Few situations present more of a challenge for anglers than runoff in the West.
Gentle mountain streams become raging torrents and lazy tailwaters become gushing, chocolate milk rivers as snow melts and swells waterways onec runoff gets going in late May and June. Depending on the year, runoff can last well into summer and knowing how to combat this event is critical for those looking to get their fly fishing fix despite difficult conditions. The thing to remember, even in these high water events, is trout are still there and they still have to eat! Just like with anything else, tactics and strategy must change to reflect the higher water and those that stay flexible and know how to find trout during runoff will still have great success.
Find the Soft Water
The biggest key for fishing streams and rivers in runoff is finding the soft water. Riffles and runs that are usually likely spots for trout can now be raging torrents that aren’t even wadable, much less fishable. Finding the soft spots, usually near the banks, is the way to go during this time. In trying to escape the heavy current in the middle of the river, trout will push to the edges trying to find the reprieve, and as such, fish can be absolutely stacked in those slower-moving areas. In some ways, runoff can be easier to fish because it narrows down where the fish can be. Eliminate the heaviest of current, then look for the soft water that also holds some depth and odds are pretty darn good there’s some trout present
Head for the Lakes
Runoff can quickly make a favorite stream or river a messy or dangerous option to fish. Swift water is not to be trifled with, and a few people each year perish in the gushing currents. High mountain lakes can offer a perfect respite for those looking to get an adventure and great fishing! While they are impacted by runoff in their own way (namely swift inlet/outlet streams and colder water temps), from ice-off until early fall the alpine lakes of the Rockies are terrific options. They can hold a variety of fish, and it’s a stark contrast to the streams and rivers at lower elevations. Targeting cruising cutthroats with dry flies while standing beneath towering snowy peaks is certainly a fine way to keep your mind off of the heavy runoff down below!
Watch and Follow the Flows
Keeping close tabs on stream flows is critical during runoff. While it’s obviously a way to see when it has peaked, and subsequently on the way down, there are also times when you might want to time up a fishing trip for a bump in the flows. Sometimes a 100-200 cfs increase can really stir food up in a drainage and create a phenomenal opportunity to have great action. For anglers that frequent the same waters year after year, take some notes on what spots fish well at each flow and that will help for next season. Some areas can fish well at 250 cfs, but aren’t so productive at 500, but then good again at 750. It all depends on the bends of the stream, structure, current, etc. Slowly learning what areas fish best at each flow can go a long way in sustained success for the coming seasons.
Runoff is both a blessing and curse for anglers venturing into the Rocky Mountain states in search of trout. It brings the promise of continued water flow through summer and fall, but presents a real challenge while it’s raging. Once the nuances of the event are learned and capitalized upon, many actually prefer fishing during this time of year. It might not be simple, and there are always days that humble even the most veteran of angler, but adjusting both technique and strategy to play off of runoff can still lead to some phenomenal days targeting trout during the early summer period!