Last Updated on Jun 29, 2012 / Posted by Steve Walburn
Every year, the season’s highest water usually occurs immediately after significant precipitation during the late spring, or when the snow melts at higher elevations. This results in the swelling and discoloration of rivers and streams, which many anglers dismiss as unfishable due to the high flows and diminished visibility. The fact is, you can take advantage of some surprisingly good fishing during high water if you choose the proper techniques.
Trout can see at great distances in clear flows, and this is part of what makes them difficult to catch. Angler pressure is another factor, and the combination of a heavily pressured fish that can spot anglers from far away stacks the cards against fishermen under normal conditions. When water visibility decreases due to higher flows, however, the fish cannot see the angler coming. Nor are they able to discern the imitation flies from the naturals as easily as they can when the water is low and clear. A trout that can see six feet ahead when the water is low can see only 18 inches when the water is high and off-color. This fact significantly opens up both your approach and fly selection, as long as you understand how rising water alters trout behavior.
During periods of high water, trout often get pushed out of their usual holding lies. This can be due to both the increased water volume and lower visibility. They also tend to stay out of the heavier flows so that they can avoid all the silt and gravel passing over their gills. The average trout does not feel comfortable in darkness, and for this reason will move to shallower water, where there is sufficient light penetration through the water column. When the water first rises and is extremely muddy, trout will hold in as little as four to six inches of water. As the water starts to clear, the fish will begin to make their way back toward the middle of the stream, where there is more depth.
In addition to the smaller trout being pushed to slower areas of the stream, larger trout are also affected. Oftentimes, some of the largest fish in the stream will be caught off guard because they have been shifted to a new position in the stream. This is why we see a disproportionate number of large trout being caught during high water. But you have to know where to look.
Focus on areas where the water is deflected, creating small holding lies where the fish can seek refuge from the fast, turbulent water. Inside bends of a stream are also places where displaced trout can be found in surprisingly high numbers.
For example, take the Housatonic River in northwestern Connecticut. The Housatonic is a large freestone stream susceptible to run-off due to both snowmelt and spring rains. One particular year, the river ran extremely high for a long period of time. By understanding the trout’s behavior in high water, some of my clients were quite successful when others were having a tough time. One particular lie was very small compared to the size of the river: about the square footage of a minivan roof. Incredibly, more 18-inch holdover brown trout were caught from this location than from any other section of the stream. Why? Because the water was so high that all the fish that used to be spread out through a mile of stream were all pushed into this one small area, seeking refuge from the high water.
Two techniques in particular are well suited to fishing high water—short-line Czech nymphing and tandem streamers. When the water is high and off-color, there is no reason to use a technique that puts a great distance between you and the fish. Using a short-leader Czech/Polish nymphing style enables the angler to make more casts in less time, which is needed to consistently catch fish during high water. This technique also allows for near 100 percent strike detection, which is important because on certain days, the takes can be few and far between.
When fishing a Czech-style system, come off the fly line with three feet of .019-inch monofilament. Next, blood-knot a two-foot piece of .015 to that. Off the butt section, attach one foot of fluorescent yellow or orange monofilament. This will give you a visual target and will enable you to better detect strikes. Off the indicator section, attach the fluorocarbon tippet of choice. Often the best sizes for fishing high, fast water are 4X and 5X. Attach four feet of tippet to the end of the indicator, and with a surgeon’s knot, tie a two-foot piece of tippet of the same diameter to the existing section. Attach a dropper nymph to the knot tag and the second nymph to the point position. Make sure that the nymphs are about 20 inches apart to reduce the likelihood of the files getting tangled.
The cast for the short-leader technique is very simple. Start off with downstream water tension on the line. Keep your elbow bent at a 90-degree angle, and pick a target on the opposite bank that is approximately 45 degrees up and across from your position. Using the water tension to cast the nymphs, straighten your arm out. Doing this and following through your stroke will enable the nymphs to be cast out at your target. After the cast, keep the rod tip up and ahead (downstream) of your flies as they drift. This will allow you to maintain contact with your flies, which is essential to strike detection. Once the flies reach a 45-degree position below you, make a quick wrist flick to get your nymphs back out of the water and repeat this sequence for each cast. There is no false casting; just lift and flip.
In high water, I tend to use larger nymphs, such as stoneflies and other attractor patterns. One other very effective nymph is the cased caddis. When trout are pushed to the margins of the stream, cased caddis become an extremely important food item because they get washed off rocks when the water is high. The following nymphs work well in Czech-style multifly combinations.
This is a cased caddis pattern that imitates the northern wood cased caddis. Throughout the majority of the Midwest and Eastern United States, this caddis fly species is found in abundance within the margins of most of our freestone streams. For this nymph, I use a matte black tungsten bead for weight. I also use lead wire for the underbody. The body of the nymph is dubbed with dark brown spiky squirrel dubbing, ribbed with Brassie-size copper wire. I dub a thorax of tan UV ice dubbing. This not only appears to be some of the larva peeking out from the casing, but it also reflects light and creates flash, which can trigger a strike from a trout.
