Fishing Spring Runoff: The In's and Out's of Highwater Fishing

Spring runoff and the highwater season can be something that causes a lot of intimidation among fly fisherman. Many times, people think that the muddy raging waters are hiding trout from us. Locking them in murky depths of raging rapids and mudlines. However, if you know how to approach this fruitful time of year, it can hold some of the best fishing you’ll find all year. 

Runoff, or highwater season here on the front range usually occurs during the first two weeks of May, and can continue into the early parts of June. As spring arrives, we see high temperatures, heavy rains, and snow melt. This all contributes to our local rivers swelling with extra water. From the mountain tops, creeks, and streams, we see our otherwise mellow river turn into a full-on white water paradise. Through this early part of the year, many fly fisherman resort to fly tying, pond fishing, and dreaming of hot summer days, and slow rises to dry flies. However, if you know how to approach this very fruitful time of year, you can find more fish than most could ever imagine. 

Highwater season can be a challenging time of year. With all the factors contributing to the flows of the river, we often see muddy, cold water, with lots of debris. With each day of rising water, conditions are constantly changing. This can make it seem difficult to feel confident with your usual line up of small, delicate flies. But with the influx of water and debris, it can bring a bounty unseen to our eyes. Below the water’s surface, the bug life is booming. With the sudden push in water, all of the aquatic life that was living on the bottom of the river is now being flushed into the water system. Dead bugs, live bugs, worms, and all kinds of food for trout is now free flowing into the rivers. Fish take advantage of this influx of food to feast, after a long winter of eating small midges in freezing waters. With fish being so eager to eat, we can take advantage of this early spring feast, hosted by mother nature. 


With higher flows, and more food in the water. Trout will move to the slower edges of the river, as well as pockets, back eddies, and long sweeping runs. Anywhere they can escape the full force of the river, these trout will seek shelter where they can lay back, relax, and gorge on all sorts of bug life. This means that us as fly fishermen now have an advantage. We can target these areas, closer to the bank, where trout are sitting and waiting for food to fall in front of them. This also allows us to fish with much larger flies, and much stronger lines. Turbulent and dirty water will keep the fish from seeing your 4, or even3x leaders and tippets, and those size 6’s will look like quite the tasty meal floating down the feeding lane. Use the murky and strong waters to approach these fish in a way that can only be used during the highwater time frame. With fish being so close and so hungry, it can make for a fantastic day on the river. Now you are thinking, how can I find this water amongst such a chaotic mix of leaves, sticks, and mud? Resort back to the basics. 


When approaching a river during the highwater time, it may look much different than we’re used to during our summer months. That big boulder where you can always find fish, is now nothing but a wave amongst the fury of the river. But if we pay close attention to other parts of the river, you will find where you may be missing fish. The keyword during runoff is slow water. Anywhere that you can find a break in the current, you will find fish. Just as the days when we picked our first fishing spot, go back to where you know trout like to be. Slow moving water, with lots of structure and food. Foam lines along the willows, behind rocks, or on the inside edge of a bend in the river. Trout will use these areas of protection to hold tight, and eat. Now that we’ve identified where the fish are hiding, you may be thinking, how in the world will I be able to get those fish to see my flies? Let’s take a look at some rigs and techniques to find success during this time. 


As we mentioned before, the river is now alive with food for trout. With the push in flows, rain, and snow melt, we now see many different types of food inside the river system. Stoneflies, worms, caddis, and mayfly nymphs are all being flushed into the river system. With debris and other hazards floating down the river, trout have a harder time seeking out the smaller bugs that we have become accustomed to over the winter and summer. With this being said, we can now use much bigger, flashier, and heavier flies to catch fishes’ attention. Nymphing is going to be your most productive way to catch fish. With trout’s feeding habits occurring 95% of the time underwater, we need to take advantage of fish seeking shelter, and the abundance of food in the system. Big stoneflies, and bright mayfly nymphs, as well as worms are great ways to target these fish. Indicators are not only going to help you detect strikes, but they will help suspend your bugs at a depth where fish are suspended eating food in the slower waters. A large hopper dropper rig is also a great way to target fish along the edges of the river, the big silhouette from your hopper will allow fish to see the meal before they decide to come take a bite! Streamers are also a great way to find fish looking for a larger meal. Focus on big, flashy patterns to standout in the murky waters. Fish will eat aggressively, so hold on and strip set! Highwater can still be an intimidating time of year to fish, and even with some tips and tricks, you may not be entirely sold on it yet. So, there are some other options to explore when it comes to our runoff time frame that can be a great way to pass the time! 


During this time of year, our warm water fisheries can begin to fish very well. Both small and largemouth bass are starting to prepare for the spawn, carp are active and on the move, as well. Don’t be afraid to bring your fly rod to the neighborhood pond and throw some poppers, you may be surprised at what you find! If you are intimidated by the fly selection or fishing style of our warm water species, some visit us at either location and grab a warm water fly assortment and get out on the water!  Another great option to get out and fish during this time of year is to explore your local tailwaters. With regulated flows and consistent temperatures, you’ll find fish hanging out in the same places all year long, so don’t be afraid to get out there and get technical with it! Even if you are unsure about this time of year, some added help can always be a welcome aid when fishing a new time of year. Reach out to your local fly shop for tips, tricks, and for up to date reports. Or, join us for a guided trip where your guide can help you explore all the wonderful things about our highwater season. A day on the water is always filled with smiles and lots of learning, don’t be afraid to stop by and get out there during this incredible time of year!