April 08, 2022
By Landon Mayer
There is nothing more exciting than the anticipation of spring. While many think of high and dirty water as the last obstacle to hurdle before the “real” fishing season begins, high water is actually smack dab in the middle of the “prime” fishing season. It’s widely known that the best hatches are often right before and immediately after spring runoff. And despite your best efforts, sometimes your timing or the weather is off, and you find yourself looking at stained, turbid water.
You’ve heard of the old saying “if life gives you lemons, make lemonade”? In fishing terms, if Mother Nature gives you brown water, think of it as a Caramel Macchiato. Sometimes you’ll end up seeing some of the best fishing of the year between those flooded banks.
I will never forget a trip I took to the Green River in pursuit of its famous cicada hatch. While we expected our timing to be spot on, the flows that spring were more than 4,000 cubic feet per second (cfs).
We thought we might never see a rising trout, but with the swollen eddies churning and the edges filled to the brim, it was nonstop topwater action with what seemed like every trout in the river investigating, bumping, and finally taking our cicadas.
While runoff is often referred to as a seasonal event, runoff in 2011 seemed to last all summer. In Colorado, many fisheries had high flows until late August. This forced fly fishers to target new areas, and think beyond conventional methods to catch fish.
The spring of 2012 had lower total flows through much of the Rockies, but high flows come from much more than just snowpack. Heavy rain in the East and Midwest can also cause similar spring freshets, and even in drought conditions, you can have high water on some Western tailwaters as reservoir operators move water downstream to meet increased demands.
My point is, we all see high, dirty water at some point, and with the spring season looming once again, it will pay dividends to know the locations, rigging, techniques, and the best flies for heavy water flows.
Read the Water During Runoff
Reading water becomes one of the most important ways to locate trout during high water. Unlike low water settings, when trout you can actually see are forced to concentrate in deep water or around structure, trout in higher flows have the freedom to disperse and hold in areas that supply any break from the current. I call these locations soft-water breaks; anywhere you can see a physical slowing of the flow.
During runoff trout need three key elements to survive: cover, oxygen, and food. They also need those elements in that particular order. If a fish does not have cover or safety it becomes stressed, and will often stop feeding for fear of being detected by a predator.
Runoff is one of the only seasons during the year when you know the fish are unstressed because of the constant supply of cover in the form of stained water. Keeping this in mind, there are four locations where you are sure to find productive fishing on any water you hunt during runoff.
Edges. The first and most commonly overlooked area is the river’s edges. While the heaviest flow of water pours through the main channel, the banks are flooded with slow-moving, stained water where trout can feed without stress.
Your first instinct might be to rig with heavy weight or weighted flies to get down to the trout, but when the river is off color, fish often feed—without being detected—in water as shallow as 18 inches.
With fish hugging the bank, you should avoid wading. In fact, during high flows I start with a no-wade policy until I have thoroughly covered a particular section of riverbank. I approach from downstream and cast upstream because it gives you more accuracy with each cast, and provides a better set when the fish takes the fly.
The most frustrating part of fishing in this shallow environment is the snags and hang-ups that are inherent to heavily weighted nymph or streamer rigs.
To avoid this, use a dry-dropper rig, or lightly weighted streamers. These allow you to reach fish in shallow water while at the same time controlling your depth, whether by wading or fishing to the edge from a boat.
Obstructions. Behind structure is still an ideal location for trout to hold because they have great cover and feeding seams where the water breaks around a rock or log in the river. While it is easy to see in low water, a rock, logjam, or sod clump can completely disappear under high and dirty water. All that is left is often a telltale current break or seam. This is where the trout feed and find shelter from the current at the same time.
Devan Ence—a seasoned guide and co-owner of Potamoi Anglers in Colorado—gives his insight on the flood scenarios that he experiences on both the Conejos and Gunnison rivers:
“Runoff is by far one of my favorite times of year to be on the water. When people think of locating fish in muddy water they think to look mainly along the edges. That can be one successful way to find a few fish but not always the best,” says Ence.
“I like to break the river down systematically, concentrating my efforts on structured turbulent water where the fish are feeding furiously. “There have been times I have seen fish so stuffed with earthworms that they cough them up while you are removing the fly.”
One of the biggest challenges of productively fishing structure is that you have to get close to the softer water to effectively get a drift. To increase your reach, use a 10-foot rod and wade as close as possible to your target. In these water conditions, the fish are less spooky, and less likely to see you, so you can approach them closely. The “target” becomes the suitable water where the fish holds near the structure, not the trout itself.
Eddies. Big or small, an eddy is like a lazy Susan to trout. Eddies are larger and more abundant in high water, and trout use them more frequently because they offer shelter from the surging current in the main channel.
Often, these constantly circulating eddies trap drifting food items, making it a food-rich environment for trout. It is also common for these areas to fill up with foam and bubbles, which provide overhead cover, and give trout the confidence they need to feed heavily. These foam rafts are often home to some of the largest trout in the river.
