The water on many rivers in Western Montana is rising. Given the heavy snowpack this year they will soon be at flood stage, then will settle rapidly into fishable shape again. I'll probably be on my home river, the Bitterroot when others are still saying, "Too high."
Anglers who know how to approach high water generally do well with it. They are in a minority, and they usually have long stretches all to themselves. It happened again this year during the pre-runoff period. When the river got too high to float, when rafts were pushed downstream by a midcurrent flume and there was too little time to cast to the banks, the river was all but abandoned. "Blown out," most of the local anglers said.
Until it was blown out (according to them), they did well stripping big stuff near the bottom, drifting big heavy nymphs, or before that, fishing the Mother's Day Caddis that were active midstream. When those familiar methods quit producing, all but the diehards quit. Most of the river regulars bided their time, waiting for the big stonefly hatches to get started. Most of the diehards who persisted got skunked, and a few others scored. Big-time.
Up to a point, during high water, trout will hold deep in familiar runs. While they're there, fishing aggressively and stripping big sculpins and buggers across the bottom is productive. As the water rises, though, this method all-of-a-sudden fails. The trout aren't there anymore. High water has pushed them out. And you can't go catch them anytime. As water levels rise, temperatures drop. Trout are sensitive to that.
When water is high and temps are marginal, the windows of opportunity are narrow. The window of opportunity may exist for only a couple of hours during the pleasant part of a day, on the heels of a storm, or during a light, warm rain. You have to be there when the time is right. Finding fish, and not spooking them, is equally critical.
During high water, be it pre-runoff or post-runoff or midsummer after a gullywasher of a storm, trout move around. They won't hang in a roaring torrent, even if it was a quiet pocket a few days ago. They leave. They are skittish in their unaccustomed lies.
Just because you find a trout in the same familiar lie several times during midsummer is no guarantee that he'll be there when the water is high. The flow of current around him increases and carries its own brand of chill factor. He'll move out for a while, and move back to his old lie when things are more comfortable.
Trout move around more than we think they do. They will move from the depth of a far bank to the shallower inside, or from the head of a riffle to its edges, as water levels increase. As temps drop, they'll move away from swifter holding currents, water moving at about three to four feet per second, into water moving barely a foot per second.
This business of current speed is important. It is a foreign concept to many anglers, but shouldn't be. It is critical. It is easy to measure. Put a cast on the water, point your rod tip at your fly, and begin counting: "One-thousand, two-thousand, three…" Guess at how far your fly has moved each second. I find that simply casting and guessing involves its own brand of downstream vertigo, and what looks like three FPS current is often turns out to be more like six, if I check using the point-and-count method.
High water trout will often cruise the edges in water barely deep enough to cover a dorsal fin. That's what my friend Phil Romans saw on the Bitterroot a few days ago. He had just enjoyed a lively session with several sixteen to eighteen inch cutthroats and rainbows with a small streamer, and had moved to a nondescript gravel bar near a main current. Well downstream from him, in water barely a few inches deep, he spotted five cruising fish – all in the twenty-inch range. He waded cautiously, slowly – not breaking the tree line behind him with his silhouette, and not pushing a wake – and got into position to cast.
At that moment another angler emerged from the willows on the bank below him, and asked, "Howzitgoin'?"
"I just caught a few nice ones," Phil allowed. As he spoke his heart sunk while he watched the five big fish disappear toward the edge of the fast water. "Oh? Huh. I haven't done a thing all day." "I couldn't get mad at the guy," Phil told me later, "He hadn't done anything wrong. He just didn't know what he was doing."
When fresh snowmelt hits the river, you'll find trout like that in slow moving water. Sometimes this means they'll be in side channels that are dry the rest of the year. That big long gravel bar which borders a favorite run may be under a foot of water right now. Until they get spooked, the trout from that run will be in it. That's what Phil found.
