Salomone: Runoff or running out?

The river is changing quickly

Vail Valley Angler guide Kurt Olesek's raft.
Michael Salomone/Courtesy photo.

Take a look around. The mountainside is green and vibrant. We’re gently sliding into summer. Not with the turbulent adjustment we normally encounter on the river from heavy runoff and deep snow reserves, but with a continual erosion into the snowpack that has eclipsed a significant percentage of snow available. So, are we experiencing runoff or are we running out?

Rapid climate change deniers must not remember the past few summers and the high water temperatures the Eagle River experienced, a harsh reality that I never dealt with in the first twenty years I lived in the valley. In the last ten years the water temperature spike has become more of an expectation than a freak condition.

The USGS river gauge at Wolcott has recorded a steadily dropping volume since May 29. River gauges measure water in cubic feet per second (cfs). The river has seen a persistent decline in runoff water with very little reprieve from the loss. From around 1,600 cfs in Wolcott on May 30 and dipping below 1,000 cfs late on the night of June 1. Locals are left guessing when the peak of the runoff will come or if we’ve already seen the biggest push.

The change in flow — specifically the drop — illustrates how precious the float season on the Eagle River is. If the flow continues to diminish we will be wade fishing the Eagle when we should still be floating. Wade fishing on the Eagle isn’t a bad thing. It’s a treat. But the subsequent low flows and resulting high water temperatures that follow in the summer months are bad. The effects on our cold water fishery can be devastating.

Water temperatures on the Eagle changed lately. The drop in temperatures the Eagle River experienced in the end of May coincided with the runoff flows. The snow melt is a chilly flow that is evident from the river gauge data. However the last few days have seen an increase in the warmth of the water indicative of less snow melting.

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Anglers with their oars in the water have experienced stellar early season conditions on the Eagle River. Water clarity has improved. And the structure of the river is more easy to read with well defined boulders, seams and pockets. The best advice is to float it now. The window of opportunity will be short this year.

Dry fly anglers will want to target the pockets that are becoming more evident along the bank. Fish are seeking rest from the heavy water and feeding opportunities the bankside pockets provide. Caddis and Blue Wing Olives are the main staple for dry flies right now.

As Fish seek rest from the heavy waters, dry fly anglers will want to target the pockets that are becoming more evident along the bank.
Jim Mallos/Courtesy photo

Don’t be afraid of tying on a large PMX or stonefly dry pattern and fishing it close to structure. A large dry fly can support a heavy nymph dropper. This is a productive rig for float fishing in moving water. A big bushy dry creates a unique opportunistic feeding scenario where fish have a short window to hit it or miss it. More often than not the fish move on the large bite of protein. A big bug is too much of a good thing for a trout to turn down during high water.

Foam holes are becoming more defined. These areas can be stacked with feeding fish. Deep water nymphing can produce staggering numbers of fish despite the still swollen conditions. After being pushed around by strong currents, fish are looking to eat right now. Twenty inches, Pat’s rubber legs and squirmy wormies all tempt hungry trout in the bottom of foam-covered water.

Streamers are not to be overlooked. The diminishing flows create multiple locations in a short area where currents tumble and disorient smaller baitfish. Swift swimming brown and rainbow trout smash streamers with authority. Shorten your leader and consider a specialty fly line for dedicated streamer action. Cast towards the bank while floating and pull the fly downstream with a mend. Keep the streamer parallel to the bankside ambush points imitating an injured or weak baitfish.

I’ve heard many locals speak of indicators for when the runoff has peaked. There are certain “old wives tales” like linking the peak of runoff to whenever half of Game Creek bowl has melted, or when the aspen leaves pop in Eagle-Vail, the flow has passed peak.

Take a look around. Are we still in runoff or are we running out?

Vail Valley Anglers green superpuma.
Michael Salomone/Courtesy photo

Michael Salomone moved to the Eagle River valley in 1992. He began guiding fly-fishing professionally in 2002. His freelance writing has been published in magazines and websites including, Southwest Fly Fishing, Fly Rod & Reel, Eastern Fly Fishing, On the Fly, FlyLords, the Pointing Dog Journal, Upland Almanac, the Echo website, Vail Valley Anglers and more. He lives on the bank of the Eagle River with his wife, Lori; two daughters, Emily and Ella; and a brace of yellow Labrador retrievers.

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