5 Tips for Fly Fishing Spring Runoff

Spring is a season welcomed by fly anglers as water temperatures begin to rise leading to increased fish and bug activity. In many parts of the country, this also means dealing with increased water flows as a result of melting snowpack, what is commonly referred to as “runoff”. With the added water from runoff, many rivers and streams will quickly increase their flows, turning murky colors of brown and disrupting the normal behavior of resident fish. Below we’ll break down a few tactics to successfully and safely target trout throughout spring runoff.


Tip 1: Stay Safe

If you plan to walk/wade, be extremely cautious as wading becomes more difficult with increased water flows. If you must cross a fast-moving body of water, start upstream of your intended destination as the current will inevitably force you downstream. Keep your hips parallel to the current and make sure you always have one foot firmly planted before taking your next step. When walk/wade fishing during runoff, consider fishing with a friend or using a wading staff.

The difficulties of wading are magnified during runoff, making spring a prime time to take a float trip. Don’t have a boat? It’s a great opportunity to take a guided trip from a local fly shop. Remember, if you’re fishing from a boat, it’s always a good idea to wear a PFD.

Tip 2: Monitor Flows

Understanding what type of conditions to expect before arriving is important for more than just safety reasons. Major spikes in water flows can drastically alter the feeding behavior of trout as well as water clarity. An immediate spike in water flows can cause substrate from river banks and bottoms to be introduced into a river or stream causing the water to muddy. While this may seem like a bad thing, runoff flows also help to free emerging insects and aquatic terrestrials from their subsurface holds, creating a feast for opportunistic trout. When fishing in muddy or low clarity situations you’ll have to adapt your fly selection and presentation to match the newly introduced food, more on both later.

Consulting your local fly shop for up to date information on river and stream flows is a great place to start and fishing trip. If you’re more of a DIY type of person, be sure to check out USGS Water Data for real time data. Comparing current flows to historic averages will help you understand how high a river actually is and how trout may be holding.  Be mindful that rapid drops in flows can cause fish to get spooky so it’s always important to monitor water levels before you head out on your next high water adventure.

Tip 3: Go Big

Spring is a time to forget small nymphs and throw streamers and large attractor patterns. If you’re a streamer junkie, you already know what to do. Big, dark streamers tend to work the best for me and heavy flies are great especially fishing with floating lines but don’t be afraid to mix it up. Patterns like the cone-head Wooly Sculpin, bead-head Wooly Buggers, and Barr’s Slump Buster are some great weighted options.  Larger articulated patterns like the Circus Peanut, Sex Dungeon and Barely Legal are especially effective when fished from a drift boat on sinking lines.

If you’re interested in nymphing during high water scenarios, large patterns in the sz8-16 range should do the trick. Bead headed nymphs are great for getting down and the classic Pats Rubber leg, which has an underbody composed of lead wraps, is a no brainer stonefly imitation. Pats Rubber Leg, Guides Choice Hares Ear, or a Mini Leech Jig are great attractors that should help bring fish to hand. Runoff is also a great time to throw those “junk” flies you’ve been avoiding like squirmy worms and eggs. Regardless of which larger patterns you choose to fish, remember to use heavier leaders and tippet (2X-3X) to quickly land fish in fast water.

Tip 4: Get Deep

When water flows increase during runoff, trout will avoid fast surface currents and go to the bottom of a river or stream for reprieve. This means that more than ever, it’s important to get your flies down and in front of fish. Using heavily weighted flies as mentioned above is an effective way to target trout during runoff. Don’t be afraid to use larger split shot in front of streamers and nymphs when the water is fast and off color.

Airflo Sinking Polyleaders

Sink tip lines are also great this time of year if you have a dedicated streamer setup but using sinking Polyleaders with  floating fly lines will also get your flies deep. The Extra Fast Sink in 5’ Polyleader from Airflo has been my go-to for trout fishing.

Tip 5: Fish the Edges

The last major tactic for targeting trout during runoff is to be selective with the water you fish. During normal flows, trout will inhabit the entire river finding the best feeding lanes and protection. High flows as a result of runoff will force trout from their typical holds and push them towards the banks where currents are more manageable.

Trout can almost always be found in the soft water along banks and in eddys where they can expend less energy. During runoff you can make better use of your time by targeting the first 3-5’ of water off of the banks for increased success. For this reason, it’s a great time of the year to take a float trip and effectively fish the the best soft water along the banks for miles. 

High Water, No Problem

If you’re new to fishing in an area that experiences runoff or are looking to improve your success on the water, follow these 5 simple tips and you might be surprised with the results. Don’t let an unsuccessful outing turn you away from fishing during spring runoff as there are plenty of opportunities to be had.

Photos by Fly Lords team member Dan Zazworsky, @dan.zaz.

Article by Evan Garda on the Content Team here at Fly Lords. He can be found chasing trout throughout the west with his trusty fly rods. Check out his adventures at @evangarda.

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