This study explores the hydrograph characteristics of quick and slow runoffs in watershed outlet hydrographs. The quick and slow runoffs were modelled using a conceptual model of three linear cascade reservoirs that have exponential decay response expressions. Mean rainfall for model inputs was estimated using the block Kriging method. The 107 storms during the 1966–2008 events were classified as large, medium and small events according to the observed streamflow. The optimal hydrograph parameters for 61 rainfall-runoff events were calibrated using the shuffled complex evolution optimal algorithm. The efficacy of the model was verified using the seven averaged parameters of three types of 46 events and was compared with three evaluation criteria resulting from the Nash model. The 61 calibrations were used to analyse and compare the characteristics of quick and slow flows in early and later periods (1966–2002 and 2003–2008). Finally, the following five conclusions were obtained: (1) The base time of a slow runoff hydrograph is the same as that of a total runoff hydrograph. (2) A quick runoff with a long period occurs when soil antecedent moisture is low and with a short period under a high value. (3) The time to peak of hydrograph components is directly proportional to peak time of a hyetograph; the time to peak of quick and slow flows is about 0·97 and 1·12 times the peak time of a hyetograph, respectively. (4) The peak of hydrograph components is relative to a total runoff hydrograph; the percentages for quick runoff are approximately 71% and 13% for slow flow. Finally, (5) the volume of a quick runoff component is 49% of a total runoff volume and 37% for a slow runoff volume. Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.