Runoff in the Rockies

Fishing during the spring runoff isn’t easy, but it’s not impossible. These 20 patterns will increase your chances for success during some of the most difficult fishing of the season.
by Russ Forney

Runoff-fly theory encompasses a wavering line of logic sprinkled with diverse attitudes about the impact of murky water on visual acuity, the effects of the stress on fish behavior, and the mysteries of light in off-color water. Big and dark versus small and bright, soft materials versus hard finishes, subdued color or flashy highlights are common themes peppered with dissenting views. One particularly emphatic angler questioned the wisdom of the whole idea. “The only thing that makes less sense than fishing in muddy water,” he said, “is writing stories about it.”

Tying benches in the northern Rockies reflect different strategies when preparing for spring outings. Getting flies deep in the water column was consistently cited as a necessity for early-season fishing success. For some, get deep quickly and stay on the bottom is their philosophy, and so big, black, and heavy flies are the obvious answer. Other tiers extolled the virtues of smaller flies featuring lighter and brighter colors, a dash of flash along with bead heads and wire-wrapped bodies. Tying flies for runoff is best viewed as a broad mix of techniques with a goal of matching patterns to conditions, usually in the absence of a predominant hatch.

But there is hope in the spring runoff, and you can tailor patterns to meet the surly conditions. The solution begins in knowing where fish shelter in swift currents and how to make your flies visible in the cloudy water. Getting your patterns noticed by feeding fish—in any season—is our universal quest.

Defining the Problem
What factors influence fish behavior in the early springtime? Temperature is certainly an important element both in terms of fish metabolism as well as regulating the activity of the aquatic prey that make up their diet. Fish become sluggish in near-freezing water, but they still eat.

Trout tend to hug the bottom of the streambed when temperatures drop. Deeper water is better insulated from blustery winds and provides a buffer against colder air temperatures. The bottom of the water column is the place to look for early-spring trout.

Air and water temperatures are also critical to insect hatches; rising temperatures are a key in the complex rhythm of emergence. The availability of drifting nymphs and emerging adults is one of the earliest spring highlights for many anglers. As insect emergences increase, feeding activity among the trout will follow.

Water is often turbid during the high-flow conditions of springtime runoff, and the lack of clarity influences the types of prey available to trout. Increased turbidity often indicates streambank erosion with a resulting surge of worms into the water. And if worms are in the water, trout are eating them.

While vision is widely accepted as the most critical component of trout predator tactics, other senses likely play an increasingly important role when cloudy water limits sight distance. Vibration and lateral-line sensitivity probably supplement the role of visual acuity when this primary sensory input is diminished. As predators, wild trout are exquisitely adapted to their environment, even when it is subject to the volatile changes of early spring.

Fish expend energy pushing against the force of a fast current. Simply staying in one spot, nose into the current, imposes an increased energetic demand when flows are at spring peak. Look for spots that are sheltered from the swiftest current: rocks, snags, bends, irregularities in the bank, and flow disturbances along the stream bottom. Relatively heavy silt particles fall out of suspension as water flows slow, partial clearing along the banks and behind in-stream obstacles indicate lower flows and less demanding conditions for lurking trout.

“Cast clear, drift deep” is a handy mantra when fishing swollen springtime creeks. Cast to areas where silt and debris are clearing from the current, areas suggesting lower flow rates and better visibility. Exploring the water vertically is a good way to find fish harried by fast, cloudy water and cold temperatures; start deep, and gradually work your way up the water column.

Fish subsurface flies aggressively, and do not get too comfortable in one spot; fish move in high water, looking for sheltered lies and an available supply of food. As fish are displaced by high flows, they become spooky, further adding to the challenge of early spring fishing. Trout are in unfamiliar territory and in demanding conditions; a stealthy approach is as important now as it is later in the season when fish are hard-pressed by fair-weather crowds.

Deep and Dark
Because the lowest portion of the water column is prime trout territory during runoff, flies need to drift deep to reach their targets. Weighted flies that drop quickly in fast current are a necessary addition to your springtime fly box. Heavy hooks, metal heads, and wire wraps are familiar techniques when tying for the creek bottom. Tungsten beads and cones add weight, but wire wraps in combination with less dense beads, such as brass and nickel, can achieve a similar effect and offer more visually distinct highlights.

The traditional spiral-wrapped wire underbody is a good technique for weighting large patterns where added bulk is not a significant deterrent to the lines and silhouette of a fly. Weighted Buggers and nymphs are classic
examples of the utility of adding wire, and when in combination with metal bead heads, they are extremely effective for getting deeper drifts. Weighted underbody construction also favors the use glass bead heads; the wire-wrapped body compensates for the less dense glass bead.

