As winter comes to an end and the flowers start to bloom, for many fly fishing season is coming back around. Though it’s definitely possible to have success fly fishing in the winter, most folks would probably agree that spring is, at the very least, more pleasant for the fisherman.
Even though the cold, snowy days of winter are gone, spring presents its own unique set of challenges. The common theme of these challenges is runoff, the period in which melting snow causes river levels to rise heftily.
Runoff doesn’t mean you shouldn’t fish, but it does mean you should have some tricks in your back pocket when you hit the water. Here are some ways to up your spring fishing success.
1. Avoid runoff if possible
The first way to deal with runoff, is to not deal with runoff.
There are several ways to do this, and they involve looking for different water types. The first and most obvious, is to fish a lake. Depending on how warm your spring weather is, you could fish a low-elevation lake or alpine lake. If spring hasn’t quite made it high up in the mountains yet, many alpine lakes will still have a layer of ice. In this case, head down in altitude and try warmer waters.
If you do have a chance to fish an alpine lake, you should! Right after ice-off, the fish will be “waking up” from the winter and starting to feed again after a long season of laying low. This can be a great time to cash in on their appetite.
Apart from lakes, tailwaters and spring creeks are relatively immune to runoff. While these rivers can have some small fluctuations, they’re nothing like the flashiness of a freestone.
Since tailwaters are controlled by dam output and spring creeks are fed from consistent springs, both should be fishable in spring while other creeks are blown out. Seek these out in the peak of runoff.
2. Try a streamer
I swear this has been a tip for every season so far, but rightfully so. A lot of people focus on the newly-hatching insects of the warmer weather and forget that streamers can be a great option after winter.
Since fish were lethargic during the cold months, once it starts to warm up, they need to start packing on the energy. Giving them something large and tasty could be just the ticket.
You’ll want to fish the streamer differently than some other seasons. In the fall, when waters are finally starting to cool down from scorching summer temperatures, fish will aggressively take quickly-fished streamers.
In the winter, fish are barely on the move, and streamer fishing needs to be done very slowly to encourage a reaction. I think of spring as being somewhere in the middle. The fish are still ramping up from cold weather, so they may not be willing to chase down a speedy streamer, but they also don’t need the fly to be on its deathbed.
Give them something to chase, but make it attainable.
3. Fish the seams and eddies
During runoff, rivers are high and fast. It takes a lot of energy for fish to stay put in fast-moving water.
Once the high flows hit, most fish will try to find hideaways where they can save a little energy. However, they also need to be able to feed, since they’ll be packing on calories after the long winter.
To target these fish, try placing your fly along seams and eddies that form near the raging current in the middle. If a fish can sit in slow water but catch food coming by in the fast water, it will.
This is also nice for the angler, since trying to keep an eye on a fly or indicator in raging runoff water isn’t always possible. Fishing the seams makes it easier to see and feel your rig, and that translates to higher success.
4. Try some color
Most of the year, I keep my flies pretty drab. Since most bugs in the water are some shade of ugly brown, that’s my go-to.
However, runoff is one of the best times to throw the bright purple fly you thought looked so awesome in the fly bin.
Since runoff water generally looks like chocolate milk, throwing brown or grey flies is one of the easiest ways to get fish to never see your presentation. Instead, throw bold colors that can be seen in even the murkiest water.
Black, white, and any bright colors are worth a try. Bonus points if you can get some flash involved as well. Using a beadhead nymph will add some flash, and also some weight to get your fly down more quickly in fast-moving water.
5. Keep an eye on changing flows
Runoff is a fact of life during the spring, but it comes in waves.
Spring runoff is a product of heavy snowcover and warming temperatures. As the weather gets nicer, snow melts and causes streams to rise. At the same time, there are usually some colder days scattered throughout spring, some even dipping below freezing. On those days, snow stops melting and not much water is added to the system.
It’s not an instantaneous effect, but you can target your fishing days to follow desired weather. If you notice a very warm, sunny day in peak runoff season, it’s probably best to avoid fishing for the next day or two, as the snowmelt will be making its way down the valleys at that point.
On the other hand, if there’s a cold spell with a few days of chillier temperatures, you may be able to get out on the next nice day, since flows will have dropped during the cold snap.
Watching the weather and planning accordingly can be the difference between a blown out stream and a great day of fishing.
6. Look for new pockets
Most people have some favorite spots along their home river. Maybe a rock or cove you always want to hit. Unfortunately, a lot of standard spots disappear during the spring when high water completely changes the way the river is flowing.
If this is happening, it’s important to not get hung up on spots that usually produce fish. If you head to your go-to run and it’s blown out, it might be best to save it for another day.
On the bright side, new pockets will form that are completely gone during the rest of the year. Rocks that usually sit on dry land may now be perfect hiding spots for fish. Even features that are normally in the water will be different. A huge boulder that usually creates an area of zero current might be creating the perfect seam during spring.
Instead of getting hung up on the usual spots, take advantage of the temporary opportunity to explore the new offerings of runoff.
7. Size up from winter
In the same way you add some color during runoff, sizing up might help as well.
One of the biggest tips for winter fishing is using the tiniest flies in your box. Trying to coax a dormant fish into feeding during colder months requires convincing it that it won’t need to spend much energy to eat.
In the spring, you have both murky water and refueling fish on your side. Since runoff will have the water a chocolate brown, it’s going to be pretty hard for a fish to see a size 20 midge. But, a big stonefly nymph will be easily seen. Additionally, the fish are starting to pack on the energy after a long winter, so the promise of a filling meal might entice some to strike.
If you aren’t sure what to throw on and are going out of your comfort zone with something that large, try tying on one large nymph up top and another, smaller fly below. Make sure the smaller fly is still a visible color, like black. With the larger fly to grab their attention, the fish may also spot the smaller fly below.