Written by: James Nash
Most anglers look at angry fast off-colored water and decide to wait until conditions improve to resume fishing. It doesn’t have to be that way.
When the Earth rotates on its axis and reaches the point of orbit around the sun where days are longer than nights and temperatures climb steadily, the winter snow begins to soften then melt, and streams throughout the West which have run cold and clear all winter long begin to swell.
Many western trout streams have runoff that last for up to two months. Why not figure out how to continue fishing and catch fish during this time of year when the weather can be so perfect?
Where to find trout in high water
Trout have a few basic needs that will help you understand where to find them during high water. The first is oxygen. Rivers tend to have a high-level of dissolved oxygen when the water is cold and moving fast, but that oxygen level changes whether you are in a pool, riffle, run or glide. It is worth noting that a fish’s gills can only diffuse oxygen in one direction - they have to face upstream, dragging a fish tail first into the current will drown them.
Next, they need security. They need to find places in the river where they can avoid detection from predators that live in the air, like osprey, raccoons and people. They also need to be able to hide or escape from river otters and other predators beneath the surface. The depth a fish will occupy has a lot to do with how far light can penetrate the water column. The muddier the water, the shallower a fish can comfortably exist. Rainbow trout spawn in late winter/early spring and are using this time to recover calories. Some of the largest aquatic macroinvertebrates (bugs) hatch at this time of year and often, the largest fish of the season are caught while throwing these big flies.
Oxygen, security, food. If you needed all three of those things, where would you be in the river? That is how you find high water fish. The good news is increased velocity in the river reduces the amount of good habitat for fish, concentrating them into identifiable sections. Look for slow moving water along river banks and on the edges of pools where they can dart in and out of the current to grab food passing by. Don’t be afraid to go big on your bugs, high water fish have less time to look and decide and can get reckless if they see a #2 Salmon fly nymph rolling past them.
This is also a great time of year to start ugly hucking the big streamers that are part bunny and part disco chicken. Sculpin, dace and other baitfish can get disoriented in high flows and become vulnerable to larger trout. A fish wants the most calories it can get for the effort required, so think of a pattern like the Sculpzilla as the equivalent of a drive through cheeseburger (a quick and easy way to gain weight).
If fish are crashing stoneflies on the surface, then throw dry flies, but if you are there to catch fish, concentrate on nymphs and streamers. Yes, dry-fly fisherman have a special place in heaven, but they have fewer fish to keep them company. Fish live beneath the water and that is where they do most of their eating. Don’t be afraid to add a sinking tip to a floating fly line to get a streamer down to where a big trout wants to be. Keep in mind that the slowest portion of the water column, and the easiest place for a fish to hang out, is going to be in the bottom third, where turbulence from the substrate causes a velocity reduction. When fishing nymphs, focus on heavier bugs that can get down quickly, or use split shot. My preference, by far, is to use light nymphs which are affected naturally by the nuances of current, and lead split shot to get them down to that lower third of the water column.
If fishing from the boat, cast within a foot of the bank. Fish there get the benefit of slower currents from the shore as well as the river bottom, and can target mice and bugs falling from the limbs and grasses along the river bank.
Stonefly nymphs cannot swim. They have an extra claw at the end of each of their six legs to help them cling to rocks. When it is time for them to emerge from their exoskeleton to make the transition from nymph to adult, they must crawl to the edge of the river to do so, and fish are waiting for them there.
Wear the right gear. Chances are you didn’t get that much sun over the winter, and a good long sleeve shirt will keep you from getting a gnarly sunburn. I love the zephyr hoodie. It is comfortable to row a boat in and if it gets wet it dries quickly. Fish are used to looking up for food and threats, so having a camouflage that blends the surface of the water with the sky has its benefits, especially if you are bank fishing and need to sneak up on big trout laying near the river’s edge. One of the best anglers I’ve ever fished with regularly wears a ghillie suit to approach fish. People who catch fewer and smaller fish like to tease him about that.
The bottom line is that you don’t have to hang up your fly rod until the 4th of July when the rivers drop out and get clear again. You’ll have missed some of the most fantastic hatches and biggest fish of the year if you do. Strap on your spiked wading boots and grab your big bug box and head for the river to fish the flood. Something cool might happen.