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The Backstage Pass

Angling Through Runoff: A Little Extra Effort Is Required

May 03, 23

As things may slowly get back to normal in much of the U.S., it is only fair to begin to think about fishing again. When we are able to go fishing again, most fisheries in Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana will be commencing runoff. This may mean high and muddy rivers. Even still, armed with the proper knowledge and attitude, there will be ample opportunities get outside and begin angling again in a post-COVID-19 world. 

Until further notice, be sure to practice proper social distancing and follow all CDC guidelines to help prevent the spread of the virus. We know that our partner lodges, guides, and outfitters will all be taking extra measures to ensure the health and safety of their guests, guides, and staff.

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This is a beautiful time in the U.S. Rockies as valley floors are green and mountaintops are white. Runoff in mountain country is a fact of life; with our cooler spring, much of the snowpack has remained. This is a good thing because the later runoff begins, the higher the likelihood we’ll have ideal summer flows. Fishing options still exist, but not every river or stream will be an option. Here’s some help in muddling through the possible muddy waters of the next few weeks.

Local knowledge. We are fortunate to have several decades of experience fishing the unique waters of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. The best way to learn what might be a good place to fish during runoff is to get some local knowledge. Internet fishing reports are reliable, but a quick phone call to Yellow Dog might help you understand more.

Tailwaters and spring creeks. Rivers like the Missouri, Bighorn and Beaverhead, and spring creeks such as DePuy’s, Armstrong’s and Nelson’s, will run clear when other rivers are muddy. If you’ve never fished a spring creek, now is a good time. For the larger tailwater rivers in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, a variety of lodges and outfitters are good options.

Go big or go home. Runoff fishing demands an adjustment in your tackle. Fish stouter tippets—unless you’re on DePuy’s spring creek, leave the 5X at home. Expect to fish subsurface more often than not. A standard leader this time of year is a 9-foot 2X. Invest in quality fluorocarbon tippet material such as Rio Fluroflex, TroutHunter, Scientific Anglers or Orvis Mirage. But before you do, practice your knots because fluorocarbon ain’t cheap and you want to spend time a-stream fishing, not tying knots.

Geek out on streamflows. This one is pretty simple and only requires an internet connection. Make a daily habit of checking local streamflows and forecasts. Watch for rising and dropping trends. If flows are rising on the river you hope to fish, look elsewhere. But if the general trend is a dropping streamflow, the fishing should improve. A small drop can serve up just enough clarity along the edges of the river for fish to get back on the feed.

Weather watcher. For larger freestone rivers, like the Gallatin and Yellowstone, to drop and clear enough to fish this time of year, daytime highs need to hover around 60 F and the nighttime lows need to reach or drop below freezing. If you observe this weather pattern for a few days, expect fishable conditions.

Fish it anyway. Even if things look challenging when you see the water, fish it. Some of our best days have occurred when others had written them off. While abundant food exists in swollen and muddy waters and the fishing can be great, rising rivers are no place for experimentation. A good way to gauge if conditions are safe for wading is if you can stay below the median high-water mark while on the riverbank. If the water level makes it difficult to navigate, conditions could be unsafe.

Keep hope alive. The sooner runoff starts and gets rolling the sooner it will be over, and you are not alone in your search for clean water. If you do make it out to the river, be congenial and share the water out there—a little friendly conversation with a fellow angler might yield a hot fly or tackle adjustment or a new place to fish....just be sure to practice proper social distancing and cleanliness.

As our area rivers rise, keep sight on the prize: significant snow in the mountains now means good late summer fishing and healthy summer streamflows for all. Enjoy the green, fish through the mud, and discover some new water.

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