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Spring Pre-Runoff Fishing: Know Before You Go

Pre-runoff fishing brings equal parts opportunity and challenge. This time of year, conditions will be highly unpredictable and water levels can change throughout the day. But with a little bit of prep, this pre-runoff period can be an excellent time for anglers to be on the water.

As you prepare for a day of spring fishing, here are a few tips to keep in mind:

Pay Attention to Water Levels

Water levels are prone to fluctuate this time of year more so then any other. Before you leave home, check the flows wherever you’re headed. Knowing what to expect is part of the battle and the wins along the way. This will help you decide on your rigging, fly patterns and fishing tactics.

For up-to-date flows, visit this page  from the Colorado Division of Water Resources. And when it comes to fishing reports and forecasts on our favorite local Colorado waters, you can’t beat the information from our friends at flycastusa.com.

Even within a single day of fishing, the water level and clarity might drastically change from morning to afternoon. Cold nighttime temperatures can cause a re-freeze, leading to low and clear water levels when you hit the river first thing in the morning. But the hot sun can quickly thaw things out. And by late afternoon, you could witness a stark change in water conditions.


With several consecutive days of warm weather, you might see sustained higher flows. On the other side of that coin, a few days of cold temperatures and snow flurries might put a halt to the melt and bring water levels down.

The consistent factor this time of year is inconsistency. Keep an eye on the forecast and the flows, and you’ll know what to expect. This can help you prepare with the right tactics and equipment.

Be Nimble in Your Fishing Tactics

Pre-runoff fishing requires anglers to be adaptable. You might face low water, high water, and very likely changing conditions throughout the day. As mentioned above, keep an eye on water levels and weather conditions – and prepare accordingly.

When the water is low and clear, particularly in the mornings, turn to midges and small baetis patterns to be effective. During these conditions, look for trout to be spread out across feeding zones, including riffles and faster runs.

When it’s overcast, look for hatches of blue winged olives. Even if trout aren’t eating dry flies, this can be a great time to fish BWO emergers or to swing a soft hackle through the current. For more on fishing the blue winged olive hatch, see our previous article  on that subject.

When water levels begin to rise, or when clarity decreases in the afternoons, it may be time to switch tactics. This can be a great time do drift worm patterns, heavy stonefly nymphs and leeches. You might also try fishing streamers. Trout will opportunistically prey on larger bugs when higher flows flush good into the current. When the water is high, look for trout to be holding in areas with slack water, on the edge of water clarity or tight to the banks.


When rigging up for high water, consider a sink tip or VersiLeader, especially when fishing streamers. And use more weight than usual. It can take a lot of weight to get your flies down quickly when flows up. You may also want to use a shorter leader this time of year. When trying to get your flies down quickly, particularly with that sink tip, a shorter leader will be more effective.

Focus on Safety

When there’s a chance for high water, don’t let that deter you. The fishing can still be great. But when the water is high, it’s important to focus on safe wading practices. This time of year, a careless approach can be costly.

Now and through early summer when we see flows increasing and when we reach peak runoff, you may not need to wade into the water at all. When flows are high, trout will be pushed to the banks. As soon as you set foot in the water, you may be standing right where you should be fishing.

This time of year when flows yo-yo up and down, just be cautious. A crossing that was uneventful in the morning, might be a challenge by the afternoon. Take a few minutes to study the situation before you make your first cast or set foot in the water.


Additionally, be prepared with the right equipment. A wading staff can be a big help for both balance in wading, and to test for depth when you cannot see the bottom when crossing. We carry wading staffs fromSimms, Folstaf and Patagonia. A wading staff retractor will keep it on your wading belt, close to your side while you cast and quickly accessible when you need it.

Speaking of wading belts – No matter the water level don’t leave home without one. Not only is it a great attachment point for that wading staff, it can be a lifesaver if you accidentally take a spill. Check out our selection of wading belts here.

Another piece of safe-wading gear you might want to consider this year is a solid pair of wading boots and studs

A Note on Felt vs. Rubber-Soled Boots

As recently as the early 2000s, felt-soled wading boots were the standard for anglers. Felt offers a solid grip when you’re in the water, wading on slippery and mossy rocks. But along with the effort to reduce the spread of invasive species and diseases, many anglers have turned to rubber soles over the past ten-plus years.

It should be noted that even with rubber-soled boots, aquatic pests can still hitch a ride on your gear. Carefully clean and dry your gear after fishing, and especially when changing locations and traveling between states. Also note that felt soles have been banned in Yellowstone National Park, as well as in Alaska and a handful of Midwestern and Eastern states.

Each type of sole has its pros and cons. While felt is a great option when you’re in the water, it’s not a great choice for destinations that require any hiking. Felt is also a poor choice for winter fishing, as it can freeze up and become extremely slick on snow and ice.

Rubber is a better all-around choice if you plan to fish into the shoulder seasons or during the winter months. And rubber soles offer better versatility between hiking and wading. The downside of rubber soles is that they lack the grip of felt in the water. But much of that can be solved with screw-in studs – something worth considering during the runoff season.


We carry cleats fromSimms, Patagonia and Orvis. When shopping for studs, you’ll notice both aluminum and hard carbide options. What’s the difference? Aluminum offers a clear advantage when wading – the softer material provides excellent grip. However, the soft nature of aluminum also wears down faster, particularly if your destination requires some hiking. If you plan to spend time on trails, a carbide stud might be more appropriate. While it won’t be quite as grippy in the water, it can take more trail wear.

Also note that some boots models like the Simms G4 and Patagonia line up require specific studs. We are happy to help you choose the right option.


Need Help? Please ask!

If you have questions about fishing, flies, or tactics, please feel free to ask! We’d love to help you be successful on your next day of fishing. Visit us at the fly shop at 5211 South Santa Fe Drive in Littleton. Or call us at 303-794-1104.

We continue to offer free shipping or curbside pickup with all online and phone orders. Our goal is to help you feel prepared and confident the next time you hit the water.