What Are Tailwaters, Spring Creeks, and Freestones?

For a fly fisherman, there are three main types of rivers that typically hold fishable populations of trout; the freestone stream, a spring creek, and a tailwater. Each type of water will present a very specific challenge that is typical of the habitat, and there are many clues that help define the water as to which type it should be categorized. Usually, the powers of preparation (a few well stocked fly boxes and a variety of leaders/tippet) will help you catch trout in all types of water. Having a little beforehand knowledge can help you narrow down fly selections and techniques and get you into fish quicker and more consistently.

The Freestone Stream

The water flows of a freestone stream are based on seasonal fluctuations of snowmelt. In the summer and fall, freestone streams grow warm and have reduced flow because water from snow melt is less readily available. Freestones are supplied by runoff and snowmelt, while limestone spring creeks streams are usually fed by springs, providing cooler water and a more consistent supply of water. The more snow a location gets in the winter, the more water is reserved for the runoff and trickle of melt throughout the season.

  • Size of freestone streams can vary greatly, from tiny mountain streams to large valley floor rivers,. As long as its fed mostly by snowmelt and is undammed, it's a freestone.
  • If the river is prone to floods and dirty, turbid waters, it's likely a freestone because these are clues to the ebb and flow of a river influenced greatly by precipitation and melt.

The Tailwater

Tailwater fisheries are those that exist solely due to the influence of a dam at the head of the river, or section of the river, that regulates flow and temperature. In short, tailwater fisheries are there because there's a dam above them. Take the Missouri River in Montana for example, the prolific fishery wouldn't be there if it wasn't for the conditions that are created by the consistent water temperatures that are drawn from the bottom of the in-river reservoirs. This is the case in many of the fisheries across the country.

  • "Bottom Draw" tailwaters are those that have dams on them that draw water from the bottom of the reservoirs, thus supplying more constant and colder water temperatures. The most prolific tailwater fisheries are those that benefit from bottom-draw dams.
  • Spillway type dams that allow warmer water from the surface of reservoirs typically do not support great trout fisheries, but instead are usually dominated by warm-water fish like bass, pike, and pickerel.
  • Tailwaters are some of the most common and widely displaced fisheries in America.

The Spring Creek

Spring creeks are the least common water types that are fished by most anglers but they are the holy grail of streams to many fisherman. Spring creeks are fed entirely by the groundwater seepage of natural and nutrient rich spring water. Spring creeks can seemingly rise up out of nowhere in a valley, they most commonly meet up with a larger river but sometimes will exist entirely on their own. These fisheries are rare, but contain some incredibly prolific hatches and sometimes large fish. They are tough to fish because the water is usually gin clear, shallower, and the hatches can be tough to decode.

  • Spring creeks usually have a greater density of vegetation in the water.
  • The bugs in spring creeks are usually smaller, but have larger populations due to the ample vegetation in the water for them to feed on.

The Difference in Fishing Each Type

Knowing if you are fishing a tailwater, spring creek, or freestone can help you to prepare for a day of fishing in numerous ways, but when it comes to fly selections for the day, it can be paramount to success.


  • Usually the most predictable in so far as hatch scheduling. Tailwaters have predictable hatches that are typically well known. Call ahead to local fly shops or do your research with books or on the internet and plan your fly box selection to match what is historically prevalent for that time of year on the tailwater.
  • Tailwater fish can be educated in seeing many flies through the season, so carry a variety of styles of mayflies and caddisflies. Sometimes a parachute Adams isn't going to get the job done, so having a few cripple or emerger patterns may prove to be extremely useful when they just won't come up to eat. Keep an array of small nymphs and lower floating dry flies for tailwaters


  • On a freestone river or creek, your fly selections don't need to be as specific and as precise as a tailwater or spring creek. Freestone fish are more accustomed to opportunistic feeding and exhibit a less judgmental inspection of your flies.
  • Bigger, bushier, and high-floating dry flies are common on freestones, allowing you to keep better visual contact with your dry flies as they float through the more turbulent water conditions. Commonly there is little need to get super techy with your fly selections on freestones.

Spring Creeks

  • Spring creek fishermen usually are the guys who've got fly box after fly box filled with patterns, and for good reason. Spring creek fish can be highly selective and wary of artificial presentations. Long leaders, light tippets, and tiny flies are common on spring creeks.
  • If you're unsure what you're getting into when you visit a spring creek, it's a good idea to, at the very least, carry some small bugs like Griffiths Gnats in size 20 or smaller, as well as a plethora of scud or freshwater shrimp style nymphs. The underwater vegetation of most spring creeks hold a huge number of scuds and midges, so having a good selection of those should help to decode the current conditions.

Fishing each type of water, from spring creeks to a tailwater or freestone, can present their own individual challenges for a day of fishing. Highly skilled anglers will always prepare as much as possible and be able to adapt and change tactics to meet situations on the water. Prepare yourself the best you can for a day of fishing and be adaptable to the streamside conditions and you'll likely find success out there.

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