High water? Time to change the game plan

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The confluence of the North Fork (top) and the mainstem Gunnison River (entering from right) shows the value of having a dam-controlled river to fish during runoff. The Pleasure Park is as far left of photo. Photo and article by Dave Buchanan

Nearly six months after putting away your fishing rods and waders, spring is luring you back to the river.

At first glance it seems a Fool’s Paradise because everywhere you look, the winter’s abundant snowpack has rivers and streams blown out with runoff, a situation that doesn’t seem likely to end soon.

Fishing, you glumly think, is out.

But not so fast. While fly fishing during runoff isn’t quite the pastoral setting otherwise portrayed in fishing magazines and TV ads, don’t count out your chances of catching fish even when rivers run the color and consistency of a cappuccino.

“You really do have a lot of opportunities, you just have to change your game plan a bit,” offered veteran angling guide Will Sands of Taylor Creek Fly Shop in Basalt. “Sometimes (high water) enables us to change our thought processes about where we can fish. With some forethought and a bit of planning, you’ll be surprised at the quality of fishing you can find.”

Fishing guides know that their livelihood depends on having satisfied clients, even when runoff darkens the water on most streams, and here are some high-water fishing tips gleaned from experienced anglers who know better than to stay home when a river somewhere is calling their name.

Fish the tailwaters – Western Colorado has several excellent fisheries in the tailwaters immediately below dams where access is easy. While runoff may cause the flows to increase, the water comes out clear and cold.

“We’re really lucky here in the valley (because) the Fryingpan (River) for the most part is managed to the best interest of anglers,” Sands said. “Certain flow levels on the Fryingpan are more accommodating to anglers and water managers try to keep the river to those flows.”

In addition to the Fryingpan River, the list of tailwaters includes the Gunnison, Taylor, Yampa and San Juan rivers.

Stay on the bank – If you fish a runoff-swollen river, stay out of the water. Unless you’re a

OBY June 2016 Fish runoff Nick Streit

Fishing guide Nick Streit (left) of Taos Fly Shop has the strength and experience to wade fast-moving streams, but for the rest of us, runoff is great time to stay on the bank. Photo courtesy Nick Streit

super-experienced wader, it’s likely best to avoid the stress of wading deep water.

Wading staffs and using the buddy system of wading can be of service during high water but even a buddy won’t help if you find yourself stranded should flows come up while you’re on the wrong side of the river.

Timing is everythingStudies done at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Cal., indicate the highest daily runoff flows on snowfed rivers occur near midnight or early morning.

The article says timing reflects “delays in travel time from the location of maximum melt the previous afternoon to the river gauge.” One exception to this is the Animas River, “which tends to have a maximum flow near midday,” the article says.

Which means in most cases mid-day and later might be the best time to fish and avoid the highest flows.

Choose your spot – High flows are just as hard on trout, which will move toward slower water to conserve energy and find food. Look for soft seams and slower eddies, where the visibility also may be better, and make sure you work the edges hard before casting further out.

The late Denny Green of Trout Creek Flies in Dutch John, Utah, would yell at high-water anglers thigh-deep in rivers, “You’re standing where you should be fishing.”

The longtime Green River guide delighted in catching fish from the strip of water between the anglers and the bank.

Biggie size your flies – Murky water makes it harder for a trout to see your fly (see above) so it make sense to fish a fly a size or two than normal.

Also, since high water dislodges more bugs from the riverbed, break out the big-profile Wooly Buggers, stonefly nymphs and dead-drifted streamers to lure a trout.

Add some flash and splash – Nothing gets a trout’s attention like a flashy streamers and big bugs splashing into the water.

During high flows, getting a trout’s attention is the first step in the process of catching it.

You can track daily water flows on the state’s rivers on several websites, including the Colorado Division of Water Resources and the U.S. Geological Survey.

 

 

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