It;s almost time. Almost time for the cries up and down the river of, 'there's too much water...you can't fish that'. Snow melts, heavy rain, run-off, and Steelhead, yes it's time for big water.
The Salmon River has an extremely large watershed and a reservoir with limited holding capacity. With the Tug Hill region receiving an annual average snowfall of 180 inches, yearly spring runoff is predictably massive. With flash conditions possible at any time and high water the rule for most of the spring steelhead season, it would be advantageous to learn to fish these big waters. Take this one step further and the opportunity to return to more traditional fly fishing methods presents itself.
While some anglers are intimidated by even 1 unit of water(750cfs), I feel that 750cfs to 1000cfs is the ideal level for fishing the Salmon River. At this level most of the river is accessible. Wading is reasonable enough so that anglers can spread out without shutting the fishing down or crowding each other. Too many times in lower water conditions (less than 1 unit) I've had the experience of standing above a pool with numerous anglers fishing to Steelhead that repeatedly dodge their lines. The fish shut down and lining and foul hooking increases. The pool needs resting and the fisherman needs to move.
With flows of more than 750 cfs, Steelhead find cover in different areas and the growing number of anglers have more water to spread out in. One bonus of higher water is that the more comfortable the Steelhead are, the more an angler's success rate climbs.
Fortunately at the 1 unit level holding areas remain well defined, easy to read. The general tried and true rules apply. Steelhead, trying to avoid fighting heavy currents, will choose the path of least resistance. That means obstacles that deflect the main current. Look for the slack water, seams and edges. Steelhead are around and comfortable under cover.
Now lets add more cold runoff from Tug Hill snows and look at all that water! Unfishable? No, actually the challenge of finding Steelhead just changed a little. With cold, high water (noticeably over 1 unit and water temperature in the low to mid thirties) much of the additional surface area can be eliminated. You are still looking for the classic steelhead lies, but they have moved even further away from the main current. Higher water levels provide holding water where there wasn't any before and frequently the fish will literally be right under your feet. It's embarrassing to say how many times I've approached a favorite hole and jumped out of my waders as a couple of Steelhead scooted out from under me. Number one rule in high water: stay out of it or you will be fishing beyond the target. Always fish the edges instead of walking them.
So, you've eliminated most of the heavy current, the Steelhead have cover and are comfortable. To this angler this is a perfect opportunity to empty a few pounds of split shot out of my vest and enjoy more traditional fly fishing techniques. Whether its floating tapers or sink tip sections the important point is to break out of the usual bottom bouncing deep nymph fishing techniques. Fighting heavy currents and trying to find the bottom can really take the fun out of a day on the river. Its no wonder the frustration factor rises with high water.
Take a step back to those classic steelheading rules, remember presentation. Your fly is entering the steelhead's world and if its not drifting naturally with the current they know it. The most successful anglers I know of on any river including the Salmon swear by drifting a suspended fly rather than bouncing bottom. Tons of weight and micro thin marathon length leaders make it impossible to have any control over your presentation. I much prefer to shorten up, lighten up, and work at presentation. Slowing down my fly becomes much more important. Yes, you still want to get your fly down, but lets be a little more creative. Try traditional attracter patterns with care given to the materials. Tightly woven bodies, bead heads, heavier hooks, and added weight can readily improve your sink rate.
So too can mending the line. By keeping the fly well below your fly line not only will your fly stay down, but the drift will appear more natural. I have also been known to add a BB size split shot or two, so much for my purist reputation. The important thing is not to work against the natural current with too much weight, especially in pocket water.
Ah, pocket water! As the spring steelhead season continues, cold high water gives way to warmer high water (near 40 degrees). The same rules apply but with the added bonus that Steelhead are on the move and more aggressive. Additional holding areas become evident as the Steelhead become more active and tolerant of the current. Pocket water and riffles become very fishable areas as migrating steelhead move up and down the river. Remember they don't necessarily know that there is a deep pool above the foot of water that they are stopped to rest in. Take advantage of these 'thinner areas' that lend themselves so well to setups of floating lines and shorter leaders. While presentation remains important, there is the added confidence that Steelhead will move to take a fly under these warmer conditions.
While working on presentation and experimenting with traditional fly fishing methods, a wonderful thing is happening. That 'high water' is becoming less intimidating, fishing is becoming more enjoyable, and you are able to take advantage of more fishing days.
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