The rivers are rising, the snow is melting, and runoff is officially here. High water in trout country can be tricky to fish, some days the increase in flows and turbidity will make it near impossible to catch a fish. On other days you can connect with a fish of a lifetime. The high flows and dirty water can make a larger more intelligent fish more susceptible to being caught. But getting a fly to them can be almost near impossible. Runoff is tricky for even the most seasoned anglers, in order to prepare you for more success during this time of year, below are 6 fly fishing tips and tricks to catch more fish during spring runoff.
Tip 1: Know How to Check Water Levels.
The most important aspect of fly fishing spring runoff is finding fishable water. There are a few steps to figure out what the conditions might be on a specific river. The first step is learning how to check water levels. Fortunately for anglers, USGS provides live real-time water discharge levels on specific rivers in specific places. The resource is free and easy to use, you can check water levels from previous years, compare them to the median flow, as well as check water temperature at certain gauges. Just like checking snow reports in the winter for skiing and snowboarding, checking the flows before heading out on the water can be a good indicator for what you may expect out on the river.
After looking at the specific gauges on the rivers you can predict what may be going on. If there is a huge spike in flows you can potentially expect a blown out, high and muddy river. If you catch this spike right at the beginning it can be good but a lot of the time once the river blows out it can be challenging to fish from the high and muddy water.
Tip 2: Look at the Weather Forecast, Talk to the Local Fly Shop or Shuttle Service
Along with checking the flows, looking at the detailed weather report, and talking to a local fly shop or shuttle service should go into figuring out runoff conditions for a specific area. Fly fishing reports can also be a great source of information. If there is a good amount of rain in the forecast expect flows to increase which can either positively or negatively influence your fishing day. If there is a warm front coming expect flows to also increase from the snow melting. And the opposite of this when a cold front hits. It will slow the water levels from rising and may even get the water levels to drop.
Don’t expect a fly shop to know exactly what the rivers may be like a week or two out as conditions can change very fast based on weather patterns. Stopping by a fly shop on your way to the river is the best way to get an up-to-date report on specific systems as well as some tried and true fly patterns.
Shuttle services are also a wealth of knowledge, while they may not know the exact fishing conditions they can tell you what the water clarity may be. The water clarity is the one aspect of the river conditions that you can’t track from the USGS tools. Different feeder creeks at different times of the year can muddy up rivers making them almost impossible to fish effectively. A shuttle service can provide an instant report of the river. You can ask them to text you a photo of the river to get an exact representation of the clarity if you aren’t sure if it will be fishable.
Tip 3: Target the Soft Water, Edges, and Tributaries.
After you have decided on a system and are on the river, now comes the fun of applying some runoff fly fishing tactics. When the water is high the normal holding water, the seams and riffles will disappear. . Trout don’t like to work too hard if they don’t have to, so instead of fighting the heavy current, the fish find the soft water to hold and feed. The softer water is usually found along the banks. The drifts may be short, but they can be sweet. And once you find one fish there are usually more in that same water.
New seams will form in certain areas, be on the lookout for larger eddies with a nice seam that flows at a walking pace. These larger seams can often hold fish on the inside (bank side) in slower water. A few stack mends in order to slow the drift can result in a hookup.
Tributaries can also pose a good opportunity for anglers. These feeder creeks offer a refuge for trout during high water events. The fish may stack in these systems to search out food. Or they may sit right below them where the confluence is. With hopes of ambushing food that may be getting flushed out from the tributary. Some tribs may have dirty water, but if the water is fishable most often these creeks will fish well, so be on the lookout!
Tip 4: Get Down and Dirty
Proper rigging can make or break your experience of fly fishing during runoff. The rigging will vary a lot from your traditional summer fly fishing setups. When the water is high and dirty, you have to really get down to where those fish may be holding. A 9 foot 3x leader works great when setting up a nymphing rig. Add on a tippet ring and use either 3X or 4X depending on the fly size. Use a heavier sized tippet than you would think as the water is typically dirty so the fish are less picky. And when you have a lot of weight on your rig is prone to getting snagged and breaking off, heavier tippet will protect your flies from breaking off so often.
As for streamer fishing, a full sink or hybrid sinking fly line can be essential to getting to the fish. Scientific Anglers Sonar Series of fly lines offer an array of great streamer fishing options for spring runoff. You can also add on a sinking leader, these sinking leaders come in a variety of sizes and sink rates. Depending on the size of the river and flows you can find a perfect sinking leader. The Rio Versileaders work great for our local rivers.
Tip 5: Go Big and Go Home
Just like the previous tip, getting the trout to see the fly is pretty much all that matters. Once you have your depth and sink rate set, a big bright fly is all that a trout desires in high and dirty water. Recommended nymph fly patterns for spring runoff include Rainbow Warriors 16-22, Pats Rubber Legs 6-10, 20 Incher 12-16, Squirmy Worms, San Juan Worms Pink/Brown/Red, Black/Maroon/Brown Leeches, Red Copper John 12-16, Pigsticker Worm, Two-Bit Stone 6-10, and Sparkle Worms Pink/Red/Purple. The same goes for streamers bigger heavier and brighter can work really well, try white or cream colors as well as yellow, black, or gold. Thin Mint, Sculpzillas, Mini Dungeons, Peanut Envy, Bowlicious-Blk and Olv,s Wedgeheads, Heisenburgs, and Tequellys.
Tip 6: If All Else Fails Find a Stillwater System
You may have plane tickets booked, a babysitter reserved, or a full-time job and can only fish a specific day during this time of year. And it just so happens that this is the day where all the rivers in #troutcountry are blown out high and muddy with no way to possibly fish them effectively. Have no fear there are still some great stillwater options. Stillwater or lakes offer some fun fishing for trout, if you don’t believe me check out this blog 10 Tips to Make Stillwater Fly Fishing More Fun.
The spring can be the best time of year to find larger fish in stillwater systems. Contact your local fly shop for locations you ought to check out or ask around. Some golf courses offer great fly fishing opportunities. The stocked fisheries can be a great way to tune up your casting and catch some large fish as well. Stripping streamers along the banks or using an indicator with chironomids or damsels can also be effective. Lakes can also be a great place to take your kids or beginner anglers that may want to learn some basics.
Fly fishing during spring runoff is an absolute blast, the high water makes you feel blind at times. But, out of the depths, a big brown can show itself and the day is made. Don’t lose hope when the rivers rise, as there typically is a way to fish these systems. Hopefully, the tips and techniques outlined above will help you achieve success during this time of year. If you need a brush up on tactics, Vail Valley Anglers offers guided float and wade trips during this time of year, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 970-926-0900 to book your trip.
Patrick Perry, Former Float Fishing Guide, and Content Contributor @patperry