How to Find Fish (Part 5): Runs

13 mins read

This is the fifth post in our series on how to find fish in any type of water. To see all the posts in this series, click here

By Spencer Durrant

If you’ve ever seen the cult classic The Big Lebowski by the Coen Brothers, you’re familiar The Dude’s obsession with getting his rug back from a pair of thieves. He wants the rug back because “it tied the room together!”

Well, if we converted that story to talk about fly fishing, the rug would be a run. We’ve talked about pools, pocket water, and riffles, but what helps those singular stream features flow together?

You probably guessed it from the title – runs.

Runs are an important piece of fish habitat, but they’re also tough to cleanly define like riffles or pools. In this post, we’ll take our time walking through the features that separate runs from other water types.

So, get comfortable and ready to learn!

What is a run?

Before we cover this, remember that runs are the link that join disparate water types together. Pools often flow into riffles, which turn into runs as they approach the next pool. Pocket water is often separated by runs. If you keep this picture in your mind, it’ll be a lot easier to understand what a run is.

Runs are pieces of water that look similar to a riffle, but are different in major ways. First off, runs have a slower current speed than a riffle. Runs are also deeper than riffles, and since they’re deeper, there is often little, if any, of the classic surface disturbance we associate with riffles. Finally, runs appear relatively featureless on first glance, meaning there are few obvious seams or obstructions where trout might hang out to eat.

Why do trout hold here?

Alright, it’s time for a pop quiz:

Why do fish hold in any given piece of water?


Fish pick out holding water based on FCC – food, cover, and current.

Luckily for us anglers, fish are simple critters. They want water that has an ample amount of food, not too much current, and plenty of cover from predators. Runs provide almost all of that.

There’s an abundance of food in a run for the same reason it exists in riffles. If you’ll recall, riffles are the “food factory” of a river:

Basically, riffles create the perfect environment for aquatic insects. The rocks and other detritus littering the riverbed that create a riffle create a good buffer from the main current where aquatic insects can hang out. Bugs like to live in the small gaps between rocks, of which there are tons in a riffle. These small gaps combine with the buffer from the current the rocks provide to form ideal aquatic insect habitat. On top of that, the fact that riffles are shallower than other spots in a river means they get more of an impact from sunlight. That means more aquatic vegetations grows, which is the food source for aquatic insects. All of these factors combine to make a riffle the ideal habitat for bugs – and bugs are the main food source of many trout.

The streambed in runs and riffles is often similar, which means the food availability is high in both water types. Riffles still have more food than any other water type, though runs are likely a close second.

The current speed in runs is much slower than in a riffle, which makes it ideal holding water. What runs lack, though, is a lot of extra cover. The depth of water in a run acts as cover from aerial predators, but there’s often fewer large obstructions in a run that offer cover from aquatic predators.

Where do fish hold in runs?

This is the toughest part to successfully figuring out runs. When looking at them, how do you know where to start fishing?

I’d like to tackle this question by dissecting a run together.

Photo: Bonnie Moreland/Flickr

This is a picture-perfect run. Towards the left edge of the picture, the run terminates in a pool (and you can even see the slight riffles that are quintessentially part of a pool’s head). Below the pool, this is a classic run.

On the side nearest the bank with trees, you can see a foam line. This foam line marks the seam between the main current, and the slower current nearest the bank. Most runs will feature a seam like this, usually on either bank. That seam is an obvious starting place to look for fish, because we know how much fish love seams.

Moving away from the foam line and into the main part of the run, things get fuzzier. It’s a uniform-looking current, and we can’t see very many obvious obstructions that will hide fish. To fish this kind of water, your best bet is to cover all of it. The fish will disperse throughout the run in fairly random groupings, and unless they’re rising, it’s hard to know exactly where they’ll hold.

Fish will congregate at the head and tail of a run, as well, so it’s worth covering those sections thoroughly. As you might have noticed throughout this series, we’re finding that fish really enjoy holding in places of transition – whether it’s from fast to slow currents, or shallow to deep water. If you can find any transitions in runs, fish them! Chances are high trout are holding there.

How to fish a run

The steps to successfully fish a run are twofold:

  • Cast to any rising trout, or trout you can see
  • Cover all the water

Fishing through a run doesn’t require any special line management techniques (like high-sticking in pocket water). In fact, it’s a lot like fishing through a riffle. The main difference is that the water is moving slower in a run, so the takes can be easier to spot than the takes in a riffle.

So, when you approach a run, try using the following plan to catch as many fish from it as possible.

  • Cast to risers first: If you see fish rising in a run, cast to them first. This holds true for just about any water type – if fish are rising, cast to them. 
  • Start at the tail: If there aren’t any fish rising, or you’ve cast to all of them, the next step is to set up shop at the tail of the run. Make your first casts quartering upstream, no further than you feel comfortable mending your line. Regardless if you’re fishing a dry-dropper or a nymph rig, you can cover water the same way. The key here is to cover all the water in the run between where you’re standing, and the opposite bank. You do that by making a series of drifts. For example, you make your quartering cast upstream and drift your flies through water maybe 10 feet away from you. Once you’ve drifted your flies through that water a few times and caught fish – or not moved any – you either take a step towards the opposite bank, or add distance to your cast, to cover water you haven’t yet drifted through.
  • Finish at the head: You want to slowly work your way up the run from the tail to the head. Unless the run is really short, you don’t want to cover the whole run with one cast. Break the run into smaller sections and work the water thoroughly to make sure you’re putting flies in front of all the fish.

So, let’s see how those tactics apply in a real-life example of a run.

The run we looked at earlier is the holy grail. It has foam lines, distinct transitions, and easy-to-identify holding water. Not all runs are as clean-cut as that. How would you go about fishing a run like this, for example?

picture of an angler standing in the middle of a run in a river

In runs like this, it’s helpful to break the water up into a grid pattern. In runs, your best bet to find fish is covering as much water as possible, with a variety of rigs.

As you can see in this diagram, the fish are distributed randomly throughout the run.

Start by covering the water closest to you first. If you ignore the water closest to you, there’s a chance you can spook any holding fish. Those spooked fish can, in turn, spook the rest of the run.

One thing to keep in mind is that you don’t need to remain stationary. Move up and down the riverbank to effectively cover all the water.

Work each grid close to far, back to front. Then move onto the next grid.

Breaking the water up into this kind of grid pattern is a helpful way to ensure that you’ve presented your flies to every fish in the run.

Keep Running

There’s a stretch of the creek near my house here in Wyoming that’s a picture-perfect run. It’s deep and crystal-clear, and I’ve seen some big brown trout laying on its bottom. I have yet to catch one of those fish, but I plan on harassing them come springtime.

There’s probably a run just like that on your local river. Head out there as soon as you can and start identifying the runs that you’ve skipped over, or not thoroughly fished before. Make some plans to tackle them this spring, and get this knowledge into action.


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