Updated: Mar 28, 2022
Remote winters drain into the valley in icy, turbid water, running between grassy banks.
The Habit of Rivers
As spring begins to take grasp and the icy hue of winter retreats throughout the higher elevations, fishing during spring runoff can offer an exciting change of pace. Rivers go through dramatic changes during strong runoff years. New channels are created, structures realigned and courses change without apology, To those who pay attention, the runoff leaves a new platform of underwater architecture that differs with each year. Many anglers are intimidated by this annual event and seek calmer opportunities in the predictability of tail waters or still water. For those of us willing to withstand the turbidity and high water, the results can be exciting and rewarding.
Benefits of Runoff
The high water of spring runoff carries sediment that is redeposited in the riparian zones as the water flows later drop. This newly distributed soil and nutrient base benefits critical stream side vegetation. Spawning gravel is cleansed and reset for fish and amphibians. Boulders are shifted, creating new habitat for fish. The flushing of the riverbed disturbs an abundance of insects for trout to feed on after a long winter of scarcity. Fishing for these feeding trout can be epic!
Where to Fish
Fish the calmer water along the edges of the river, seek out the eddies and especially the seams. Seams where fast water meet the quiet water allow a feeding fish to save energy while still giving the opportunity to pop into the faster flow to grab insects. Also fish the inside of bends and up smaller tributaries where fish might go to get away from those heavy flows.
There are several ways to go about rigging up for runoff. My first choice would be a size 16 hares ear (with a little sparkle in the tail) tied off a tag, above a heavily weighted fly like a stone or cranefly. I like a Pat's Rubber Leg variation tied with a plummeting tungsten bead in matte black. This fly is heavy and ugly and does the work. The hares ear can be substituted with a psycho prince, or flashback pheasant tail...the possibilities are endless. You can also add a 6" piece of tippet with split shot below this as a "drop shot" but this can get pretty messy when casting. Another effective way to rig is by putting the larger, weighted fly as the attractor, or point fly, and tying your nymph behind it. Play around with different combinations and see what works for you and your river. Stripping a streamer along the bank and dead drifting a wooly bugger are always good ideas. Don't forget the worms! Worms are a solid choice during runoff (or anytime, if you ask me), but especially during runoff. Just don't forget to remove that hot pink squirmy before you take your pictures and your friends will never know.
It's probably a good idea to bring the heavier rod, like a 6wt, when fishing the runoff. I also suggest beefing up your leader and tippet. This is the time of year when you can get away with 1 or 2x leader and tippet combos due to diminished water clarity. Heavier leaders will allow you to turn over those heavier flies and make fighting fish in the faster currents much easier on you and the fish. There is no reason to lose a big fish in the fast flow when you could have used the heavier tippet. I'm going to add patience here to your gear list. Fishing runoff conditions isn't easy. It can be extra frustrating casting the added weight of split shot, underwater snags (so many sticks!) and the seemingly impossible drifts. Those annoying sticks can hold clues to what fish are feeding on, so before you toss them back in, check them out for insects! Remember, it's fishing. This is what you love,and this extra mental and physical challenge is an opportunity.
Check the flows on the USGS water data website before you head to the river. Late afternoon spikes in flows are common. Fish earlier in the day before the spike in flow. Don't forget a wading staff or fish from the bank. These afternoon spikes can be dangerous. Please, ALWAYS wear your wading belt. This can save your life if you lose your footing.
I hope this requested topic gives you some inspiration to hit the river during the spring runoff. This regenerative event can bring some fishing experiences worth the effort. Let me know if you fish the runoff and what your thoughts are! Also, I'd love to hear if you have a topic that you would like me to write about.