Other styles to produce strong returns were "macro" funds, which also try to catch macroeconomic trends but are traditionally less quantitatively oriented. Macro players gained an average of 4.9 percent, according to Credit Suisse, second to only futures investors.
One standout was Ray Dalio's $169 billion Bridgewater Associates. Its main hedge fund gained about 14.5 percent by correctly predicting two big trends: The continued decline of the euro and a delay in increasing U.S. interest rates.
Read More Bridgewater surges on bearish euro bet, low rates
The most common hedge fund strategy, stock picking and trading, produced more muted returns.
The average long/short equity fund gained 2.3 percent, according to Credit Suisse. That result was better than the S&P 500 Index, which gained just 0.44 percent from January through March.
One outlier was Ratan Capital Management, the roughly $1.2 billion Tiger Management-backed hedge fund firm led by Nehal Chopra. Ratan's main fund gained 22.4 percent in the first quarter, according to two people familiar with the performance (a firm representative declined to comment).
Based on publicly disclosed positions as of Dec. 31, key winners appear to have been Valeant Pharmaceuticals, Actavis and Charter Communications.
Another equity investor to produce strong returns was John Burbank's $4 billion Passport Capital. The main Passport Global gained 12.5 percent over the quarter. That was driven, according to a person familiar with the situation, by investing in companies that wouldn't be hurt by a rising dollar, and betting against—shorting—companies that would.
Top positions at yearend, according to a public filing, were fertilizer company CF Industries Holdings, Chinese online retailer Vipshop and Dollar General. All three stocks gained over the quarter.
Another stock-related fund manager to do well was John Paulson.
His main funds that focus on playing company mergers and acquisitions, Paulson International and Paulson Enhanced, gained 6.6 percent and 13.9 percent net of fees through March 20, according to a person familiar with the situation. A spokesman for $19.3 billion Paulson & Co. declined to comment.
Return drivers for those funds include Salix Pharmaceuticals (driven by a bid and ultimate purchase from Valeant) and pharmaceutical company Shire, which gained nearly 20 percent over the period, according to the person.
Read MoreInvestors yank $4B from hedge funds
A more broad-based investor to do well was Ken Griffin's $26 billion Citadel.
The firm's flagship hedge funds, Kensington and Wellington, gained 6.85 percent over the quarter thanks to strong performance in equities and commodities, as well as credit, quantitative and corporate event focused strategies, according to a person familiar with the situation. A spokesman declined to comment.
Similar "multistrategy" funds gained an average of 2.5 percent, according to Credit Suisse.