3 Tips for Nymphing During Runoff

Written By: Brian McGeehan, Montana Angler

An angler landing a nice trout while surrounded by high, dirty water.
All photos by Montana Angler

Montana river flows are at their highest in late May and early June, when runoff from the rapidly-melting snow above is strongest. While many fly anglers flock to spring creeks and tailwaters this time of year, there is still some truly exceptional fishing to be had on Montana’s large freestone rivers during runoff season. Not only does the high, brown water scare off the faint-of-heart and reduce angling pressure to a minimum, but it also concentrates the trout, forcing them to gather in areas with slower flows to conserve energy. Nymph fishing can be exceptionally productive under these conditions, especially as the higher water dislodges droves of aquatic insects–including large stoneflies–further heightening the trout’s fervor to feed. Here are three tips for nymphing during runoff.

Bring more fish to the net during runoff using the tips below.

1. Fish Shallow

Most of the trout are going to be sheltering along the banks as the river rages by, not just to get a break from the current, but also because the stained water provides a sense of security, allowing them to sit shallower and closer to shore than usual. The prime lies, therefore, will all be within a foot or two of shore during runoff. You may also find fish huddled together along the inside edge of large bends in the river, since the current is pushed mostly toward the outside edge.

2. Use Big Flies

Since small nymphs are harder to see in the swift, off-color currents, trout are keying in on larger food sources. You can increase your catch rates by super-sizing your fly selection, using big, attention-grabbing patterns such as a rubber-legged stonefly nymph. Another effective nymphing strategy is to dead-drift streamer patterns–such as zonkers–as the point fly in a tandem rig with a worm pattern trailing behind.

The Smith River often looks dirty in May and June, but still has 6″-24″of clarity, which is plenty for great fishing.

3. Shorten Your Leader

Accuracy counts when fishing close to the banks, yet traditional pre-packaged tapered leaders (even the 7.5-footers) are just too long and too thin to accurately deliver big, heavy nymphs. Instead, our guides prefer to use a 4-foot section of 15-pound Maxima down to a tippet ring, to which they attach a foot of heavy (0x-2x) fluorocarbon tippet, since the higher abrasion resistance is useful when routinely casting flies along brush-covered banks.

Brian McGeehan is owner and operator of Montana Angler in Bozeman, MT.

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