Eddies move in counterclockwise or clockwise directions, splitting from the main current at the bottom of the eddy and eventually rejoining it at the top. Trout can hold in any location, and as the water moves in 360 degrees, trout often feed facing opposite to the direction of the main current.
When you deliver your flies in a back eddy, use a high rod position to prevent the multiple currents from dragging your flies unnaturally. Using a strike indicator or large dry fly as a suspension tool will help you navigate your fly into position amid the often confusing currents.
Side channels. Some of my favorite high-flow areas are side channels. Sometimes bone dry at low flows, side channels become small creeks in high water, and provide a more comfortable current for the trout.
Similar to fishing along the edges, these side channels hold enough water for the trout to feed, but they also likely have relatively shallow water, making a dry-dropper rig ideal.
Before you begin fishing a side channel, take the time to look for the trout. It’s common to have less suspended sediment in a side channel—and combined with shallower water you may even be able to spot the trout.
Treat side channels as small rivers in themselves, and in high water they are easier to read than the main channel. “Normal” holding areas like the head of a pool, tail of a pool, or a gravel bar might be drowned in the main channel, but become prime holding areas in a side channel during a high-water event.
Rigging for Runoff
I always approach rigging with depth control in mind. Under “normal” flows trout are more likely to be spread out at various water depths from top to bottom. In high flows, trout seek shelter from the calorie-consuming current by searching out slower water (see side channels, eddies, and obstructions above). The river bottom is not normally thought of as an “obstruction,” but in fact it does slow the water down considerably, and the water near the bottom is often barely moving compared to the water rushing above. So in high water it’s more important than ever to have your fly near the bottom where it’s easily available to the trout.
Also, dirty water makes it difficult for trout to see objects at a distance and then move to grab them. In these conditions, getting your fly close to the fish is much more important than how many tails you have on your nymph.
Another benefit you get from fishing high and dirty water is that you can get away with heavier tippet sizes without your rig being detected by the trout. Instead of 5X or 6X tippet, you can often use 3X or 4X. And forget about expensive fluorocarbon. You don’t need the light-refractive qualities of fluorocarbon when you are fishing dirty water.
Ence breaks down his high-water rig for the Gunnison: “I start with a 9' 4X tapered leader, I then attach my lead fly, which is usually a Tungsten Salvation Nymph. I tie another piece of 4X tippet (14"-16") into the eye of the top fly to add my bottom fly, which is normally a Tungsten G-String Worm. With a Thingamabobber about 4' up from the lead fly, I only have to add split-shot before I start fishing. Split-shot is key to success, so don’t be afraid to get down and dirty. Bouncing the bottom is very important.”
Of course, this is just a starting point that has worked for Ence in the past, and he changes the depth of the indicator and his fly selection as water conditions and hatches dictate.
I often choose my flies based on how long the flows have been up. For example, if water levels have recently increased or a heavy rainstorm has just occurred, I prefer imitations that resemble worms, crane fly larvae, and other foods that seep into the river from the moist banks. If the levels have been up for a while I use crustaceans, nymphs, and leeches that are often scoured from the river bottom or vegetation.
Also, think in contrasting colors with flash, not in natural colors that can get lost in brown water. Pink, chartreuse, and black are some examples of colors that stand out in dirty water.
Chartreuse almost “glows” in off-color water, and black offers the strongest silhouette against a bright sky.
High water also means fast water, and as mentioned above, even though the water on top is rushing at a furious pace, trout take refuge in water near the bottom that is often barely moving.
Because of this dynamic change in flow, fishing with an indicator can be problematic, as the indicator can literally tow the flies downstream faster that the trout are accustomed to, and in some cases the effect of the indicator can be to pull the flies downstream at an unnatural pace.
When the water is high, it often pays to get rid of the indicator altogether and use an anchor rig—also called Czech nymphing—keeping the line tight from the rod tip to the fly using a specially designed leader.
A typical Czech nymphing rig is 10 to 14 feet long (total) and starts with a 7.5-foot 2X tapered leader. Add 2 feet of 2X Umpqua Bi-Color Indicator Tippet, or some other high-vis nylon like Gold Stren. When attaching different sections to build the leader, I prefer a triple surgeon’s knot; others use the Orvis knot.
Add a 2-foot section of 3X connector tippet, followed by 3 to 6 feet of 4X or 5X tippet. This long, thin diameter tippet is critical, not because trout might observe larger diameter fishing line, but because larger-diameters have more surface area, and are more affected by the surging current than the thin stuff. These fine diameters cut through the flow like a razor and help you get the fly deep and move it slowly at the speed of the bottom current.
I use a smaller, lighter fly on top, and then add a much heavier anchor fly to the bottom by tying monofilament to the eye or the bend of the upper hook.
