Fishing High Water
It’s been a dry summer here in Western North Carolina. I’ve even heard the word draught thrown around here and there. After spending 10 years living out West I’ll admit, though dry, it hasn’t felt like a draught to me. However, given the precipitation totals from the last week or so I would say this so-called draught has come to an end. As I peer out my office window right now the rain is falling and the North Fork of the French Broad is running at full bank. Whitewater kayakers are piling in to fill water bottles, use the restroom, and even buy a snack here and there. I haven’t seen a fly angler in a couple days and given the conditions out there I’m not surprised. For some reason a majority of fly fishermen and ladies assume that when the river is swollen and muddy the fish aren’t biting. High water does present a few challenges but making a few adjustments will put you on the fish.
Trout have incredibly good eyesight, (the size 24 midges in the fly boxes aren’t just something to crack a joke about). Muddy water does not mean that trout have no chance of seeing your fly. As the river rises and the current becomes more powerful, the fish will adjust to the conditions by vacating their normal holding areas to find softer water, often pushing right up next to the bank. I’ve seen pictures of anglers literally standing in a grassy field sight fishing for trout that have left the turbulent river to cruise the fields in search of easy prey. Keep in mind, a trout’s survival equation depends on them finding areas to feed in which the amount of food available more than accommodates for the energy it takes for them to hold there. It doesn’t make sense for the fish to stay in the middle of the turbulent water. My #1 tip for fishing in high water is look for the soft spots, even if that means fishing in areas that are usually dry.
My #2 tip for fishing in high water involves fly selection. While trout do have incredibly good eyesight, low visibility means those size 24 midges are pretty darn hard to pick up on. My favorite high water flies include flies with a lot of movement; Pat’s Rubber Legs, Bitch Creek Nymphs, and San Juan or Squirmy Wormies are my go-to’s. Trout often feed more opportunistically in high water conditions. Do not, under any circumstances, leave your streamer box at home if you have the chance to fish in high water. A large protein packed meal is hard for a hungry trout to turn down. Also, keep in mind that trout have an easier time seeing dark colored flies in muddy water than lighter colored flies. Dead drifting with a little jigging action or stripping a black leech or other favorite streamer pattern is often deadly in these conditions.
Fishing high water does not come without risks. Wading in high water can be very dangerous. Swift moving water above the knee requires good balance and should not be taken lightly. Flood conditions also have the tendency to move things around in the river bed. There may be new wood debris or rocks where there were not before. A large hemlock floating down a swollen stream will mow you over if you’re in the way. Keep close to the bank and assess the possibility for a quick exit should you need one. Be aware of water levels. Rivers in this area have been known rise quickly and you don’t want to get stuck in the river if it suddenly comes up a foot. Use common sense out there. Catching a few fish is certainly not worth a drowning or near drowning experience.
My favorite river to fish around here in high water conditions is the Davidson. Trout in the “Big D” are notoriously well educated. My good fishing buddy Sammy has a saying, “as the color comes up, the IQ’s go down.” Some of my best days on the Davidson have come when the river is running above 200 cfs. Last summer I had a trip set up with a repeat client from Greenville. I called him the day before and let him know the water would be high and I couldn’t say exactly what to expect out there. He assured me a tough day of fishing is better than an easy day of work 100% of the time. He arrived the next day and our private water on the North Fork was raging. Recent construction work upstream had the river looking like chocolate milk and normally mild riffles looked like class III rapids. We drove over to the Davidson and suited up in waders and rain gear. After 10 minutes with no signs of life he was skeptical and admittedly so was I. He was drifting his flies in an eddy that covered an area of normally dry ground. His strike indicator suddenly shot under and he set the hook. Surprised he looked at me and said, “fish on!” What followed was not the most lights out fishing I have ever experienced but it was consistent; flies with lots of movement and streamers in the calm eddies right up on the bank. He certainly caught enough fish to make it worth the soaking and we were the only people on the river.
After a couple months of dry conditions this recent rain has brought the rivers back to life. As things settle back into normal conditions I predict a great fall season of fishing. Get out there and take advantage.