To approach them, you have to forget the roaring torrent beside you, and fish to them cautiously, as if they were in a mountain meadow stream. That's what Phil did. Stealth and caution are the orders of the day. The fish are vulnerable, not settled into their new surroundings, without their customary amount of cover, and are easily spooked. They will feed, though, until descending water temperatures from the snowmelt renders them semi-comatose.
Wade or row cautiously. Cast carefully. This is not "Yee-haw!" slap the banks with Bitch Creeks fishing. That will come later.
Bitch Creeks and other large nymphs will work, though, if swung into these quiet lies from the main currents. So will smaller nymphs, which are easier to control during the drift than larger ones. Trout will position themselves where migrating (or helplessly washed away) nymphs will be brought to them by the natural flow of the current toward shore. Spend some time studying the river. Find such a place. Fish there.
A favorite trick of mine is to use a small streamer, about size eight or ten, which looks like a baitfish. I clamp a piece of split shot a foot above it. I make a kind of casual flop of a cast into a roaring torrent, and let the small fly swing into a lie where I think there is a fish. Sometimes this might be right below a submerged willow. I get hung up a lot, and lose a lot of flies. Thank goodness small streamers are easy (and cheap) to tie.
I'll let the small fly sit and swim in the slow current for a few seconds, maybe half a minute if my nerves are up to it, adjusting the depth and position of the fly with my rod tip, raising and lowering the shot. After a while I'll lower the rod tip and move the fly. As I do I try to put myself into the position of that imaginary baitfish, and think while I retrieve "Ohh, goodness! I see a big trout! Please don't eat me, Mister Trout! I think I'll scram!" I move the fly, not quite far enough to avoid disaster, with a note of panic in my retrieve, and wait for the response. Sometimes I feel a solid chomp. Sometimes nothing, so I wait a while and try again. Sometimes I snag a willow.
Streamers give me more options than nymphs for this kind of fishing. I can keep them moving. I can try to trigger a strike response from a lethargic fish that wouldn't bother with a naturally drifted nymph. I can cover a lot of water. But I always carry a batch of dries and emergers, and look for any opportunity to use them.
During pre-runoff and post-runoff high water here in the West it's not uncommon to see localized hatches of several insects. There are gray drakes. There are March browns and smaller blue winged olives. And there are my personal favorites, caddisflies.
The so-called Mother's Day Caddis hatches were on the river in flurries, right at the appointed time this year. As caddisflies tend to hang around for a while after hatching and can appear on the water at random, they can be fished reasonably well just about anytime. And, they scoot along the water. Scooting a Caddis Variant over a trout holding in pre-runoff cold water is likely to wake him up and make him strike. When nothing else is on the water, it is usually more effective than dead drifting a small mayfly imitation.
The dry fly activity, if you hit it right, can be superb. When it isn't, there are always small streamers and nymphs. Armed with some unusual tactics and the willingness to explore a little, you can expect to do well during high water for as long as you can find water along the edges to fish.
Chuck Stranahan is a nationally published writer, and a sought-after speaker at flyfishing clubs and conservation organizations. He is a regular in the Fly Tying Theater and seminar presentations at Sportsmen's Shows throughout the West. His early mentors are among the legendary names of the sport. He is respected by his professional peers as one of the most talented fly tyers of this era -- a recognition that the angling public is now coming to share.
Chuck's fly patterns are becoming standards throughout the West, and are featured in books by Randall Kaufmann, Jack Dennis, and John Holt. Visitors at Riverbend Flyfishing, his shop in Hamilton, Montana, can find Chuck producing his impeccable and durable flies and sharing tips with visiting tyers and anglers. That is, when he's not guiding and instructing them on the Bitterroot River, or off fishing mwith his young son, Matthew.
Chuck can be reached at his web site by e-mail, or at Riverbend Flyfishing, PO Box 594, Hamilton MT 59840, or by phone at (406) 363-4197.
Click here to
view the archived articles.
to send comments or feedback on this
here to check out a river near you.