Fly Fishing Runoff Can Mean Fish On

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Photo by Louis Cahill

Photo by Louis Cahill

by Johnny Spillane

Have you ever showed up at a river and found that instead of the crystal clear water you were expecting, you’re staring at chocolate milk?

Here in the Rocky Mountain this is a relatively common experience. It can happen for a number of reasons, huge rainstorms, someone doing river work above you or just your normal spring runoff. Don’t fret; while it might not be ideal, here are a few tips that can help you find some fish.

If the water is only slightly off color, you can basically use the same flies that you would if it was clear, just make everything a size or two larger. Instead of a size 18, put on a 16 or a 14. If that is not working, try adding a little bit more flash to your rig. We typically use flies with very little flash, but if the water is off color it can make a big difference in the amount of fish you stick just by changing to something that will reflect a little more light. If you were using a pheasant tail, try tying on a flash back pheasant tail and sometimes that is the only thing you will need to change.

If the water looks like chocolate milk, go big and go flashy.

Those size 22 zebra midges that you planned on tying to 6x, that aint gonna work. I like to tie on a large white zonker and dead drift it with some sort of big buggy stonefly like a Pats Rubber leg. In off color water, fish will lose some of their inhibitions and hit anything that they can see. You just have to make sure that they see it. This is also a great time to experiment with different streamers that make noise, anything that will help draw a fish towards you fly.

Fishing runoff can also be one of the best times to hit a river. If it is fully blown, it might be better to explore other options but if a river is on the downside of its peak flows and it is starting to clear up, fishing can be phenomenal. Fish that are spread out all over the river during normal flows will congregate in areas of softer water during runoff and usually if you find one fish, you find 20. When the river is really high, fish are often within a few feet of shore, so don’t just wade in and start casting, make sure you work the edges hard before venturing further out. Stoneflies and big buggy soft hackles in sizes 8 and 12-14 respectively are good options. Solitude makes a fly called the Tungsten Jig Soft Spot that can be deadly when the water is high.

Remember that just because the river isn’t gin clear, the fish are still there and still eating and if you try some of these techniques, you can still have a phenomenal day on the water.

Tight lines,

Johnny Spillane

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4 thoughts on “Fly Fishing Runoff Can Mean Fish On

  1. This is really a good article . Especially if your fishing in Southern Missouri and Arkansas right now. The fish are always there, and they have to eat. We’ve just got to find them !

  2. Runoff is my favorite time of year to fish on the Roaring Fork near Aspen! Most of the year I have to fish 5x tippets on the Upper Roaring Fork but when it turns to chocolate soup I love to throw 2x and big flies. Every year I have my most productive days during peak runoff in June. The best part is I usually have the place to myself. Love the article.

  3. I just came back from a great trip with high water creek conditions in Northern California. Water that should be 200 CFS is 800 CFS. The first thing to know is high water years are good for the fish. When the water is high and rushing through the shrubs on the banks the fish have more access to food and more shelter from predators. The key to catching a lot of fish in those conditions is knowing the fish are going to hold in key locations: under bank shrubs and trees, the bottom of deep runs, near boulders and slack water seams. You must get your flies to them! Learn to adjust your weights and line depths. Learn to side cast under trees! You will never get those monster fish unless you fish like a predator.

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