Skip to main content

Fly Fishing in the West: How to Fish During Runoff Season

Spring snowmelt marks the start of runoff season when streams and rivers are swollen with water coming down from the mountains. This increased flow makes it difficult to fish, which is a disappointment when you’re trying to enjoy the great outdoors for the first time all year.

Jessi Roll Cast fly fishing

Even experienced anglers find it hard to fish during runoff season. Fish won’t be looking for food in areas with heavy water flows, as it takes too much of the fish’s energy to fight the water flows while pursuing food.

There are two main keys to fishing during runoff season: going to where the fish are and incentivizing them to bite. Here are some practical tips for making this happen even when local streams are swollen with runoff.

Find the Right Depth



Trout tend to hang out in deep waters, but the deep waters may also be the fastest-moving parts during the runoff season. However, this doesn’t mean you should head for the shallower waters, as these are the areas where trout and other fish are less likely to hang out due to exposure to predators.

Look for the areas at least moderately deep and near logs and other obstacles that slow down the water flow. If you can see the bottom of the river or stream, chances are it’s too shallow for the fish to feel safe. 

Logs also attract bugs, which are a major source of food for fish. This increases the likelihood fish are nearby, even if the water is flowing faster than usual. Dangling food in this area is much more likely to be successful than throwing it out in the middle of the stream.

Try a Roll Cast



For better results during runoff season, try using a roll cast. A roll cast can improve your accuracy when using a sinking line, by keeping the fly close to the water’s surface. It’s a fantastic technique to employ anytime you’re fly fishing, but it’s especially helpful when you’re in a limited area like a small stream. The roll cast method is also a helpful tool in fly fishing for beginners.

With a roll cast, you’ll work with a predetermined length of fishing line, helping you keep the line out of overhanging trees when you can’t perform a traditional back cast. With your desired line length, you’ll raise the rod vertical to bring the line beside you, forming a curve. Then you roll the loop forward, so the line is straight in front of you in the water. To repeat, drag the line back, stop, let it drop in the water and roll it forward again. 

Perfecting this technique gives you accuracy and efficiency when fishing in tight rivers and streams during runoff season. 

Change Your Bait



To be successful when fly fishing during the runoff season, you need to switch up your bait. Runoff season in the west means high flow levels and warm water temperatures, which create the perfect environment for large bugs and larvae. Using a fly pattern that reflects this seasonal change gives you a better shot at hooking the fish you’re after. 

Try fly patterns larger and more visible or ones which reflect the shape of the bugs prominent during the runoff. Brightly colored streamers are a good choice, as are stonefly nymphs. Runoff season brings muddy, discolored water, making it challenging for fish to see; bold colors will help your bait attract them. 

For effective bait during the runoff season, use a stonefly nymph fly pattern and use a tight line to bring your bait toward shore slowly, dragging it along the bottom of the river, replicating the real movement of a stonefly nymph. 

While considering changing your bait, think about the best knots for tying your fly to your line. Understanding how to tie a fishing hook securely ensures your catch won’t slip away before you have a chance to reel it in. 

fly fishing flies

Understand Your Options

You don’t have to fish in the rivers you usually use, even if they’re what you’re most familiar with. Ponds, lakes and reservoirs are also viable options, even if you’re unfamiliar with them. Tailwaters directly below dams are also excellent spots because they have a more controlled water flow.

You may need to ask around and get advice from locals, especially if you’re going to an area you’re unfamiliar with. Your local wildlife authorities may also have pointers on which bodies of water are a good bet.

However, make sure to thoroughly scout around your usual rivers and look for quieter sections along the bank. Even if most of the river looks swollen with runoff, there may be quieter pockets due to logs, rocks or other natural obstructions. There may be pockets of water near the banks where fish get pushed due to the stronger water flows in the middle of the river.

fly fishing stream

Be Prepared to Get Wet

Runoff season’s high and fast water means you’re more likely to end up wet, either on purpose or by accident. Wading out may seem like a bad idea due to how cold the water is, but it may be necessary to get to a prime fishing spot.

Wear boots and bring extra layers in case you need to change clothes. Thin, lightweight layers are better than one thick layer, especially once you need a layer to dry out quickly. Also, be mindful of the air temperature since water temperatures that sound warm enough in the late summer will be uncomfortably cold earlier on during runoff season.

Making the Most of Runoff Season

Runoff season is daunting because of the amount of trial-and-error required, especially if you’ve a novice. However, finally catching a fish after hours of failure makes the whole experience worthwhile. Get creative with your tactics and fishing locations, and share your knowledge with others to encourage others to step up to the challenge as well.

Wherever you end up next, make sure to take your Mossy Oak gear with you to stay comfortable. We know the importance of layering during any season, and runoff season is no exception. Our layers are designed for outdoor life, so we’re your go-to choice for camping, fishing, hiking and much more.

Latest Content