Brass and color-anodized wire wrapped as an abdomen or rib are common on glass bead-headed midge patterns, both for fishing tailwaters and fast spring flows. It is hard, if not impossible, to build wire-wrapped underbodies on small hooks, so the wire becomes part of the finished flies. Weighted midge patterns in black, blue, gray, and opal finishes are an important addition to my spring fly box.

See and Be Seen
Being seen in all the right places is as important to fly anglers as it is to aspiring celebrities. Making patterns visible in off-color water might not seem an easy task, but the selection of materials on the market today offers wide options of creative colors, textures, and finishes for creating early spring flies. Black, brown, and dark olive Buggers, streamers, and nymphs are more visible to fish in dense, dark water where visual distance is limited. Similarly, larger patterns are more visible in off-color water, and the combination of bigger flies and darker hues can be a successful match in silt-tinged water.

Even though dark flies are often touted as the optimum hues when flows are off-color, a Goth-style fly sampler is not the only way to dress your runoff fly box. Many tiers experiment with flash and lighter hues in their early spring patterns; a little flash can enhance the visibility of somber-colored patters. Metallic tinsel, bright beads, flash-enhanced dubbing blends, epoxy sheen, and other reflective materials might be the perfect fashion accessory for flies fished on a dark-water day. Relying solely on the old standbys, dressed in their drab tones, could pave the path to frustration as water levels drop, clarity improves, and early springs hatches begin to stir.

Contrast between adjacent materials is another way to enhance visibility. Alternating dark and light hues among body materials, bright ribbing, and the sheen of flashbacks and epoxy wing cases help patterns attract attention in dark water. Suspended particles in dirty water block light penetration and diminish the light signature of reflective materials. The effect of flash is subdued in off-color water, producing a glimmer of light as opposed to flamboyant shine. Patterns incorporating light-enhancing materials add visual depth and a distinct silhouette when viewed under dreary conditions, a useful technique to enhance the visibility of patterns destined for runoff water.

The outfitters and anglers that shared their preferences for runoff flies generally recommended switching to lighter and brighter patterns once the water starts to clear. Copper Johns were frequently picked as early-spring favorites, particularly for clearing water and tailwater fisheries. Flash works in off-color flows as long as enough light penetrates the water to stimulate the magic of glass, tinsel, metallic, and reflective surfaces. San Juan worms in red, cream, tan, and orange were also commonly cited by guides for early-season fishing, followed closely by midge patterns and buggy nymphs.

Final Wraps
Springtime in the northern Rocky Mountains is a volatile mix of melting snow, surging currents, and frosty water. I have never had much luck fishing muddy flows when subsurface visibility is limited to just a few inches. Sure, trout can be caught under these adverse conditions, but blindly lobbing heavy flies into a torrent of chocolate milk is an improbable solution to a difficult problem.

As the accompanying patterns illustrate, there is no single approach to tying flies for runoff conditions. There are times when bouncing a big, dark pattern along the bottom is the right presentation, and at other times a midge cluster floating in the surface film is the right fly for the moment. The common thread is confidence: experienced anglers tie and fish patterns they believe in. Solving runoff woes begins at the tying bench, with creativity and confidence.

As with any tough angling situation, you can gain a distinct advantage by evaluating the design elements of successful patterns, being aware of changing water conditions and tailoring flies for your local conditions. Remember what you are up against: turbidity, high water, fast current, and cold temperatures. Consider how best to get your fly noticed by winter-weary trout. Vary your approach with heavily weighted, dark patterns that can be seen in dirty water. And when circumstances suggest, add a little flash to exaggerate size and animation.

And if the thought of fishing high, fast, off-color water still makes absolutely no sense to you, there is always golf.


Russ Forney lives in Wyoming and fishes throughout the West.


20 Flies for Runoff

ImageBlack Hills Pinky
Hook: Curved-shank nymph hook, sizes 18 to 12.
Thread: Blue dun 8/8 (70 denier).
Body: Tying thread.
Rib: Pink Ultra Wire.
Collar: Shrimp pink UV Ice Dub.
Note: Hans Stephenson, of Dakota Angler & Outfitter, tied this
minimalist pattern. It’s a favorite for fishing the Black Hills in the spring.


