When rivers are totally blown out, catching fish is a tough proposition, if not impossible, but if a river is just higher and cloudier than usual, don’t let that stop you from fishing. The fish are still eating, and if you change the way you view the river and the way you fish it you can still be successful. You might even catch your biggest fish of the year, because a few of the problems runoff brings can be blessings in disguise.
For starters, there’s a lot of food in the water right now. Strong currents dislodge an abundance of insects from the river bottom, and the high waters are picking up insects from shore like beetles and earthworms.
Since visibility is low and velocity is high, not all of that food is accessible to fish, but that can actually help the angler. The places a fish will be feeding during runoff are decreased, so if you find those places, you’ve probably found the fish.
Look for soft water bordering faster water, and fish the seam — and the soft side of the seam — that those merging currents create. Fish like to rest in slow water while keeping an eye on the conveyor-o-bugs speeding by them. They’ll dart out to pick up food, then slip back to their holding water.
Small side channels you would ignore in the summer might hold fish now if they offer a relief from rapid water. And while you need to cover many different spots in the river during normal flows, during runoff fish often hug the shores since it offers a consistent current break. That means you probably don’t have to wade to get to the fish right now, and with stronger currents, more debris in the water, and limited visibility, wading this time of year is risky.
Even though murky water shortens a fish’s field of vision, it does offer a couple advantages. You can get closer to the fish — even large fish — without spooking them, and they have less time to examine your offering and reject it. They have to react quickly.
Once you find the right water, you could try dry flies if bugs are hatching, but fishing subsurface with nymphs, streamers, spinners or bait — where allowed, be sure to check the regulations — will usually be more effective. Fish close to the bottom, using extra weight if needed, because the current near the bottom of the river is often slower than the current at the surface.
If you’re nymph fishing, try drop shot or European techniques to get down and stay down, and consider using bright indicator tippet and/or keeping a tight line to tell you when you have a take. Floating indicators will still work, but they might pull your flies at surface speed rather than bottom speed, and if they’re suspended too far off the bottom in murky water the fish may not see them. You can add weight to a floating indicator rig and move the indicator higher to make sure you have good contact with the bottom while still seeing strikes.
Rob Lamb at the Joseph Fly Shoppe says it’s a good idea to increase your leader strength, too, since fish can pull much harder if they get out into the strong current. He also recommends taking salmon fly patterns since trout love to eat them before, during and after they crawl on shore to hatch.
Some folks say you need bigger, brighter lures to attract attention, and that may be an effective tactic, but the fish are keyed in on the same small insects and fish they eat every day, so as long as your offerings look like food and you put them in the right zone, fish will probably bite if they’re in the mood. Their attitude has a lot to do with it, so if you can pick, fish during stable or falling flows, rather than rising water, which can stop the bite.
Finally, cover the water in small increments. You need to get your offering right in front of the fish, so move slowly across the fishable water with each cast and thoroughly cover your target. In fast murky water, fish might need a second chance to take your bait, so give them plenty of opportunities.