5 Tips for Fishing During Runoff

Written by: Doc Thompson

Smaller tailwaters, like the Cimarron, often handle runoff better than large freestone rivers.
Photos by Doc Thompson

It is that time of year when spring runoff is starting in the West. A lot of folks consider this to be a slow to non-fishing time of year. However, early and late stages of runoff offer conditions that are fishable–despite the cloudy-gray to gunmetal-steel to murky water. Fishing runoff conditions requires some changes from you normal approach.

1. Use a wading staff

This isn’t the time to prove you are the superhero of wading. Flows are stronger, and the water is usually deeper and turbid. The wading staff can also be used to help you test depth before you take one step too far off into the deeps.

2. Be mentally ready to fish higher-, murkier-, and colder-than-normal water conditions

It’s a fact of life that you might not see as much fish action as during the meat of the season.  However, murky water conditions means the big boy and girl trout are less spooky. Plus the water is often less crowded, so that’s two bonuses!

3. Fish the soft, calmer water

On many streams and rivers, the edges along the banks can be the best zones during runoff. Look for side channels that may be low and skinny during normal conditions. These are places where there water is usually a little clearer, offering an open invitation for trout to move in while the usual holding places are too fast and muddy.

Look for eddies and edges along the banks.

4. Think outside your normal fly box

As water becomes murkier, a trout’s ability to see your fly decreases. Think of fly-pattern colors that offer contrast to the murky water, such as black, red, white, or flash. There are usually big insects–such as stonefly nymphs, hellgrammites, and cranefly larvae–being churned about by the heavier flows. Try big, ugly nymphs that imitate these bugs.  Dead-drift streamers or fish streamers with slower-than-normal swings and retrieves.

5. Search out smaller tributaries or smaller tailwaters

These waters typically handle runoff better than larger rivers. Check with fly shops and the Orvis fishing reports page to get an idea of what is fishing best during runoff.

Give runoff fishing a try with these relatively easy-to-implement tips, and you should see some success.

Doc Thompson is an Orvis-Endorsed Guide in northern New Mexico, a former Trout Bum of the Week, and an Orvis contract fly tier.

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