Spring run-off in the west and heavy rain storms in the east cause rivers to rise quickly and often without warning, raising the cubic-feet-per-second by many times, on occasion resulting in water levels reaching that particular river’s flood stage, which is when a river is commonly considered “blown-out.” While many anglers consider fishing high water to be hopeless, in actuality this situation can grant you the opportunity to catch fish you might never have a crack at otherwise. Before reading the following tips, however, remember that fishing high water presents safety risks. Therefore, it’s a good idea to fish with a friend and to not only know your limits as a wader, but to understand how the high water will affect the river’s “wadeability.” For example, if you usually wade a certain spot up to your thighs in normal cfs (cubic feet per second) flows, don’t attempt to wade it in high flows, as the current there will likely be too forceful to safely stand in and cast from. The three tips below will help you turn the tables to your advantage during high water flows.
- Up the diameter of your leader and tippet. When the water is high and off-colored, there is no need to fish 5x or 6x fluorocarbon in most rivers. A general rule of thumb is to downsize by at least 2x. So if you usually fish 6x, try up-sizing to 4x, or even 2x fluorocarbon if the river is dingy (some anglers I know use 12 pound test and higher, which you can often get away with). When the water isn’t clear, the trout can’t see your line well, so you should take advantage and use a heavier pound test, which will help you fight a fish out of a blown out river’s stronger than normal currents.
- Target the banks and secondary currents. When the water is up, the main current is often too strong for the trout to lie in. As a result, they tend to push toward the banks, where the flow isn’t as strong and the water isn’t as deep. Here, they can comfortably face upstream or circulate through the current and pick off food items. Trout often seek refuge in eddies as well, which is another spot to try. In large rivers, try targeting back channels or river braids when the water is up. You’ll be amazed at how many fish will stack in what looks to be just a small riffle along the flooded bank. If the eddy is suitable, you may even see trout facing downstream in the current, waiting for the eddy current to wash food up to them from below. If this is the case, you want to get a high-stick drift in the current, so your flies will be sucked down by the eddy and circulated back upstream.
- Give them the Good Stuff. When the water rises, the proverbial trout buffet opens for business. All kinds of goodies are washed into the water for the trout to eat, not to mention the various hatches that a rise in water will sometimes set off. High water is a classic time to fish a big, nasty-looking streamer (such as a double bunny or sculpzilla), but it is also time to fish heavily weighted nymphs (such as stoneflies and prince nymphs), as well as San Juan worms in a wide array of colors—just think of all the worms and grubs the high water dislodges from the banks and river bottom. For nymphing, be sure to put on a lot of split shot (so much that your cast may look kind of clumsy even) and move your indicator high up on your leader to adjust for the high water. Then try to find an eddy or a smaller offshoot of the main current and fish away. When you see that indicator twitch, give a firm hook-set to the downstream side, then hold tight…big trout are notorious for eating when the water is high and off-color.