Good anchor flies should be heavily weighted with tungsten beads or wire underbodies. Dense flies like the Iron Lotus, Poison Tung, Bottom Roller, or a Tungsten Rubberleg Copper John are all good. The trick is to have your bottom fly heavily weighted so you can keep your line tight between the rod tip and the anchor fly, and feel each bump as the heavy fly moves along the bottom.
Use the smaller upper fly to match local and timely hatches. I use Mayer’s Mysis (#16-18) in the top position when I’m fishing Colorado’s Taylor or Fryingpan rivers. To get deep, you want the weighted anchor fly to be the first object to enter the water. The oldest trick in the book is to use George Harvey’s tuck cast—a technique he used successfully 50 years ago before tungsten beads or Czech nymphing was even a “thing.”
In a normal cast the goal is to dissipate energy evenly as the cast unrolls so that the leader turns over completely and lands nearly straight on the water. If you underpower your cast or slowly come to a stop at the end of the stroke, your leader often won’t turn over and your fly will land closer to the end of your fly line.
The tuck cast is the exact opposite: Make your casting stroke directly overhead and both overpower the cast and come to an abrupt stop. Your leader should straighten and then the extra force will cause the tippet and fly to “tuck” under the fly line and dive to the surface of the water. Harvey’s premise was that your fly will get deeper if it lands quickly, and with more force than a regular soft touchdown. As an advanced technique, you can even make a little “haul” at the end of the cast with your line hand to accentuate the tucking action.
Nymphing isn’t the only way to catch fish during high flows; it’s also the best time to catch trout with streamers and other swimming flies. With so much debris and other inanimate objects in the water, it’s important to make your flies move and wiggle to give them the appearance of life. Swimming prey species such as leeches and crayfish are often washed into the food line by high water, and these are two of my favorite flies for what I call a wiggle rig.
Using the steelheader’s “wet fly swing,” cast your line and flies across stream, allowing your flies to swing on an arc across the current. During the first half of the swing you are often biding your time as the flies descend toward the river bottom. It is the second half of the swing where the line and flies are near the river bottom, and your flies are swimming back toward the shallow edges, where you’ll get most of your strikes.
If you don’t get a strike, take a step downstream and make another cast. This is an effective way to fan a long deep run and ensure that as many fish as possible see your flies. For narrow, small rivers, you can still use this technique—just cast shorter and at a shallower angle to work the deeper troughs and their edges.
I use a full-sinking line or a 200-grain sinking-tip line for this, and a short leader of 2 to 4 feet of 0X tippet. The short leader keeps your flies close to the line, and close to the bottom.
Use a nonslip mono loop to tie on your wiggle fly. The loose loop gives your fly the maximum possible movement. Some of my favorite patterns are a rust/olive Meat Whistle, olive/black/rust Pine Squirrel Leech, or Lawson’s Cone Head Wool Sculpin (#6-8).
While you may not get match-the-hatch dry-fly fishing during high water, you can still catch fish on top using a dry-dropper rig. Sometimes when high water forces trout up along the edges of the river, and dirty water makes the fish comfortable in calf-deep water, a dry-dropper rig makes perfect sense.
Use a larger dry than normal to ensure it stays afloat in the heavy flows. Big flies like Salmonflies, Golden Stones, and Green Drakes often hatch during or near runoff, so your larger dry fly won’t seem out of place. Some of my favorites for this season are Charlie Boy Hoppers, Fat Alberts, and Amy’s Ants from size 6 to 10.
Big drys require a heavier (2X), shorter (7.5') leader to turn the flies over easier and give you more accuracy while targeting the soft pockets along the river’s edge. Remember, this isn’t “far and fine” fishing on the Henry’s Fork. When you are concentrating on a current break along the river’s edge in bank-full conditions, you may only get a two-foot drift before you need to pick up and make another short, accurate presentation.
When I attach my nymph dropper, I tie the monofilament to the bend of the top hook because it helps the dry fly land upright, and prevents some of the tangles that are common when you attach the tippet to the eye of the hook.
Three of my favorite droppers in the South Platte drainage are red or chartreuse Copper Johns, black Pat’s Rubber Legs, and pink or red Chamois Worms, all sizes 10 to 16. But there is no “wrong” dropper fly in this kind of water—nymphs, streamers, eggs, and worms are all good in dirty water. Just make sure the flies are independently weighted so you don’t have to use split-shot, which can complicate things, and ruin the simplicity of a dry-dropper rig.
I view the high water of spring as an opportunity, not a disadvantage. The trout are unpressured, comfortable, and often feeding aggressively. Go get ’em!
Ence’s Tungsten G-String Worm Fly Recipe
Hook: #12 Daiichi 1120.
Bead: 3.3 mm gold tungsten.
Thread: Brown and pink UTC 140 denier.
Body: Brown and red pearl Core Braid
Landon Mayer (landonmayer.com) is a Colorado trout guide and the author of three books, including Colorado’s Best Fly Fishing (Stackpole Books & Headwater Books, 2011).