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There’s a new normal in river fishing, and it has nothing to do with moderation. Now more than ever, anglers are encountering extreme flows, whether it be monsoon floods or a drought-induced trickle. Even tailwaters and other dam-controlled rivers are increasingly susceptible to global warming weather patterns.

The Housatonic River in northwest Connecticut is a prime example of this. The summer of 2020 produced severe drought conditions; as a result, the Housy flow was pathetically low for months. In early July 2021, heavy rains turned the river into a raging torrent that crested above flood stage; a month later, flows are still unusually high. What’s an angler to do? Fortunately, there are steps you can take to deal with un-ideal conditions and maximize angling success. Here’s how I go about it.

How To Fly Fish High Water

1. Learn to Embrace Fishing High, Off-Color Water

Let’s start with safety: never wade in a river that is above or near flood stage. Never wade in an area that’s under a flash flood warning. Never wade in high, unfamiliar water. Do wear studded boots and a belt. Do use a wading staff. Fish with a buddy. Use common sense. And if it looks dangerous, it probably is. 

Most anglers recoil at the thought of fishing in high, stained water. They’re missing out. Not only can you catch fish in high water, you can catch big fish – and you may not even have to get your feet wet. In high water, you won’t be able to wade into the fast, gnarly runs. Not to worry. The fish aren’t going there either. They’re hanging out along the shore where the flows are moderate, and require much less energy to hold a position. In fact, you’d be surprised how close the fish are to the bank, especially when the water is off-color. (Stained water offers fish protection from overhead predators.) 

The first key to high water success is to not look at the river as some huge, untamable beast. Rather, break it down into smaller sections. Where would you be if you were a fish? Where could you find food and cover and not spend an inordinate amount of energy sitting in the current? Answer those questions correctly, and you’re halfway there.

2. Nymphing: The High Water, High Percentage Play

Basic hydrology teaches us that water moves faster at the surface than along the bottom. So in high water, it’s easier for a fish to hold deep. And what better way to eat than to stay in one comfortable spot and wait for the current to deliver food? What’s more, fish can see things in stained water that we can’t. I recall a memorable afternoon on New York’s Salmon River when snowmelt caused the flow to surge to 1,000cfs. It was the color of chocolate milk. Yet we took fish after fish on size 10 nymphs drifted along the bottom. The steelhead could see them, even in that mess.

For high water nymphing, weight is your friend. Make sure you use enough not only to sink your flies quickly, but also to slow your drift. If you’re using an indicator, be sure it’s not dragging your rig downstream at an unnaturally fast pace. Look for clearly defined foam lines and currents close to shore—those are feeding lanes.

Man and boy holding up a large steelhead
Fish can see small nymph patters even when the water is cloudy. Steve Culton

3. Fish Big, Bulky Streamers In High Water

Another productive tactic for high, stained water is to pound the banks with streamers. The theory says that dark colors offer a better silhouette in stained water, but I’ve had great success with bugs in outrageous hues like fluorescent chartreuse. Articulated patterns like Tommy Lynch’s Mini D&D are a good example of an effective high-water bug. It may seem counterintuitive to fish surface patterns in high water, but they can produce when fished in bankside shallows and low light. Weighted streamers like cone-head Woolly Buggers work well, too. 

4. Fish As The Water Level Drops

Once high water spikes, I like to do what I call “fishing the outgoing tide.” This simply means I’m fishing dropping water levels. There’s a certain point after every flood where the water is still stained and elevated, but you can safely wade flats and dry fly pools. This is the sweet spot you’re looking for. Again, using streamers is a wise strategy. Pound the banks and any shoreline or submerged structure. For a neutral buoyancy effect, try fishing a full sink line with a deer hair head fly like Kelly Galloup’s Zoo Cougar.

5. Target diversions and pocket ponds

Many rivers have small islands that form braids, or diversions, away from the main stem. In low water, these diversions may be trickles. In high water, they often provide a moderate flow that is highly appealing to fish. They’re worth exploring. I also like to search for what I call “pocket ponds.” Pocket ponds are smaller, defined areas of slower water, usually ringed by structure, close to faster main currents. In high water, entire stretches of river may look like one gigantic riffle or glide; you’re looking for the areas that aren’t. Fish will use pocket ponds as a refuge and feeding area. Find a populated pocket pond, and you’ll likely have a memorable day.

How to Fly Fish Low Water 

While both are undesirable, I’d almost always choose high water over low water. I find low water far more challenging to fish. Sure, the fish tend to stack up in certain areas—find one, and you’ve probably found dozens. But they’re far spookier. Depending on species and water temperature, they may be stressed. And, quite frankly, I find low-to-no-current water terribly uninteresting. 

Once again, we’ll begin with safety—not yours, but rather the fish’s. Every low water condition is different, but low water generally means warmer water. For some species, like smallmouth, that’s okay. For others, like trout, it can mean certain death. If you’re fishing for trout, 68 degrees is widely accepted as the mark where the most common types begin to stress—and that’s before they’ve been hooked and played. So, do carry a stream thermometer. Fish when water temperatures are the lowest, typically evening to a few hours after sunrise. Go up an X or two on your tippet so you can strip fish in fast. And if you’re practicing catch & release, never fish once the water reaches stressful thresholds for your target species. 

1. Be Careful How You Approach a Low Water Stream

If you don’t own polarized sunglasses, now’s the time to get them. Clear, low-current water makes it easy to spot fish, and just as important, submerged structure where they may be hiding. I like to approach a pool or run from downstream, especially when I’m scouting. The reason is simple: in low water, if you can see the fish, they can certainly see you, unless you’re outside their vision cone. Ultra-spooky fish will also not take kindly to you waving your rod around, nor react favorably to the slap of a line on the water. It’s for this reason that I usually start fishing in what I call the “hot water.”

Read Next: Catch Big Spring Trout in High, Dirty Water

Angler standing in a shallow river.
Look for faster bubbly water with a broken surface when the water is low. Steve Culton

2. Fish the “Hot Water”

“Hot water” has nothing to do with temperature. Rather, it’s a term I use to describe the fast-moving, bubbly (hence, “hot”) runs and riffles. Here’s why it makes a lot of sense to target these areas. Bubbles and foam provide cover from threats above. Riffles and pockets like this not only offer the fish sanctuary, they also deliver two precious commodities: food and dissolved oxygen. Nymphing, swinging wet flies, and dead drifting bushy dries through hot water are all sound strategies. I generally find that nymphing is the most productive since the fish don’t need to move very far to feed. I typically don’t indicator nymph in low water; tight-line strikes are easy to detect.

3. Learn How to Use Dry Flies on Low Water Streams

Fishing languid, clear pools with dry flies can still be productive if you adjust your approach. Timing helps; try fishing in lower light, and especially look for hatches and active feeders. I like to target rising fish from a safe upstream distance; that position eliminates the spook factor of the line and leader. The fish sees the fly first and can feed with confidence. If it’s summer or early fall, consider terrestrial patterns like ants, beetles, and hoppers. Oversized patterns like Chernobyl ants, Stimulators, and Gurglers will also take their fair share of larger fish in lower water. 

Steve Culton is a guide, speaker, fly tyer, and outdoor writer who lives in Connecticut. His website is currentseams.com.

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