The access points are already busy at 7 a.m. as guides and their clients prepare to fish in time for the morning hatch. Small Sulphurs and midges, fished on long leaders and light tippets, have been producing dependable catches of 12- to 16-inch trout (some larger) for weeks, and the word is out. From my longtime fishing friend’s deck, which happens to overlook a popular access on the South Holston River near Bristol, Tennessee, we spend a few minutes watching the scene, then go back inside to tie more 6- to 10-inch articulated streamers made from craft fur. We are not in a rush. The Tennessee Valley Authority calls for releases starting at 9 A.M. and this river is an all-or-nothing release.
That means we have plenty of time for the push, and timing is everything.
While most fly fishers set their watches to the hatch, another cadre of big-fish hunters keeps close tabs on releases and flows to give them the opportunity to catch a unicorn.
As the water rises out of the dam, the dinner bell rings for the river’s giants. The largest browns and rainbows, wary in low water, go on the hunt under the safety and cover of high water, providing one of the best opportunities to catch the kind of trout fly fishers hear about, but seldom actually see.
And while daily conditions may change, the best part of it all is that these high-water events happen on a regular basis not just on the South Holston, but on any tailwater across the country where water releases are tied to hydroelectric demand.
The tactics and knowledge required to successfully fish these high flows (or, as they do on the White, stay on the leading edge of the push of water) are specialized and diverse. However, several types of retrieves, fly patterns, and tactics remain constant for big water no matter where you choose to chase these fish. Many of these ideas can be applied to other rivers that might not be tailwaters, but still have large trout that wait for high water to hunt.
Finding the Fish
The key characteristic you are looking for are areas the fish can hide and hunt without spending too much energy. These places change as higher flows bring swifter currents that push many of the fish into their feeding haunts. The most common places to start looking are near the banks.
Not all banks are created equal, and can change dramatically throughout a float or from river to river. I tend to look for banks that have depressions and depth to them. Also, many tailwaters have flooded grass that holds lots of food and has depressions for these fish to lie in wait for a meal. Other sections of river that are deeper and wider have less current speed because of the extra depth, versus a shallower narrower section that has more speed due to the constriction of the flow.
Getting flies close to the bank and fishing them back to the boat usually covers the spectrum of retrieve tactics. The hard strip and long pause technique allows you to fish tight to cover and along the contours of the river bottom, as well as keep the rod tip deep in the water as the fly approaches the boat. The pause accentuates the design of flies like the D&D fly from Tommy Lynch and other deer-hair head flies such as Chad Johnson’s Sluggo.
Alex Lafkas, a well-known guide in Michigan and on the White River in Arkansas, agrees, saying “Keeping the boat farther off the banks and making longer casts all the way to the bank allows you to cover the bank structure and the deeper water coming off the bank such as drop-offs, ledges, and seams.”
Other places to find these fish are deep between ledges, pillow water in front of or behind boulders in shoals, or in front of or behind islands (at the tailouts or beginning of pools, respectively). Then you have the logjams and other debris that naturally attract baitfish and smaller trout. Backwaters and current eddies are good, as well as deeper sections of river, distinct breaks like grass beds, and along drop-offs or undercuts, which are also prime water. All of these places are classic big-fish haunts because they supply food, shelter, and ambush points.
Though retrieves can and do vary depending on water color, flow, temperature, weather, and overall disposition of the trout, I’ve found a couple of techniques to be consistently successful during high water. The first and most often overlooked is the two-hand retrieve, which is fairly standard for saltwater fly fishers. The ability to retrieve line hand-over-hand in a constant motion gives the proper illusion of a frantic prey item fleeing the area, and it is well documented that running from a predator is never a good idea.
Second—and this is especially the case on bright days, slower areas of the river, and clear water—the longer a fish has to look at your fly, the less chance you have to fool it into eating.
It is much harder to catch trout in slower-moving sections of water than it is in the faster riffles. Why? Because in faster water, the food (or fly imitating the food) is moving much faster, causing the fish to respond quicker and more instinctively. They simply must make a faster decision on whether to eat the fly or let it go.
Your ability to “change gears” in the retrieve is also important. Sometimes it is a matter of reading the individual fish. For example, if you are retrieving your fly at a semi-fast speed, and a fish follows the fly but doesn’t eat, it’s a good idea to speed up to a third, fourth, or even fifth gear based on how the fish reacts to each increase. Think about how cats react to a laser pointer—the more you take it away, the more they want it. The last thing you want to do is start with a fast retrieve and then not have another gear to shift to as the fish tracks your fly.
Something I like to tell my clients is to “Keep thinking you are the fly or prey, and keep trying to make yourself look like you should be eaten.” Once you get the fly in the water, stay focused and swim the fly, don’t just strip it back in. Really concentrate on what you are trying to accomplish.
Depending on the fly pattern, a speed-up-to-a-stop can work well to trigger larger predators that often pick out the wounded, sick, young, old, or most vulnerable prey. The best flies for this have larger heads that jackknife such as T-Bones, Game Changers, Sluggos, and Lap Dancers.
