The Hell of High Water
Fishing these rivers isn't as futile as you might expect. But you do have to think before you cast.
Through our endless New England winters and wet, cold springs, Skeeter Cronin and I would feed each other’s fantasies of gentle streams and eager trout. Finally, on the weekend before opening day, we’d pile into his ancient Chevy and, bursting with youthful optimism, embark on our annual preseason scouting trip. We’d tour nearby trout rivers, and sometimes a few that were not so nearby, looking for the best place to inaugurate the new season.
We usually found waters running chalky with snowmelt, boiling over midstream boulders, and cutting new channels through the woods. “Hopeless,” Skeeter would grumble, insisting that it was impossible to catch trout from high, dirty rivers. “Looks like we gotta find a pond.”
I was always disappointed, but I never questioned the wisdom of a boy who was two years older than I.
But as I discovered over time, a pond is not always an option. Who hasn’t traveled 200 miles to a hallowed stream only to find it over its banks and running the color of chocolate milk? Either you fish the river, or you turn around and go home.
If you’re like me, you fish that river, high water and all. If you’re patient enough to pause and analyze the conditions, you’ve got a good chance of catching a trout or two.
High, cold, discolored water unquestionably puts trout off their feed and pushes them out of their normal holding areas. But a trout won’t desert the river, and it will eat if sufficiently tempted.
The first trick is to locate a fish. Under normal conditions, trout hold in areas that provide protection from fast currents and predators, optimum water temperatures, rich oxygen content, and abundant forage. But in high water, a trout sacrifices everything for the sake of comfort. Typically it will drop into a deep hole, rub its belly on the riverbottom, and wait till the water calms down. But the fish might also ease into the gentle currents and eddies right along the bank, or find a quiet pocket behind a boulder or fallen tree. If something edible comes by, the trout will not refuse it, but it would rather go hungry than abandon the comfortable lie to chase food. To get a bite, your offering has to drift right under the trout’s nose. So pause to read the water, then focus your efforts on the comfort zones, fishing them patiently and thoroughly.
The ideal outfit for high water is a long, limber spinning rod that can handle a 6- or 8-pound line. Light line minimizes the dragging effects of the currents, while a long rod enables you to keep most of your line off the water, and a spinning rod gives you the versatility to fish hard-to-reach water without wading deep in treacherous currents. You can make long upstream casts and still achieve natural drifts, and open the bail and let your bait tumble long distances downstream.
A naturally drifting worm or night crawler gets my vote as the best way to catch high-water trout. Eroding riverbanks wash worms into the stream, creating a “hatch-matching” situation for the fisherman. A dead or stunned shiner “sewn” onto a hook is a close second. Run your hook all the way through its bottom lip and then bury its point at the base of the shiner’s tail.
It’s crucial to make your bait tumble and bump along the bottom the way unencumbered worms and disoriented baitfish do. A plastic bubble or slender bobber fixed to the line about 11/2 times the water’s depth from your bait will keep it in the trout zone and help you detect bites. Use light leaders and small hooks, and crimp on just enough split shot to get it down there without inhibiting its natural drift. Experiment until you can feel the weight occasionally ticking the bottom. If you don’t snag a rock or sunken tree once in a while, you probably need to add weight and increase the distance between your bobber andd your bait. But if you hang up on every cast, remove some weight and shorten up.
Don’t ignore the band of slower water next to the bank. Flood conditions often drive trout right up against the bushes. These fish are likely to be feeding actively, so it’s worth examining this water for trout forage and matching what you see there. When possible, cast directly upstream so that your bait will drift right against the bank. In this soft, shallow water, trout are easily spooked, so approach them cautiously. Use only enough weight to enable you to cast with the smallest, least obtrusive bubble or bobber in your arsenal. In off-color water, black artificials are the best color to use. Tie a black Woolly Bugger or Woolly Worm on the end and a stonefly nymph or San Juan Worm to a dropper. Fish artificials exactly the same way you would bait, always keeping direct contact with your bobber. Set the hook anytime a twitch or pause interrupts its drift.
A gold or bronze spinner, cast upstream and reeled back along the bottom of a likely hole, can be deadly. Keep it moving at the same speed as the current so it flutters rather than spins, mimicking a struggling baitfish. To make it even more enticing, impale a worm or small shiner on the hook.
There are times when high water can actually set off a trout-feeding frenzy. When water conditions are improving, you’re likely to find trout eager to feed. A summer freshet, for example, will cool down an overheated river, infuse it with oxygen, and wash worms, nymphs, and terrestrial insects into the water. In these conditions wise old trout, which tend to doze during summer’s dog days, wake up and go prowling for food. Dig a canful of worms and get there while the water is still rising, and you could hit the jackpot.
Another hot high-water situation occurs toward the end of the spring runoff, when the river is beginning to drop back into its normal channels and the water is clearing. Rising water temperatures and improving visibility energize both trout and their aquatic prey, which have been sulking and dormant. The fish are hungry and aggressive after a long fast and will gobble just about any bait or lure you throw at them.
Skeeter Cronin was right about most things, especially when it came to fishing. When streams are dirty and overflowing their banks, ponds tend to offer the best chance to catch trout. But necessity has taught me that high water is never hopeless. Sometimes, in fact, it’s surprisingly productive–and it’s always better than not fishing at all.