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Fly Fishing Runoff – Tips And Advice

Fly Fishing Runoff – Tips And Advice

A lot of fly fishers don’t fish runoff – and that’s a mistake. Most rivers are still fishable during runoff, and you can catch some great trout. Just because the water is off color, doesn’t mean the fishing is bad.

Runoff happens when the snowpack starts to melt and flow into creeks and rivers. A winters worth of snow starts to disappear, and it flows into local river basins. During the peak times of runoff, rivers can easily be flowing 10x their normal volume. This can intimidate anglers, but rest assured – that the trout are still there.

Obviously, there are times when the river is simply too muddy. If there’s 0 clarity, then the fish won’t be able to see your fly. However, usually there is at least 6-12″ of clarity, which means that the trout will still be eating.

If you have been intimidated by fishing runoff, then this article is for you. I will cover some good tips and tactics for successfully catching trout in dirty water. If you approach the river correctly and use the right flies, fishing runoff can be a great time.

Fish Near The Bank During Runoff

During runoff, rivers run much faster than they usually do. This pushes trout near the bank because there is less current there. Here, the trout can feed without using a lot of energy. During runoff, most of the trout in the river will be only 2-3 feet off the bank – you can literally catch fish without getting your feet wet.

This usually means nymphing right under your rod tip. You don’t have to cast far at all, which makes fishing runoff quite simple. Simple roll casts will get the job done, and you are often making short drifts right in front of you.

The brown trout pictured above was caught about 4 feet off the bank when the river was high and muddy. On that day, there were hardly any anglers on the river. Fishing during runoff can not only be productive, but it allows you to get some solitude, as well.

Use Heavier Tippet During Runoff

Muddy water means that the trout can’t see as well. They won’t be inspecting your tippet, and they usually can’t see it at all. I like to fish 1x and 2x tippet when the water is dirty – it offers a couple advantages. For one, you can land trout much faster because you can really “horse” them on heavy tippet – this helps a lot with the faster current. Also, it allows you to retrieve flies from snags much easier. If you get your flies caught on a rock or a log, you can usually get them back.

So the next time you fly fish during runoff conditions, leave the 5x at home. 1x, 2x and 3x are a much better choice. When you hook into that next big trout, you will be happy to have heavier tippet.

Use A Shallow Nymph Rig During Runoff

Since trout will be holding near the bank, there isn’t a need to fish super deep. A nymph rig set 3-4 feet deep will usually get the job done. I often just fish 2 flies and a small splitshot. For these nymph rigs, I like to run a San Juan Worm to a Pats Rubber Legs.

Since the river is higher, many anglers want to fish deep and load up on splitshot – but this usually isn’t necessary. I have had my best days during runoff by using a really shallow nymph rig. It is always a good idea to start shorter and get deeper if necessary – you will lose less flies this way.

Fish Darker Flies

This is counterintuitive, but darker flies actually fish better during muddy conditions. Fish can pick up on black and purple flies much easier, since they provide a silhouette in the dirty water. Fishing a black or purple Pats Rubber Legs is one of my favorite methods. Trout are expecting to see Stoneflies anyways, so the darker Pats is an easy choice.

Fishing nymphs with purple on them is also a good method. Flies like the Duracell have a lot of purple coloration to them, and trout can see them quite easily in the mud.

In addition to darker flies, San Juan Worms are also an excellent choice. Runoff pushes lots of worms into river systems, so fishing a San Juan is usually productive. For dirty water, I prefer red and purple San Juans.

Throw Streamers

During low and clear water conditions, it can be hard to get consistent streamer eats. Trout are more wary during these times, and not as aggressive. During runoff, trout are looking for a big meal – and a dark colored streamer can get you lots of bites. The black Sculpzilla pictured above is one of my favorites for dirty water.

Also during runoff, don’t be afraid to fish extra large streamers. Big articulated Dungeons and Circus Peanuts can work surprisingly well. Trout don’t have much time to inspect flies in dirty water, and they often attack a streamer viciously.

I like to work my streamers close to the bank, since that is where the trout are holding. I will often get streamer eaters just inches from the riverbank.

Find The Slowest Possible Water

With high water comes faster flows. Trout don’t like to expend unnecessary energy, so they will seek out the slowest water they can. Although this is usually near the bank, it can also be behind rocks or logs. These structures offer a break in the current where the trout can hangout.

When the trout sense that the river is rising, they will often travel to these areas immediately. Here, they will feed until the river comes back down. Once the water drops, the trout will start to spread out more – back to their normal lies.

Any large boulder or fallen tree is a recipe for a big trout. I will focus my efforts on these locations, especially during runoff. You will often find several trout stacked in these areas, and they can be pretty easy to catch with nymphs or streamers.


Runoff is one of my favorite times to fly fish. There are way less anglers on the water, and the fish are feeding very consistently. Although many anglers prefer to stay home, I highly encourage folks to head out to the river and go fly fishing. Some of my best trout ever have been caught during dirty water conditions.

Make sure to have dark flies, heavy tippet and a streamer rod!