are pretty sluggish,” he said. “As water temperatures rise above 50 degrees, they become much more active.”
As air temperatures increase, so do water temperatures. By mid-April, most of West Virginia’s trout streams are in the 50-55 degree range. By the end of May, they’re often 10 degrees warmer than that. Trout find that entire range quite comfortable.
About the time trout start to become more active physically, nature starts serving them a banquet. Triggered by the rising water temperatures, aquatic insects such as mayflies, caddis flies and stoneflies begin to hatch. As the bugs become more active, so do minnows and other bait fish.
With all that food suddenly at their disposal, trout go on feeding binges.
Dave Breitmeier, a guide at Elk Springs Resort near Monterville, has seen some amazing feeding sprees on his favorite section of the upper Elk River, sprees that almost always occurred during heavy insect hatches or mating swarms.
“It’s impressive when you stand in the river and see trout [breaking the surface to eat floating insects] as far as the eye can see,” Brietmeier said. “If you can figure out which insects the fish are taking, and if you can imitate those insects, you can catch a lot of trout in a very short time.”
Springtime temperatures also encourage trout to feed more actively throughout the day. That isn’t the case in early March, when good fishing often doesn’t begin until late afternoon, after the sun has warmed the water for several hours. It also isn’t the case during the summer, when too-warm daytime temperatures cause trout to feed mostly at night.
Breitmeier said fly anglers who know how to recognize and match insect hatches can enjoy success from daylight until dark.
“Too many guys only want to fish during the [mating swarms] just before dark,” he explained. “They’ll come up here and wait all day for a half hour to 45 minutes of really good fishing. What they don’t realize is that other insect activity had been going on all day long, and they could have been catching fish all that time.”
Of the major aquatic insects found on trout streams, mayflies are arguably the most important. From the first hatches of tiny Blue-winged Olives in April through the hatches of the much larger Green Drakes and Slate Drakes in late May and early June, West Virginia streams enjoy a steady succession of mayfly hatches.
“It’s one after another after another,” Breitmeier said. “They follow a regular sequence. They’re like old friends coming to visit — this one visits first, and then the next one comes in, and the next. They all happen in their own [time] window.”
Water levels, which usually run high in March as snows melt from the mountains, begin to moderate by mid-April. Wading becomes easier. The water becomes clearer, and fish can more easily see the offerings anglers toss their way.
For anglers who prefer to fish for stocked trout, the period between mid-April and the end of May is arguably the best time of the entire season. The state’s stocking schedule is most intense during that time, and water conditions are most conducive for freshly stocked fish to feed.
“The exception is when the waters the fish are being stocked into are a lot colder or warmer than the water in the stocking truck,” said the DNR’s Shingleton. “But after they adjust to the temperature, they’ll start feeding. We don’t feed them on the day we stock them, and they’re used to eating regularly. Eventually they’ll start to bite.”
Izaak Walton, author of “The Compleat Angler,” called fishing “the contemplative man’s recreation.” Brietmeier said springtime conditions make the pastime easy to enjoy.
“There’s no such thing as a bad day to fish in May and June. How can you go wrong?” he said.