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Fly Fishing High Water

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5 mins read
angler netting a trout and standing in a river
By Spencer Durrant

Spring took its time to get going here in my corner of the Rockies, but it has finally arrived. Of course, that means I’m stuck fly fishing high water if I venture to any of my local streams and creeks (this is a great time of year to explore urban fisheries if your rivers are too high to safely fish).

If you’re in the same boat, don’t worry. Fly fishing high water isn’t the insurmountable challenge many think it is. With the right tactics and some heavy flies, you can easily get into trout from water most folks would call unfishable.

Fly Fishing High Water

The key to successfully catching fish in high water is to focus even more on the water where trout are most likely to hold. Pools, eddies, seams, and slack water are where trout will congregate when the water rises. They do this because they can hold in these spots without expending a ton of energy, and still have easy access to ample food.

Focus On the Right Water

I fished one of my favorite local streams a few weeks ago. The water wasn’t that high, but it was off-color. The normally gin-clear river was cloudy with runoff.

Instead of drifting my rig through riffles – where the trout had been hanging out to snack on caddis and mayflies just a week earlier – I focused on the slack water on either side of the seam. The fish were stacked there, and I caught a half-dozen from one spot. Moving up the river, I found a few deep pools that were similarly loaded with trout. While these types of water hold fish year-round, they’re particularly when the water starts getting high.

So – focus on the water that’s calm. Trout will hang out there, waiting for easy food. And yes, they’ll still eat even when the water is high and off-color. Trout have better eyesight than we give them credit for sometimes.

Get Down

A river’s current is less swift at the bottom than it is at the surface. During high water especially, you’ll find more trout holding close to the river bottom. Your flies need to get down, too, so I recommend fishing nymphs with bead heads.

I also recommend sizing up on your nymphs. High water dislodges a lot of bugs, most of them large. Worms and stonefly nymphs are such effective patterns year-round because they’re high-protein targets for fish. During high water, rivers are literally flooded with big bugs like these.

So, between using flies with bead heads and using sizes that are larger than what you’d normally fish, you shouldn’t have a hard time getting down to where the fish are holding.

Stay in Touch

When fly fishing high water, you’ll probably be drifting nymphs deeper than you normally do. As such, it’s important that you stay in touch with your flies as they bounce along the river bottom. Whether you Euro nymph, or just use a long leader with nymphs dropping from a dry fly or other indicator, you need to feel what your flies are doing. Just this year, I’ve been surprised at how many soft, subtle takes I’ve had while fishing through the high water here in the Rockies.

Keep as much line off the water as possible while drifting through a pool. Not only does that increase what you’re able to feel, but it also extends your drift since the fast surface currents can’t pull your rig downriver. This means a lot of high-sticking and dead-drifting if you want to really be successful during high water.

Wrapping Up

When the water gets high, don’t go home and quit fishing. As long as you can safely reach the slower pockets of water, rivers are still very fishable this time of year. Focus on getting down and feeling what your flies are doing, and you’ll probably surprise yourself at how many trout you’re able to put into the net.

Do you have any questions about fishing high water? Let us know in the comments below.

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