Tuesday Tip: Head for the Hills During Runoff

Written by: Ryan McSparran, Peak Outfitter Marketing


Alpine lakes can provide excellent fishing when rivers are high from runoff.
Photos courtesy Ryan McSparran

Summer is almost here, and it doesn’t take long for the fishing to heat up here in the Flat Tops Wilderness, Colorado’s second largest wilderness area. Almost as soon as the ice clears from the high alpine lakes, native cutthroats and brook trout are eager customers. In fact, alpine lakes can prove to be excellent places to fish when rivers become engorged with snowmelt. The fact that your favorite trout stream is high and muddy shouldn’t be a reason to stay home.

On our first outing a few seasons ago, we visited some of the lower wilderness lakes that were already free of snow and easily accessible. Small Woolly Buggers, Gold-ribbed Hare’s Ears, and Pheasant Tails were all it took to entice a passel of hungry trout. The very conditions that make streams frustrating this time of year can actually be positive factors when fishing still waters. Moisture seeps through the soil, and feeder creeks carry extra debris into the lakes, bringing worms, drowned insects, and all kinds of fishy snacks. Meanwhile, warming temperatures and excess moisture ripen the conditions for the first insect hatches of the year.

Despite the influx of sediment, many alpine lakes remain extremely clear throughout the runoff. Additionally, trout tend to stack up around inlets or in shallows, picking off easy meals. With these things in mind, it’s always wise to approach the water with a low profile and to minimize movement as much as possible. Be sure to approach any inlets from the lake edge below, not the stream above to avoid the eyes of skittish trout. The same principles apply to beaver ponds, also great places to look for early summer trout. In many wilderness areas like the Flat Tops, deep and well-established beaver ponds can produce surprisingly large fish.


Colorado’s small snowpack means high-elevation streams are already fishing well.

When the wind is calm, look for subtle rises on the surface. Small, dark mayfly and caddisfly imitations (sizes 18 through 22) can be extremely effective. However, calm water requires more casting finesse. When fishing dry flies on clear lakes or beaver ponds, don’t attempt to cast to the last rise. Besides the possibility of spooking the fish, it’s just not necessary. These fish will be cruising, and by the time your fly settles, you’ll see a rise somewhere else. Instead, cast your fly an equal distance from the bank to where you’ve seen most of the rises. Leave it in front of you and be patient. Eventually, a cruising fish will give you a look.

That year, the low snowpack allowed some of our wilderness streams to remain fishable through runoff. Just a little extra weight, and we’ve hooked up with plenty of cutts and brookies to keep us busy. And never neglect the small waters, for even wilderness streams that are only a few feet wide can be a fun place to drift a fly.

So remember, runoff isn’t always a bad word for anglers! High alpine environments can be the perfect place to look for hungry trout. When the water is all rushing downhill, just go higher!


This gorgeous, wild cutthroat came from a logjam pool in a feeder stream.

A former guide, Ryan McSparran is now CEO of Peak Outfitter Marketing in Denver, Colorado.

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