ImageTungsten Rag Stone Nymph
Hook: Curved-shank heavy-wire scud hook, sizes 14 to 6.
Thread: Black 6/0 (140 denier).
Bead: Black tungsten.
Tail and legs: Black or barred rubber legs.
Body: EZ Bug Yarn.
Note: Tie this pattern in black, brown, yellow, and combination
colors. The extended body adds movement in the water.


ImageNorth Fork Special
Hook: Heavy-wire scud hook, sizes 16 to 8.
Bead: Gold or silver.
Thread: Black 8/0  (70 denier).
Tail and legs: Gray or black biots.
Body: Coarse black dubbing.
Rib: Red Ultra Wire
Wing case: Three black biot segments mounted over
the thorax.
Note: Tim Wade of North Fork Anglers tied this North Fork
Special. It was originally developed for fishing the North Fork of the Shoshone River, but works well throughout the northern Rockies


ImagePink Squirrel
Hook: Heavy-wire scud hook, sizes 16 to 12.
Thread: Pink 8/0 (70 denier).
Bead: Gold bead.
Tail: Pearl Krystal Flash.
Body: Black Antron dubbing.
Rib: Silver wire.
Collar: Fluorescent pink Ice Dub.
Note: Recommended in the Black Hills and Big Horn Mountains


ImageRoyal Wulff
Hook: Dry fly hook, size 12 or 10.
Thread: Black 6/0 (140 denier).
Tail: Deer body hair.
Body: Peacock herl and red floss.
Wing: White calftail.
Hackle: Brown.
Note: Tied and fished by Al and Gretchen Beatty. Heavily dressed
flies ride the current and can be fished with a wet retrieve.


ImageLime Trude
Hook: Dry fly hook, size 12 or 10.
Thread: Black 6/0 (140 denier).
Tail: Deer body hair.
Abdomen: Lime green dubbing.
Thorax: Peacock herl.
Wing: White calftail.
Hackle: Brown.


ImageCone Head Black Bugger
Hook: 2X- or 3X-long heavy-wire streamer hook, sizes 8 to 4.
Thread: Black 3/0 (210 denier).
Head: Gold or black tungsten cone.
Tail: Black marabou.\
Body: Black chenille with flash that extends into the
marabou tail.
Rib: Fine black wire.
Hackle: Black.
Note: Weighted black Buggers are used everywhere
throughout the fishing season, but they work particularly well in dark water.


ImageCone Head Rubber Bugger
Hook: 2X- to 4X-long heavy-wire streamer hook, sizes 8 to 4.
Thread: Black 3/0 (210 denier).
Bead: Gold tungsten cone.
Tail: Black over yellow marabou with metallic flash on each side.
Body: Rubber Bugger Hackle.
Note: Recommended by Duncan Oswald of Montana Fly 
Company. This is a weighted fly with exceptional animation in the water. It is popular in black, brown, yellow, orange, and contrasting color combinations.


ImageBitch Bugger
Hook: 2X- to 4X-long heavy-wire streamer hook, sizes 8 to 4.
Head: Tungsten cone.
Thread: Black 3/0 (210 denier).
Tail: Marabou with six to eight strands of flash.
Abdomen: Chartreuse and black chenille in a Bitch Creek
Thorax: Black chenille and black hackle.
Legs: Rubber legs in black or white.
Note: Another design from Montana Fly Company. The Bitch
Bugger is popular in Montana and Wyoming.


ImageBubblehead Bugger
Hook: 2X- or 3X-long heavy-wire streamer hook, sizes 8 to 4.
Thread: Black 3/0 (210 denier).
Head: Epoxy head with yellow eyes.
Tail: Black marabou with metallic flash.
Body: Black chenille.
Rib: Fine black wire.
Legs: Black or gray rubber legs.
Hackle: Black.
Note: A black Bugger variant; flash, glossy head, and rubber legs
enhance the animation of the fly in the water.


: Heavy curved-shank scud hook, sizes 18 to 10.
: A strip of wire tied to the top of the hook shank.
: Orange 6/0 (140 denier).
: A small clump of grizzly hen hackle fibers.
: Copper wire.
1: Sow-Scud dubbing, brushed out to emphasize the
coarse fibers.
Body 2
: UV Ice Dub behind the hook eye.
Shell back
: Clear plastic strip secured with the wire rib.
: Orange, black, tan, olive, and pink scud patterns are 
popular. Carry smaller sizes throughout the summer.


