Tailwaters, Freestones, and Spring Creeks: What’s the Difference?

If you’ve been fishing for a while, you’ve most likely come across references to three types of rivers: tailwaters, freestones, and spring creeks. Despite having heard the terms, many anglers are still a bit confused by what each refers to.

All three types can hold good populations of fish and offer great fishing opportunities, but they don’t behave the same way. This means that even though all are fishable, knowing which type you’re fishing is important for choosing the right technique.

Familiarizing yourself with the differences between freestones, spring creeks, and tailwaters will allow you not only to decide where to go based on seasonal conditions, but also how to approach the water once you’re there.

An important point to make at the start is that different sections of the same river can be different types. It’s not uncommon to have a freestone river flow into a reservoir and come out the other side as a tailwater. This will make more sense after reading up on what they are.

Freestone rivers

If I asked you to close your eyes and imagine a typical small, mountain trout stream, you’d most likely picture a freestone.

A freestone is simply a river that forms from snowmelt and tributaries that add up over a distance. Many freestone trout rivers originate high in the mountains, where trickles of snowmelt come together to form a small creek. The small creek then flows down and gathers inputs from other, smaller creeks to form a larger stream. Eventually, with enough distance, freestone streams can grow to be large rivers.

The early sections of a freestone river are called the headwaters. This can be confusing, as headwaters sound like the opposite of tailwaters, but in reality they aren’t really related. The headwaters are the start of a freestone, and a tailwater is a different type completely.

Characteristics and fishing

Freestones are the most variable when it comes to flow fluctuations and turbidity. Because they’re at the mercy of snowmelt, rain, and tributaries, they react strongly to changes in all. On a particularly warm spring day when the snow is melting quickly, freestones will rise rapidly and go off-color. During runoff, freestones may be nearly unfishable due to their volatile nature.

They also react to cold temperatures. Near their headwaters, freestones can easily freeze over in the winter and become inaccessible.

On the plus side, in the spring and summer, freestones offer great fishing and are often quite beautiful due to their natural, untouched state.

What freestones lack in year-round availability, they make up for in ease of fishing. Because freestone fish are used to dealing with fluctuations, they tend to be more opportunistic and less picky. Technical, complex rigs are rarely necessary, and nothing beats a summer day of terrestrial fishing on a freestone.

Freestones are absolutely my first choice to fish if conditions are favorable.


Tailwaters are very easy to define and identify. These are sections of river below dams. A freestone may flow into a reservoir, but when it then comes out below the dam, it becomes a tailwater.

Tailwaters always begin at a dam, either from water coming over the dam or water coming out the bottom of a dam. Water coming over the top is coming from the surface of a reservoir, which leads to warmer tailwaters that can hold warmwater species. On the other hand, water coming from the bottom of a dam is being pulled from the bottom of a reservoir, leading to a cold tailwater. These cold tailwaters hold trout.

Some famous tailwaters include the Fryingpan, the Blue, the San Juan, the North Platte, and the Madison.

Characteristics and fishing

If you think of a freestone, and then make everything the opposite, you’ll get pretty close to a tailwater.

Tailwaters are controlled by humans, so they only fluctuate as much as they’re told to. Yes, they can rise and fall as water is let out from the dam, but overall they’re much more stable than freestones. They aren’t immediately at the mercy of weather and snowmelt. Not only are their flows consistent, but so are their temperatures. The bottom temperature of a reservoir doesn’t change much throughout the year, so a tailwater originating at the bottom of a dam can be nearly the same temperature in the winter and summer. It usually won’t freeze over, regardless of air temperature.

This leads to very consistent hatches, and often large populations of decent-sized trout. Many gold medal waters are tailwaters.

This may sound too good to be true, and at times it can be. The things that make freestones great for fishing are often reversed on tailwaters. Because they have many large fish and can be fished year-round, tailwaters get hammered by fishing pressure. It’s rare to get the river to yourself on a tailwater.

Not only is this a bummer for the overall fishing experience, but it leads to very picky fish. Although you can catch monsters in tailwaters, you might only land one or two during a day of fishing. Rigs may require fluorocarbon line and very specific, tiny flies.

I love tailwaters for the opportunity to catch large trout and to fish in the winter, but I rarely choose them in the middle of summer when freestones are open and fishable. Having both available for different seasons is the perfect balance.

Spring creeks

Spring creeks are creeks that originate at a spring. They can appear to just come out of the ground, with no apparent source.

Spring creeks are nutrient-rich and gin-clear. They can support lush vegetation due to their nutrients, and this vegetation in turn can support rich bug life. Insects are often small but prolific.

These are the least common of the three major river types, and therefore many people rarely fish them. You may be near many spring creeks or none. They’re also sometimes effectively turned into freestones if they’re in mountainous terrain, as the qualities they possess are easily overthrown by snowmelt or tributaries.

Characteristics and fishing

In mountainous areas, spring creeks can behave like freestones due to outside water inputs from snow or tributaries. In flatter terrain, spring creeks can behave more like tailwaters, as they have consistent flows and are often quite clear.

Fishing springs creeks can be tough but rewarding. They support good insect populations, and therefore solid fish populations, but due to their extreme clarity, the fish are usually very wary. Long leaders, small flies, perfect presentations, and a stealthy approach are mandatory on spring creeks.

That’s all there is to it. Next time you’re fishing, take a moment to think about what type of river you’re on. Tailwaters, freestones, and spring creeks all have their place in fishing. Knowing which is which may just help you determine the best way to approach your quarry.


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