You know that feeling of excitement and anticipation that happens in the fall, right before the first snowfall? This same sort of feeling grows immensely within me in the spring, just a few months before the fishing season is in full swing. For me, it’s even more of a tease than anxiously awaiting the snow to fall and the lifts to start spinning. It's fishing season that the rest of my year revolves around, and spring is when the anticipation is the most intense.
Here in the Rockies, there’s sort of two spring seasons—pre-runoff and runoff. The first being a truly magical time of year when the water runs clear, when bluebird skies are abundant, and when the trout are ready to stuff themselves as if its Thanksgiving Day. Appetites aren’t the only thing that picks up—insect activity becomes abundant and the first opportunity to cast dries presents itself. The latter—runoff—is a bit different.
Let me explain.
Over a few days in early May, I found myself in the rugged high country of Colorado. Some local beta and a friendly invitation had landed me an opportunity to fish solitary spots between North Park and Leadville. I played hooky on a Friday for a 3-day weekend, and arrived at the type of spot that would set any anglers heart to racing.
Three hundred and sixty-degree views of snowcapped peaks, not a soul in sight, and a barely beaten-in trail leading across the tundra towards a narrow river. But it’s so windy outside, the chickadees are walking instead of flying and I can hardly keep my tippet from moving as I reluctantly tie on my umpteenth fly. The light breeze that was forecasted for today has turned into 40mph gusts.
I take a long pause and attempt another cast. Maybe I can make something out of today and not get skunked. I haven’t felt this frustrated since I started fly-fishing—when my line and flies would resemble more a rat’s nest than something to catch fish with, and my flies would involuntarily be donated to the river time and time again. Today isn’t much different than some of those early days and each drift I attempt gets blown upstream. I am so ready to call it quits, chalk the day up as a loss, and head to the local watering hole.
Welcome to runoff and springtime above 10,000 ft. Gusting winds, water that resembles the Bailey's I add to my coffee, and non-wadeable flows that have me seriously questioning my sanity. Unfortunately, I have no choice in the matter—I am addicted to fly-fishing. And even in this hardly ideal environment, I can’t help but continue my way up stream and around each bend.
Some days, I sit real high on my imaginary horse after I’ve landed the hungry brown I’ve been teasing with a hopper and a few personal-best casts. The more I fish the more quickly that feeling comes, but it also goes just as quickly, knocking me off that imaginary horse. But I wouldn’t want it any other way. The truth is, you can make fly-fishing as easy or as difficult as you want. I’ve chosen to make it difficult.
For most people, this weekend marks the official start of summer and around here rivers will soon be running a little clearer by the day and returning to their normal state. This is when most anglers will find themselves driving down the dirt road, free of mud and snow, to the perfect, crystal clear fishing hole.
But over the years—through trial and error and from knowledge shared by anglers wiser than me—I’ve learned that trout will often move into predictable locations within the river, even during runoff. Just because the river isn’t running in its normal clear state doesn’t mean the fish stop eating. Life has to carry on in spite of adversity. For the angler, the possibilities can begin to look more promising when you consider that successfully reading the water of a river at peak can often prove to be simpler than deciphering that of a river at moderate flow.
What can be gained by curiously putting-in on a river during the high flows will pay dividends for years to come. The big trout you might catch won’t hurt either!