by David Williams
Uh oh, this is not looking good.” Michael T. Williams and I were standing on Hayden Bridge overlooking Oregon’s McKenzie River. Under normal conditions, the river is a bright ribbon curling past gravel bars, running around willow-covered islands and gurgling through riffles. Its clean gravel bottom is tailor-made for easy wading. Namesake McKenzie River boats ply this river under normal conditions. But we were looking at abnormal conditions. Like winning the trifecta at Santa Anita, or the formation of a perfect storm, three elements had all coincided. A heavy Cascade Mountains snowpack, a few hot spring days and normal water releases from upstream flood-control dams combined to turn the river into something the color of a Starbucks mocha. We both like our coffee plain.
Home of the famed “redsides” rainbow trout, the river attracts anglers from around the country. Those who saw the river that day, in its ugly brown, frothy persona, were bound to be disappointed. The off-colored water made wading hazardous and the floating, woody debris kept drift boats off the water. Since the spate of hot days was over, the river stopped rising, so it was fish or cut bait time. We were there, we had our gear and we knew where the fish would be.
Every angler has faced similar conditions. If it’s your home waters, you can always bag fishing and run home to clean the garage until the conditions change. Traveling anglers, especially those coming from afar, don’t have that luxury. They can either cope with what is, or watch their vacation wash downstream. Here are some tips on how to cope with high water conditions to save the day or the whole trip.
Where to find fish
The first task is to find the fish. Our common trout tactics and tackle are honed for normal fishing conditions. In high water, you can forget the lazy days of summer where low-water conditions forced the trout into ever-shrinking and easily discovered lairs. Well. what does a sailor facing rough seas do? He shortens up the sails and runs for shelter. Fish can’t shorten their sails, but they can and do swim for cover.
Fish are unwilling to expend the energy necessary to fight the strongest currents. They will look for structure that offers shelter, and that means they move out of the middle and into softer water.
Friction plays a part in where fish lie in heavy water. The current is always slower on the bottom and along the riverbanks as the immovable object slows the irresistible force. Fish the edges — often within a foot of the bank and within inches of the bottom because that’s where fish hold.
Edges can be found elsewhere. Current seams and breaks are important edges. Look for those spots where the main current swirls around an island, then is re-joined by the slower side seams. Where the two currents mix, you’ll find fish holding in the softer water, looking for food streaming past. Upstream edges of islands will hold fish as well, though those fish often are smaller than the big boys and girls on the downstream side.
At lower flows, fish may favor the faster, more highly oxygenated current on the outside edge of river bends. Instead of continuing to fight that heavy snowmelt current, the fish slide towards the more favorable conditions on the inside bend. Work the shallow water first, then probe to find the deepest pocket and the bottom-huggers there.
High water can make fish come together to seek relief from heavy current. Here’s when local knowledge, like knowing the tricks a golf course can play the first time through, can make a huge difference. The river bottom is not uniform in depth or configuration. Often the downstream end of an island or rocky point will be eroded by the increased flow such that a depression is created in the streambed. The depression provides the shelter sought by the fish.
Large instream boulders like those that fill California’s Merced River are obvious choices. Hydraulics create a cushion in front of the obstruction, while downstream, the water eddies back towards the boulder. The fish are there; the difficulty is getting your offering down to them without getting snagged. You’ll need enough weight to get the lure, bait or fly down to the fish’s level. Here’s where a longer rod provides an advantage over shorter one. The additional reach means less line on the water, less drag carrying your line away from the fish and a more direct connection to react to a strike.
Change is the nature of rivers and each high-water event brings change. The overhanging cottonwood that provided food and shade for Yellowstone River browns against Montana’s long, hot summer is no more. It is now jammed up against the bank, the root wad providing a downstream current break. Sure, the long trunk and lure-grabbing trailing branches can make it tough to fish, but that degree of difficulty actually increases your chances of catching a fish. That’s because most fishermen will pass it by, unwilling to risk losing gear. Instead, they’ll continue to make those long, unproductive but safe casts to the middle of the river. You’ll make the short, risky, productive cast and break into a smile when a trout puts a deep bend in your rod.
Off-color water is a double-edged sword. The limited visibility, combined with the increased force of high water, makes wading a real challenge. Fortunately, wading is usually not required because the fish have moved to the edges accessible from the bank. If you are compelled to wade, wear good boots and use a wading staff.
The other side of turbidity is it can hide you from the trout that likely are a bit skittish as they adjust to their new shallow-water surroundings. Trout learn quickly that deep water provides protection from overhead predators like eagles, osprey and fishermen. Dark, but shallow water affords some measure of protection and security.
Leave the long, light, tapered leaders at home and leave the light tippet material at home because you won’t need either. High or off-color water calls for shorter leaders, stouter tippets and more weight. Forget “far and fine.” Think short and stout. If you ordinarily use six-pound leader, switch to eight or ten. The fish won’t care and you’ll have an easier time handling the extra weight.
Regardless of whether you decide to fish meat, metal or feathers, you’ll be fishing along the bottom. What changes depending on whether the cast is made along the edges, in current seams and breaks, or around obstructions, is the depth of the bottom. Edges may be less than a foot deep. Scoured out depressions may be ten feet deep. You’ll need to adjust the weight and the casting angle so you’re fishing where the fish are.
If the current is really rushing, the basic pencil lead/surgical tubing on a three-way swivel may be just the ticket for bouncing the bait along the bottom. If the rig gets snagged, you only lose the lead instead of the whole set-up.
Fly-fishermen can use a 3-4 foot length of leader tied directly to the fly line, instead of the usual tapered leader. The short leader allows the weighted fly to get down to where the fish are and is much easier to cast. Casting a bunch of split-shot on a long, fine tapered leader is an invitation to wind knots or worse. Drilling yourself in the back of the head is a distinct likelihood.
A caution: The streambed is an abrasive environment. It pays to check your terminal gear frequently and replace the leader at the first sign of nicks or scrapes. It’s a good habit to check the hook point at the same time as the hooks take a beating as well.
What to use
High, roily water has some benefits not found in normal conditions. The enhanced flows dislodge myriad trout foods — earthworms, aquatic worms, nymphs and other foodstuffs — that are eagerly consumed by hungry fish. Toss in some weak-swimming forage fish and ring the dinner bell. The one thing all these goodies have in common is that they are subsurface.
Half a nightcrawler on a short-shanked hook, with just enough weight to tumble along the bottom will catch fish. Use short casts and probe the water thoroughly. Northwest salmon and steelhead fishermen use a technique known as back bouncing. Once the lead hits the streambed, the angler raises the rod tip and lifts the lead off the bottom, then gives slack line until the lead hits the bottom again. This jigging motion is repeated through the run. It’s an effective method of working a bait or lure along an edge or current seam. A copper Colorado or Indiana-blade spinner, cast upstream and slowly rolled with the blade barely fluttering also is a great choice.
Fly-fishermen can use a basic two-nymph rig. A weighted Stonefly and Hare’s Ear is a good combination. If two flies ties you in knots, try a Beadhead Woolly Bugger. Black is a good color. White is an underused color.
When normal conditions prevail on crowded popular rivers, tempers can flare when boaters and waders all try to access the same runs. Common courtesy gets sorely tested on such days. Fishermen willing to nibble the edges under less than perfect conditions usually find they have the run of the river and plenty of willing fish. Sure beats going home to clean the garage.