Iced Cased Caddis
This is without a doubt my number one nymph to imitate the Mother’s Day or Grannom caddis fly larva. These small cased caddis larvae are found in abundance in streams throughout the country. The fly design is simple. I use a black matte tungsten bead for weight, with a lead underbody for additional weight. The body is dubbed with peacock ice dubbing and ribbed with small copper wire. Right behind the bead I dub a very thin collar of insect green superfine dubbing.
This is another of my favorite high-water nymphs. The weight is a tungsten bead with a lead underbody. My bead choices for high water are either gold or fluorescent orange. The tails, legs, and antennae are all made with barred brown rubber legs. The motion of this nymph is enough to trigger a strike. A woven abdomen with a dark brown top and yellow underbody is ribbed with Brassie-size copper wire. The thorax is dubbed with Mike Mercer’s buggy nymph dubbing, with a mottled golden stonefly Thin Skin wing case.
This pattern does a great job of imitating mayfly nymphs in stained water. The weight is a fluorescent orange tungsten bead with a lead underbody. Tails are made of wood duck. The body of this nymph is pheasant tail with a small copper-wire ribbing. I dub a thin collar of peacock ice dubbing behind the bead.
In high water, fishing the calm sections of a stream with tandem streamers is an extremely productive technique. Both your streamers are weighted, eliminating the need for a sinking line. Remember, most of the fish are found in depths of 18 inches or less. Using a full sinking line would result in your flies getting snagged on the bottom and being presented below the fish. Trout have eyes positioned toward the top of their head, and more often than not, they take potential food items that are presented above them.
For rigging, use a level leader of 3X tied directly to the end of the fly line. The length of the leader is determined by the water depth. Make the leader length approximately three times the water depth. If the water is 18 inches deep, use approximately five feet of leader to the first streamer. Next, use a surgeon’s knot to tie a three-foot piece of 3X onto the first leader section. Then tie your first streamer to the tag created by the surgeon’s knot. My second streamer will be tied to the end of the leader, or the point position. Using a level leader helps cut down on tippet drag in the heavy surface currents, which will aid in keeping your streamers down near the streambed, even as you are stripping them toward you. This is extremely important because every time you take in line, the streamers are lifted off the bottom. When you pause, they descend again. It is not only when they reach the rod tip that they come near the surface. By using the level leader, you are keeping your offering in the zone for an extended period of time.
Streamer presentation is quite simple. Make your casts upstream and retrieve the flies at a rate that is slightly faster than the current speed that you are fishing. Make the casts short, no longer than 25 feet. If you are casting farther than 25 feet, simply change your position in the stream to make a shorter cast. In addition to stripping the streamers back to your position, try jigging the rod tip as the streamers come back to your position. This might elicit a strike from a trout that’s following your flies.
Try not to allow the streamers to swing below your position. Here we are trying to elicit a reaction from the fish. The streamers are coming toward the fish. The fish has two choices: Either eat your fly or move out of the way. This will result in more positive takes. When a streamer is swinging below your position, the trout have a tendency to nip at the tail, resulting in many short strikes. The following streamer can be deadly in high water.
This streamer is a modification of John Barr’s Slump Buster. I use root beer Estaz for the abdomen of the fly, and I like to use a fluorescent orange tungsten bead at the head. For the overwing, use a brown squirrel strip. Also wind the squirrel strip as a collar behind the bead. This fly is extremely effective as the lead fly in a two-streamer setup. If the fish does not take the first fly, the fact that this streamer makes the fish change position sets them right up to take the one trailing 30 inches behind it.
This is another modified version of the Slump Buster. For this streamer, I like to tie in a fluorescent orange tag before attaching the squirrel strip. This fluorescent tag gives the fish something to aim for when reacting to the streamer. I use Estaz for the body and I wind the squirrel behind the bead to create a thread collar.
Whether you are fishing streamers or nymphs, be sure to cover the area very thoroughly. In high water, you might have to make more casts than usual to elicit a strike. Let’s say that it usually takes you about 20 or so casts in an area to take a fish. During high and stained water, you might have to make 50 casts in order to take the fish. This is mainly due to the fact that the trout are not able to see as well. Slowing down and methodically covering the water with multiple casts in the same area will result in increased catch rates. Simply making a few casts, getting discouraged, and moving on to the next spot does not work during high water. More casts in the right water is more efficient than fishing multiple areas with fewer casts.
Aaron Jasper is a schoolteacher, fly-fishing guide, and co-founder of www.troutpredator.com. He recently released the instructional DVD European Nymph Fishing Techniques and Fly Tying.