Stay Fly: The runoff is here for anglers fly-fishing the Eagle River (column)
How to fish the Eagle River during the runoff
It’s that time of year again! The snow that everyone loves in the winter is now melting and coming down the valley basin in the form of water in the rivers. The Eagle is starting to fill up to its annual capacities and making tough, if not impossible conditions to wade fish. This is one of the few downfalls of living near a freestone river. Unlike the Blue or Fryingpan River, which are at a constant flow due to the regulations of a dam, the Eagle is at the true mercy of Mother Nature.
The Eagle River starts its journey near Camp Hale and gains more water from small feeder streams as it makes its way through Minturn where it meets up with Gore Creek at Dowd Junction. At this point, the Eagle gains a large amount of its water, forming a medium size river that flows through the Vail Valley and comes to an end in Dotsero where it flows into the Colorado River. The annual runoff varies in length every year depending on the snowpack and the amount of spring rain we receive.
When talking about runoff, the acronym CFS gets thrown around quite a bit. CFS stands for “cubic feet per second” and is a way for people to measure the flow of a river or stream. One “cfs” is equal to about 7 and a half gallons of water flowing each second. A “cfs” is also about the size of a standard basketball. When the river is flowing at 500 cfs, imagine 500 basketballs going through 1 square foot in one second.
During the summer, fall and winter, the Eagle River is a relatively shallow and slow moving river, perfect for trout to live in. The average flow for the river during the fall and winter is around 100 cfs. In the spring the Eagle will peak around 3,000-4,000 cfs. During this peak runoff time, the river is stained with mud and has some rapids classified as Class III or even IV. The river during this time is great for people seeking whitewater in kayaks or rafts, however it’s not ideal conditions for fishing.
How to fish the Eagle during runoff
The obvious fishing spots that are abundant during the late summer/early fall are covered deep beneath fast moving water this time of year. The trout are still in the river, just not in the same spots they will be after the river flows begin to subside.
A good place to start fishing this time of year is targeting the fish holding along the banks, in the slower moving water. The trout retreat to the slower water to avoid the over-exhaustion that would be required to swim in the extremely fast moving current. It is easier for the fish to pick off nymphs and other subsurface snacks coming down the river in the slower water along the banks and where the fast water meets the slow water, also known as the seam. Anglers should use strike indicators with caddisfly nymphs with flash below large stonefly and worm imitations to target these fish.
The dangers of runoff
Anglers need to be sure to use extreme caution when wading in the river and possibly carry a wading stick or an old ski pole. The clarity of the water is typically off-color and muddy during the runoff, therefore it’s difficult, if not impossible to see the bottom of the river and what you’re walking on.
Also, be sure to tighten wading belts before getting in the water. The wading belt is there to prevent water from entering your waders in the chance of a fall into the river. The rocks in the Eagle are extremely slick and a nose dive will happen to even the best of anglers. Wading boots with felt bottoms and/or studded soles really help with wading on the “greased bowling balls” that line the bottom of the Eagle.
Tip of the week
During the runoff, the large stonefly nymphs that live along the bottom of the river get swept up in the fast moving current. Stonefly nymphs are terrible swimmers, so when they lose their grip on the bottom, they tumble helplessly down the river making for a easy, high protein meal for a opportunistic fish. So try using stonefly nymph imitations as a great attractor fly.
Even though our local rivers are blown out and tricky to fish, there are still options to enjoy a beautiful spring day with a rod in your hand. Stop by the shop or check out the fishing reports for up-to-date flows and choices of flies. Always keep your fish wet and practice catch and release to promote a great future for our local fisheries.