Fishing During Runoff

By Matt McCannel

The temps in Colorado are now in the mid-seventies and the snow from the long winter is starting to melt. A lot of fly anglers turn their attention to stillwaters, but most are missing some of the best fishing of the year as the waters start to rise and turn off-color.

For starters let’s talk about the water clarity. If you have six inches of visibility, in my opinion, you are good to go and should fish. Anything less and you are really cutting your chances of catching a fish, due to the fact that the fish just can’t see your fly. With that said, there are different types of dirty water. Is the water that you’re fishing just severely stained or is it so high that there are visible particles of degree in the water like sand, dirt or other vegetation? This can make a big difference whether you will be successful. If the water that you are fishing is just very stained, you should not hesitate. The bottom line is, don’t be afraid of a little dirty water.

Next up is fly selection. For starters, take a look at what bugs are hatch in the spring. Typically, we have the biggest bugs of the year on the move and hatching, such as stoneflies, crane flies and the higher flows are also dislodging things like worms, leeches and scuds. If you think about it, even though the water may be high and dirty, the fish still have to eat, so go big! Flies like the Pat’s Rubberleg is one of my go-to’s in the Gunnison Gorge, as well as leeches and worms.

Fly color is another very important one for high and dirty water. We have often heard that darker colors are the best for such conditions, and yes, I would agree, to a certain point. But, over the past decade I have started tying my runoff flies in mostly white. For some reason white will out-fish any other color for me during this time of year. All of my Rubberleg stonefly patterns are white, as well as my worms. Let me be clear that when I am fishing white fly patterns the water is very dirty. I have found that white does not work as well if the water is just slightly stained. I think it may be too much for them and just docent look right.

Next on the list for success is where to fish. If you have high, fast flows where are the fish going to be? Answer is, anywhere they can get out of the current. This could be behind a big rock or in a shallow riffle or tight to the bank. One of the coolest things to do is to make a five-foot cast tight to the bank and pull a fish out of a small little pocket of slow moving water. Current speed is very important in high, runoff flows. Once you can identify the right current speed you will start to find the fish.

Your gear for this time of year is also critical for success. Pack the 4X-6X tippet away and pull out the big stuff; 0X-2X is perfect for this type of water conditions. First off you need the big tippet and leaders to get fish in and out of heavy current, and it will also help you to keep some of your flies that are hung up in roots and in big rocks that you will often encounter while fishing next to the banks. Next up is you rod and reel. I prefer my clients to fish a nine foot, seven weight Sage X, with a SPECTRUM LT 7-8 Reel. This rod will have the backbone to pull a hard fighting fish out of a fast current and land them quickly.

I hope that a few of these tips can help you put more fish in the net darning the next couple of months. Enjoy!

about the author

Matt McCannel is a Sage Ambassador and Head Guide for RIGS Fly Shop in Ridgway, Colorado.  Find him at @mattmccannelflyfishing.  All photos by Matt, except for the header, taken by Chris Daniel @mt406shooter