The retrieves can vary from a couple of hard strips and a pause, or strip, pause, strip, pause. I suggest changing the cadence to best find out what the fish want before contemplating a fly change.
These techniques also can change depending on the type of water and the fly you are fishing at the time. Really fast pocketwater sometimes only gives you a chance to hit the spot and let it sink into the zone with a couple strips before the fly is out of the fish’s field of awareness. Other times you may be in slower ledge water or water with overhead cover such as logs and it may work better to let the fly land upstream of the log or ledge, and slowly strip and pause the fly parallel to the structure.
It is often critical to get your flies to sink quicker and swim deeper all the way back to the boat. In fast water, make a cast and immediately mend the line as it lands. Next, I shove the rod tip deep in the water to help pull the sinking line down. This not only helps get the fly deeper quicker but also keeps the fly swimming deeper as you bring it back to the boat. This is especially important on bright days, and something I am constantly coaching when my clients are fishing for muskies or big browns.
Last, don’t give up on your retrieve. In a lot of instances I swim the fly all the way to the boat and watch the fish eat the fly right at my rod tip.
When you see a trout following the fly, be ready to finish with the figure 8 technique so widely used in musky fishing. Some fish need more coaxing to get them to eat because they are not quite sure if they want the fly, or they didn’t see the fly until it was already near the boat.
To perform a figure 8 properly, you need to keep the fly constantly accelerating as long as possible. Retrieve the fly to within 2 feet of the rod tip, keeping the tip 3 to 5 feet deep in the water. As the fly gets to within 2 feet of your rod tip, make an L-shaped sweeping motion downstream, then continue into a wide oval or figure 8 motion with the rod tip, accelerating through the turns like a race car driver. When you get that visual boatside strike, you’ll be grateful you added the figure 8 to your arsenal.
Over the years, streamers for trout have grown in size. It is not uncommon for me to use trout flies in the 5- to 10-inch range. Though there are exceptions, big fish like a big meal, and a lot of times a steak can be a lot more appealing than a potato chip. However, matching the hatch, water conditions, and weather can and will trump size alone.
For big-water streamer fanatics, 7-, 8-, or even 9-weight rods are part of the game and help you consistently deliver the flies to the target with the least amount of effort and stress. When properly equipped, casting large flies and sinking lines all day is possible. If you are working too hard, then it is time to look at a heavier line weight to make the job easier.
The nuances of fly line selection are often overlooked, but it’s just as important as your rod choice. When choosing a line for streamer fishing, think about how long a cast you’ll need. How quickly does the fly and line need to sink after it lands in the water? Will you be fishing fast and deep water or just fast and shallow water? Are the flies somewhat buoyant? Are you going to be fishing large flies in cold conditions?
When choosing a line, I look for running lines that do not coil and tangle, and sinking heads that deliver large flies to the target with as little effort as possible. The line you choose should be specific to the depth, flow, and fly type. Lines like Scientific Anglers Sonar Titan triple-density line work well because they keep you in direct contact with the fly throughout the cast and the retrieve. It has a fast-sinking head, medium sink in the center, and intermediate sinking running line to keep you from getting line sag and to keep the fly down in the zone longer.
One of the best things you can do if you are new to this game is to spend some practice time casting sinking lines.
Chris Scalley, owner and head guide of Rivers Through Atlanta says, “Learn how to cast sinking lines effectively, and learn to water haul to help deliver the fly to the target.”
With large flies and sinking lines, you want to reduce false casting as much as possible, and the water haul is a lifesaver not just for your casting arm, but also your boat mates.
If you want to get a fly down deep and quick, use a short leader 3 to 4 feet long. This pulls the fly down with the line as it lands and swims.
On the other side of the coin, sometimes longer leaders are best for more buoyant flies, allowing them to dive and rise or dive and hang in the water.
With a 7-foot leader you can let the line sink freely without actively pulling the fly down with it. This works well when you are fishing farther off the bank, or focusing on structure out in the river.
Tippet size should be much heavier in high flows, ranging from 12-pound-test to 20-pound-test depending on flows and water clarity. Fluorocarbon is a smart choice for abrasion resistance and extra sink rate.
Perhaps the most important aspect of hunting big trout in big water is the mental game. You simply do not have the luxury of keeping yourself entertained with 12-inch trout. To catch big trout, you must stay focused on the prize. Steve Dally, from Ozark Fly Fishers in Cotter, Arkansas, says it best: “Mentally prepare yourself to stay in the game and know that every cast, every strip, can bring the fish of a lifetime. One of the great things about high-water brown trout fishing is seeing that predator attack the fly. There are few things more rewarding in angling than seeing a predator attack. It is National Geographic kind of stuff, mate.”
Blane Chocklett guides for trout, smallmouth, muskies, and stripers year-round. He is a signature fly designer for Umpqua Feather Merchants, ambassador for Temple Fork Outfitters, and consultant for Flymen Fishing Company. He lives in Troutville, Virginia.