By Zach Lazzari
Runoff means high flows and dirty water. But that doesn’t shut down the fishing entirely. In fact, fishing the high water is often very effective. It can lead to some of the bigger fish you will see throughout the year on a given body of water. Don’t hang up your rod when the flows spike. Get out there and see if you can turn up a few big ones.
Where to Find Fish
Rising water displaces trout and limits the number of areas they can hold. When a river is on the rise, stick to the banks and reliable soft spots. If a specific feature in the river will break the current at any flow, it’s a good place to test.
The banks are the most reliable because trout can continually move inward as the flows increase. This allows them to conserve energy on the easy current while feeding on everything being dislodged from the banks. Stand back a few feet from the bank when you start to avoid spooking fish that are holding tight.
Look to inside seams, tailouts and soft water that has low resistance for prime lies. Trout that are normally holding around structure will often move into these areas during high water and will relocate as the flows drop. When you find one fish, hit the same area hard because they are often congregated until the runoff ends.
Easy Fly Selection
Fly selection is the easiest aspect of fishing runoff conditions. Worms are dislodged from the banks, big stoneflies are migrating towards the banks and baitfish are also forced into the open, making them vulnerable. Dead drifting a big stonefly or rubber leg bugger with a trailing San Juan worm is simple and reliable. Use an indicator or add split shot to dredge the bottom.
The fish are not likely to move far so keep your presentation slow and easy. Streamer fishing can produce some big trout, especially on a slower retrieve. Allow the streamer to drop between strips, giving the fish an opportunity to pounce without moving far. They want the calories but also need to save energy. As the flows drop, a faster retrieve will gradually become more productive.
When the big stoneflies finally emerge, runoff is generally peaked and subsiding. Fish the nymphs early and work the banks hard. As the flows drop and the water clears, expand your range to include structure, mid-river boulders and features that are no longer washed out.
There is a point where the river simply will not produce. Chocolate flows and flood stages are a good time to step back and consider other options. Runoff typically coincides with a very productive period of stillwater fishing. See our previous article for some great stillwater fishing tips. Look to the lakes, spring creeks and tailwaters for great opportunities. Other species like bass and pike are also available in many regions. Hitting other species when the trout are difficult is always a good move.
Recommended Fly Rods
When fishing in runoff conditions with big stonefly nymphs and streamers, our rod selection becomes pretty easy. The M-Series fly rods are our most popular rods for both nymphing and swinging streamers. The extra 10’ 3” length is ideal for high-sticking in heavy flows and provides extra reach for mending. The M-Series has serious backbone for throwing those heavy rigs. And the soft tip is excellent for playing fish in difficult currents. Check out the Mystic M-Series here.