By Ken Moore
Finally, spring is here and I’m ready to get out the door and I bet you are too. So where are you heading? The rivers are running high, the banks are blown out, and the water is so off-colored that you are certain there is no way a fish would see your presentation.
We are blessed with 75 lakes within a 50-mile radius of Spokane, and I fully understand the pull to head to still water. But today, I am going to give away one of the best kept secrets in the Northwest: now is the time to fish the creeks, streams, and rivers that you run to in the height of the summer heat. Believe me when I say: one of the absolute best times of the year to fish is during the spring when these moving waters that are “blown out.” In the springtime when the water is high, the fish are not in the middle of the river (they rarely are — that article is in the works). They are right along the shoreline pretty much at your feet. In the springtime, you may have your best chance of the year to catch a truly large trout. Furthermore, in the springtime, I can pretty much guarantee you will be the only fisherman on the river. Everyone else is on the couch or, you guessed it, in the parking lot with you at the lake.
Now, high water fishing is a different beast, but the basics are pretty much the same. First, let’s talk safety. The water is moving very fast and it is very cold, not the ideal time to go for a swim. Personally, I suggest not going over the knees. Most of the time, I am only in ankle deep water, if at all. I wear a self-inflating Personal Floatation Device (PFD) just in case I slip. I also carry the means to make a fire with me in my waders on the off chance I become separated from my fishing pack. If I step into the water, I deploy my wading staff, and a whistle is always on my hip or sling bag. Yep, those are my rules. You need to develop your own and stick to them.
Understanding Water-Volume and Push:
I personally believe that the key to understanding moving water is understanding water volume. Too much hype is given to structure for a good reason, but the common denominator is water volume. It is the most important factor in finding fish, especially large fish. When I look at water, I’m not concerned with the flow of the water. Instead, I’m always looking for the “push” of the water. Is the water moving consistently, or is it lifting, ducking, or moving sideways as it rolls along down the riverbank? The reason is fish have to swim or hold against the push of the water, and when the water is high, guess what — these fish are as lazy as a teenager when it is time to mow the grass. Two types of water that you should avoid are lifting hydraulics and ripping hydraulics. (Water moving back up stream in a reverse hydraulic is a topic for another article so let’s agree to ignore that for now.) Many anglers look at the water and assume it’s dark and deep but fail to notice the hydraulics that are at play. If the bottom is smooth, devoid of small gravel, muck, and mud, and the water is ripping along parallel to the shoreline, then the odds of finding a fish fighting that current is pretty much zero. The other is lifting hydraulics. I see fly fisherman fishing a flushing or lifting hydraulics all the time, and I shake my head and move on. Fish lay close to the bottom because the water is slower, and often the depth decreases aerial predation. So, if the water hydraulic is lifting or gurgling like oil coming out of the ground in a Texas oil field, then you would be correct in guessing there probably aren’t many fish in that part of the river. So, lifting hydraulics have the volume but the push is in the wrong direction, in this case, towards the surface. Fish there no more; please. What you are looking for are buckets and small pools of quiet water. When I say small, you would be surprised at what can come out of a quiet pool no bigger than a football. I would like for you to try looking at the water in this volume and push manner. Quiet pools are your nirvana. Do not be surprised when you see how many fish can stack in that small quiet piece of water.
Fishing Fast Moving Water:
Trout typically hold in 18 to 36 inches of water with small gravel, silt, muck or a combination of the three. The reason they choose this bottom structure is the water is not moving fast enough to clean the bottom. So, look for a river bottom that displays this type of a softer bottom. This typically means that you will be fishing inside corners on your rivers. Softer, slower water volume allows the fish to rest and that means inside corners are your new best friend and your chances of finding a large number of trout. Hard, outside corners are high volume pushy water and even juvenile fish prefer slower water. A soft rule to consider is if the water is too hard for you to comfortably wade in, it is probably too fast for the fish to rest in. Casting in higher flow waters requires an adjustment. I find myself high sticking, dabbing and jigging my flies in soft water buckets or pools, be they heavy nymphs or streamers. I often use a strike indicator like thingambobbers or air-lock strike indicators. In faster water trout may not be willing to move laterally very far to eat. I mentally make a grid on the pocket of water that I am fishing and try to fish the whole pocket of water starting with what is closest to me and moving out. If the indicator pauses, hesitates or moves slightly SET the hook, hook sets are free, and trout rarely will submerge your whole indicator. The days of softly casting a dry fly 40 foot will come in the summer for now it is all about fishing tight lines, high sticking and getting your nymph or streamer presentation to the bottom quickly. There is an advantage to this type of jigging presentation style, fish are extremely predatory and in the spring time because everything moves faster the fish do not have the luxury of studying your presentation, they either decide to eat or let it pass, in the fast moving waters of spring they usually chose to eat or at least mouth your flies.
Colors of my flies do not change from what I fish during the summer months, I still use the adage if the sky is dark due to cloud cover, I fish darker flies, if the sky is bright, I fish brighter colored flies. Fish are very adept at finding food using their lateral lines and their eyesight. The idea of using fluorescent and chartreuse colors is appealing at the fly bin but I have not found these colors to give me any advantage in faster dirty spring water. I would argue that a weighted bead head nymph with a hot spot elicits more strikes than a nymph without a hot spot (a hot spot is a piece of colored dubbing tied in just behind the bead head and differs in color form the thorax and tail sections of a nymph). The good news is you don’t need to go out and buy new flies for spring high water fishing, what you do need to do is weight your rig to get the nymph to the bottom fast, this can either be done with tin, lead, or tungsten weights. Loon Outdoors, for one, sells tin weights and I use sizes 2SSG or SSG (3.2 g or 1.6 g) If you have not yet tried tungsten tack weight or twist on lead wrap this may be a good time to begin to explore something new. Sometimes I will utilize a sinking line I like a shorter 250 grain 18 foot head vs a 30 foot sinking line when I high stick with sinking lines. If I am using a floating line I may use a weighted VersiLeader (Each Rio VersiLeader is 10ft long, tapered for the best in performance and has a 24lb nylon core. A neat, bullet-proof welded loop at the butt end allows for fast rigging.) depending on the volume and push of water I am fishing and my rig setup. Bottom line is you’re looking for soft pockets of slow water that fish will hold in. Fish it vertically if you have to and be quick and liberal at setting the hook. Always keep safety forefront in your mind because everything in the spring moves faster. There is a cosmic duality between the calm of still water and the rush of spring runoff, two sets of opposing and yet complementing principles that are observed in nature. The lessons we learn from fly fishing are often applicable to life, if you haven’t tried something new in your chosen sport what is holding you back? The reward of landing trout with a new method will put a smile on your face.