ImageTwo-Tone San Juan Worm
Hook: Curved-shank scud or emerger hook, sizes 12 to 8.
Thread: Orange 3/0 (210 denier).
Body: Two strands of chenille.
Note: This fly is a variation of the classic San Juan Worm. It is
also tied with a brass bead midshank. This pattern is popular throughout the Rocky Mountains in combinations of orange, tan, brown, pink, and red.


ImageBlack MOAT (Mother of All Tungsten)
Hook: Curved-shank nymph hook, sizes 14 to 6.
Thread: Black 8/0 (70 denier).
Bead: Gold tungsten bead.
Tail, legs, and antennae: Black rubber legs.
Abdomen: Rubber leg material with a small amount of tinsel,
trimmed and tapered.
Thorax: Coarse dubbing, brushed out for a buggy appearance.
Wing case: Epoxy over Thin Skin.
Note: A great fly for early spring and any time stoneflies
are active.


ImageCopper John
Hook: Straight or curved-shank nymph hook, sizes 18 to 12.
Thread: Black 6/0 (140 denier).
Head: Gold bead.
Tail: Dark brown goose biots.
Abdomen: Fine copper wire.
Thorax: Peacock herl.
Legs: Partridge or brown hackle fibers.
Wing case: Epoxy.
Note: John Barr’s Copper John has sired dozens of variations.
Flashback versions are popular in early spring.


Hook: Regular nymph or wet-fly hook, sizes 18 to 10.
Head: Brass bead.
Thread: Blue 6/0 (140 denier).
Tail: Black or brown goose biots.
Abdomen: Dark blue synthetic dubbing.
Rib: Fine blue wire.
Abdomen: Dark blue synthetic dubbing.
Legs: Two strands of rubber leg material, blue or blue black.
Wings: Two black biots.
Note: This rubber-legged version of Vince Wilcox’s pattern is
recommended by World Cast Anglers for fishing the fast flows in the Snake River drainage.


ImageLightning Bug
Hook: Curved-shank scud or emerger hook, sizes 18 to 12.

: Black 6/0 (140 denier).
Head: Silver bead.
Tail: Small clump of pheasant tail fibers.
Abdomen: Silver tinsel.
Rib: Gold wire.
Thorax: Orange/red dubbing with guard hairs picked out
or brushed.


ImageScuddle Muddle Emerger
Hook: Curved-shank emerger hook, sizes 18 to 14.
Thread: Dark olive or black 6/0 (140 denier).
Abdomen: Caddis green dubbing.
Wing 1: Dark hackle fibers and a sparse clump of deer or elk hair.
Wing 2: Wonder Wings, black hen hackle, upright and divided.
Note: Tied by Al and Gretchen Beatty, this clever pattern captures the look of early-season olive mayflies and caddisflies in a single pattern.

ImageDouble Magic Royal Double Wing
Hook: 2X- or 3X-long dry fly hook, sizes 20 to 6.
Thread: Black 6/0 (140 denier).
Tail: Green Antron yarn.
Tip: Red floss.
Rear wing: Brown deer hair.
Body: Peacock and lime green Antron dubbing.
Body hackle: Brown, clipped top and bottom.
Front wing: White calftail.
Hackle: Brown.
Note: Tied by Al and Gretchen Beatty. Fish the fly on the surface and with a wet retrieve like a streamer. The materials enhance and contrast and convey a sense of movement.


ImageBlack Stonefly Nymph
Hook: Curved-shank nymph hook, sizes 10 to 4.
Thread: Black 3/0 (210 denier).
Weight: Pieces of wire tied to the sides of the hook shank. Wrap more wire under the thorax.
Tail, legs, and antennae: Black turkey biots.
Abdomen: Black plastic micro tubing or ribbing material.
Thorax: Coarse black dubbing.
Wing case: Segments cut from a black turkey tail feather coated with clear nail polish.
Note: Black, dark brown, and yellow stonefly nymphs are popular for fishing during the spring runoff.


ImageKaufmann Black Stonefly Nymph
Hook: Curved-shank nymph hook, sizes 10 to 4.
Thread: Black 3/0 (210 denier).
Weight: Pieces of wire tied to the sides of the hook shank. Wrap more wire under the thorax.
Antennae, legs, and tail: Black turkey biots.
Body: Angora goat, black blend with iridescent highlights.
Rib: Black Swannundaze or similar flattened or half-round plastic ribbing material.
Wing case: Three sections of black turkey quill, coated with Flexament or clear nail polish.
Note: Randall Kaufmann’s signature nymph pattern is also tied with rubber legs and a bead head. It’s a heavy-weight creature that hugs the bottom of the creek.

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