Runoff is here for our favorite freestones and over the next month or so, we'll see high, off-color water throughout the state. When faced with big, muddy water, it can be understandably intimidating and overwhelming. Where do you fish? What do you fish? Can you fish? The answer to that last question, is YES. Let's talk a little bit about the Where, What, and How of fishing runoff because dag nabbit it can be one of the most productive times of year to fish if you time it right.
1. FIND THE RIGHT WATER
Water type is the most important key to success. More important than rigging, presentation, and fly choice. There a couple of parallels between fishing High Water and fishing Winter. Two things stick out to me: (1) find slow water and (2) Once you find one fish, there's likely a lot more where it came from. With thousands of fish per mile in our gold medal waters, fish will stack up in pockets of slow water (or cushions) along banks, inside bends, behind rocks, soft inside seams, tailouts, and eddies. My preferred water type is a soft inside seam where soft water is moving slowly downstream and not eddying back upstream. This allows for a relatively short 10 to 20 foot cast with a simple, straight forward drift. Complex currents become remarkably tougher to fish when fishing high water.
As a general rule, short casts will win the day. This isn't the time for long drifts as you'll be fishing water close to the bank. Minimize the amount of fly line you have out, keep your casts short and keep your rod tip up. Big water season is a great time to break out your longer 10-foot rods. The ability to mend, high stick, and manage line more effectively means your longer rods will make it easier to pluck fish out of the rough water.
As I noted above, if you catch one fish on a specific drift, fish that drift over and over again until you're convinced there are no fish left. Chances are if you catch one fish there are quite a few, hungry trout in that same vicinity and they'll likely hammer your flies, if you give them the chance. Don't be afraid to run it back. They only have so much water to hold in. I've spent hours fishing a 10' by 5' pocket of soft water on freestones because there are literally hundreds of fish seeking shelter from the big water and looking to pack on those calories with all of the aquatic insects that have been knocked loose.
2. BIG WATER = BIG TIPPET & BIG FLIES & BIG RODS
Runoff is not the time for 4, 5, and 6x. Runoff is time for 0 - 3x. While fish can certainly still see and will eat smaller bugs, with the heavy flows and more aggressive eats, this is the time to throw size 4 - 10 Stoneflies, Worms, Craneflies, Leeches, Hare's Ears, Coppers Johns, Scuds, big Caddis, Eggs, and the like. In addition to the aggressive eats, it's easier to wrangle a feisty trout in big water with stout tippet and a big strong hook. Runoff isn't the time to be fishing your four weight. There's no need to protect light tippet or make a delicate presentation. Combine those factors with the fact that you'll find the extra backbone of a stiff five, six or seven weight especially helpful, means that you can bring out the big sticks when it's big water season.
Let's talk Crane Flies for a second. No offense to our red-haired friends out there, but Crane Flies are treated as the red-headed stepchild of big water bugs. They don't get NO RESPECT. Adult craneflies look like giant mosquitos - potentially my worst nightmare (but they don't bite...so phew). As nymphs, Craneflies basically look like thick, short, drab-colored worm or grub. When rising water hits your favorite freestone or tailwater, these protein-rich morsels are knocked free. They're terrible swimmers, so they make easy prey for hungry trout. Use the Bread Crust, Crane Bomb, Poundmaster Crane, or Tan Mop Fly in a size 4 - 10 in high flows and get your net ready.
3. GET DEEP*
*But, don't be afraid to fish shallow.
As a general rule, it's best to be fishing big, heavy flies with weight during runoff. There will be a lot of current to fight when you're fishing during runoff and fish are trying to find the slowest water with the most food. In many ways, they're like me. They want to order a little too much Chinese food from Postmates, sit on the couch, drink a cold one or two and stuff their faces. Runoff isn't the time to overachieve, it's their time to pack on some pounds with all of the big, hearty aquatic and terrestrial morsels being dislodged by the rising flows. Generally, that means that they'll either be tucked in the bank or sitting on the bottom where the river isn't moving as fast. As such, set up your nymph rig to dredge the bottom. With fish looking for shelter for stronger current, they'll likely be holding here and setting your depth to fish this lowest portion of the water is recommended.
