It’s spring! Or, it’s trying to be, at least. Aside from the past week, we’ve had unseasonably cool weather here in the Rockies, which has delayed the onset of spring runoff just a bit. But with rivers starting to rise and muddy a bit, I reckoned it was a great time to share some fly fishing tips for fast, high water.
Over the years, I’ve refined my approach for high water fishing here in the Rockies. I’m by no means an expert, and this is one of the few times a year that I’ll gladly spend time on stillwater (I usually avoid them, because I’m terrible at fishing them). When I need to stand in some moving water, though, these are the things I do that usually result in putting a few fish in the net.
Embrace the Mop
A few years back, my buddy Bryan Allison invited me and Chris Cutler up to Montana for a few nights of throwing mice to big trout. The water Bryan took us to fish was high, off-color, and I wondered whether we’d catch anything at all.
Then I watched Chris tie on a mop fly and catch this fish on his second cast.
I became an instant believer in the mop fly after that, and I’ve found decent success with it in similar water conditions. The mop isn’t a fly for the purists out there, but I’m starting to think fly fishing purists are a thing of the past. Most fly fishers I run into these days just want to have fun, catch a few fish, and enjoy their time on the water.
If that’s the case for you, tie up a few of these mop flies, and have them in your box for high water. I use these frequently while guiding.
Fish the Right Spots
When the water gets high, fish don’t hold in their usual spots. Finding fish in high water is an awful lot like fishing in the dead of winter. You’re looking for deep, calm pools right off big seams. These areas provide a place for fish to get out of the strong push of runoff current, but the seam brings a steady stream of food right into the calmer water.
Excuse the image quality here – I grabbed a screenshot from an old video I took – but this illustrates where to look for fish during high water.
On the left, the boat is parked at the bottom of a good run. The push of current creates a seam, and the softer water the boat is holding in is the perfect place for fish to hang out during high water.
On the right is a classic example of the water you’re looking for. The crush of current makes a strong seam on the far left side of the calmer water, and there’s still a decent foam line in the center. Drifting nymphs through that kind of water is a fantastic way to ensure you end up with a few fish.
You’re also looking for shallow water on or near the banks. If there’s any kind of hatch going on, fish will congregate in these areas to eat, and this can be some of the best dry fly fishing of the spring.
Perhaps the best of all fly fishing tips I know for high water is this one – to stay deep. Unless there’s a hatch, or you can see fish actively feeding on or below the surface, most trout like to hang out where the current doesn’t push too hard. That’s almost always the bottom of the river.
It’s a bit of a mindset shift, since the first good hatches of the year bring fish from the deep pools where they spent most of the winter, to riffles and shallow runs. That’s where most of the blue-winged olive action is, after all.
Then the water level jumps, and the fish revert back to staying low. It’s different, though, because trout are a lot more likely to come up to eat off the top in the spring than they are in the winter.
This is where the mop fly comes into play. That fly is heavy, gets down quick, and stays there. It has the added benefit of vaguely resembling multiple trout snacks. In high water, trout don’t usually have the luxury to be picky eaters.
Now, it’s important to remember that you can’t be too rigid in your application of this tip. If you’re fishing deep and not getting much interest, I’d suggest changing your depth before changing flies. More often than not, the fly isn’t the problem – it’s the presentation.
Sometimes, trout are higher in the water column than we expect. High water is generally a time of unexpected surprises, so don’t be afraid to adjust the depth of your flies. While trout will hold in deep water when runoff hits, that doesn’t mean they’re stuck on the bottom. They’ll move around more than you think.
More than anything else, you need to thoroughly work a run before leaving it for the next one. With all the movement going on during high water – the fish, their food, and your flies – the chances of getting your flies exactly where they need to be on the first few casts aren’t all that high.
Work a run bottom-to-top, side-to-side. Take the time to get a drift you’re happy with through each piece of the hole. In high water, you’re basically doing a grid search for trout. If you’re that thorough, chances are you’ll find a few fish willing to eat.
Like I said at the outset of this piece, I’m far from an expert on fishing high water. But these fly fishing tips are the ones I give to clients while guiding, or anyone who reaches out with a question. At this point, I haven’t heard too many complaints (but maybe I will after y’all read this).
Regardless of how you tackle it, fishing high water is tough, but it beats not fishing at all.
Spencer Durrant is a writer, fishing guide, and bamboo rod builder from Utah. He’s the News Editor for MidCurrent, a columnist for Hatch Magazine, and teaches middle school English so he can afford to fly fish. Connect with him on Instagram/Twitter, @Spencer_Durrant.