However, especially when the river is rising, there are times when trout like to elevate above the bottom and sit higher up in the water column. Why? Because all sorts of debris is being washed down the river and many times this will be moving downstream and will be doing so closer to the bottom of the water column. As such, fish will suspend above the debris and choose to feed higher up in the water column. I can't blame them much. If I were eating a sandwich I wouldn't want to get in the face with a two-by-four. So, if you're certain there are fish holding in a section of water, feel free to start shortening your rig up slowly, but surely. As you shorten your rig, it won't be ticking bottom, so every movement your indicator makes is probably a fish. Sets are free.
4. USE STREAMERS WITH CONFIDENCE!
Confidence is key in most any fishing situation. If I'm fishing without confidence, I'm generally just fishing and not catching. With fish pushed up into the banks, some of the best streamer fishing of the year can be had during runoff. I like using a dark streamer with flash that pushes water, so trout can see it and feel it. This isn't time for a delicate presentation. Slap that streamer down and like Nuke Laloosh from Bull Durham "Announce your presence with authority!"
With the heavy current, I like using a super fast sinking line and I'll be more deliberate about picking water apart. Instead of covering water quickly, I'll do my best to give big fish a couple of opportunities to find my streamer. Anytime you get even a bit of color in the water, big fish are on the prowl and looking for a big meal. When fishing sinking lines, I connect 2 to 3' of 0x tippet directly to my line using a perfection loop and tie that tippet directly to my fly. No need for a tapered leader. If you aren't fishing a sinking line, use a 9 foot 0x leader and tie on 3 to 4' feet of 0x tippet off of the leader. Then use a lot of weight and a big streamer. This rig will allows your streamer to get down and get down quickly.
If you fish streamers during runoff, you might not put a ton of fish in the net, but chances are, the ones you do, might make your year.
5. CHECK THE FLOWS & FAMILIARIZE YOURSELF WITH THE WEATHER PATTERNS
Runoff flows are cyclical. Peak flows are generally a result of snowmelt coming down after the snowpack cooks in the hot afternoon sun. Peak flows can also be the result of big rainfall events. These rainfall events can raise flows in two ways: (1) Rainwater making it to the river (2) Snow melts faster when rain hits it. So, if you have really high afternoon temperatures in the high country or a rainstorm has moved through the day before, the river will most likely experience (sometimes rapidly) rising flows over the next day or two. That might not be the best time to go. But, if flows are holding or dropping, fish will be more comfortable and visibility will be better - which means fishing will be markedly better. GO THEN. DEFINITELY.
6. DON'T BE AFRAID TO LOSE FLIES
With submerged rocks, branches, and snags creating cushions of slower water - which should translate to happy fish - you need to put your flies close to those features to give yourself the best chance for success. Hopefully, you'll be fishing stout tippet and strong hooks, but even those can fail. But, fortune favors the bold and runoff is the time to be bold. Tell yourself the following when you're retying your whole rig because you lost your three fly rig to a submerged boulder. "I see pride, I see power, I see a bad @$ mudda who won't take crap from nobody."
7. DON'T GET WET
With the fish all stacked up close to the banks, you'll barely even need waders. Chances of you wading deeper than your ankles are pretty slim, unless you need to make a specific cast and presentation on a willow covered bank and have the right pocket of wadeable water to fish from. This doesn't mean you shouldn't wear waders because runoff is generally made up of super cold snowmelt and waders certainly help reduce the sting of that ultra cold water. There is no need to just trudge right into the river. Fish from the bank and only wade when you absolutely have to.
That said, always use PRECAUTION when fishing runoff. Discretion and wading belts are a must this time of year. Don't Brad Pitt/Paul Maclean yourself.