Every spring I experience a familiar sensation — acute cabin fever compounded by a gnawing angst to get out and enjoy my first fly-fishing of the season. In my northern Idaho and western Montana haunts I'm deeply impressed by the patience of most fishermen, content to wait prime days following runoff. I'm not so enduring. Like a little kid awaiting Christmas morning and its bountiful gifts, I want to go fishing right now! This even as local sages assure me I'll enjoy little success, accomplishing little more than wearing out my casting arm and risking drowning.
I've never been one to cave to conventional wisdom. I go fishing anyway, wading wild, turbulent currents, donning clumsy neoprene against icy waters, slinging mostly missile-like weighted nymphs and split-shot. But you know what? I catch fish — experiencing not the typical 50-fish days of prime summer months, but enjoying action enough I keep going back for more. And you know what else? I essentially have these high spring waters all to myself. A stubborn nature has taught me a few things about high-water fishing, so that I now look to these periods as excellent opportunities to catch trophy trout.
During the very worst of it, following those first warming days of spring that loosen high-country snowpack and disgorge fouling sediment into larger rivers, fly-fishing involves mostly deep-water nymphing. The biggest mistake anglers make is believing trout are off their feed and therefore uncatchable. Yet, like the impatient angler himself, trout seem anxious to get festivities under way. They're hungry after a long winter of inactivity (all trout) and spring spawning (rainbows and cutthroat). They'll certainly eat, just not the delicate tidbits ruling the fly-fisherman's world during summer.
I owe most of my early-season success to the rough and tumble stonefly nymphs. These are big, unruly patterns filled with fuse wire that strike like a bullet with even a moment's hesitation in casting stroke. They are further complicated by split-shot and disruptive strike indicators buoyant enough to keep heavy payloads riding rough currents while also revealing subtle takes inherent to colder water.
I can't say with certainty if ugly stonefly patterns work due to match-the-hatch imitation, or simply because of their more readily visible dimensions (standard-issue nymph patterns such as Hare's Ears, Zug-Bugs and Prince Nymphs can also prove killing in #10 to #8). Regardless, they work.
Later in the season, while working around an ongoing hatch, the stone patterns I present prove highly realistic, while my high-water offerings are essentially throw-away flies. I heed no recipe; my spring patterns are a chenille-based combination of Bitch Creek/Montana Nymph — always with rubber legs — and mostly tied with attention-grabbing highlights in chartreuse, orange or yellow. Still, black's always the basis of a productive turbid-water stone. I tie them "simple" because they work, and because in this type of bottom-bouncing fishing I might sacrifice a dozen flies a day and it hurts less than losing the intricate incarnations.
Rigging up is simple: A stout 9-foot leader in about 8-pound test (trout aren't line-shy now, and the extra tensile strength aids in dislodging snagged flies), rigged with a dropper about a foot above point, and two to four BB-sized split-shot (depending on water depth and speed) above, which seems to result in fewer tangles. For strike indicators I make my own puff bobbers from polypropylene yarn (treated with dry-fly dope), tied double the size of summer indicators, or use an inch-diameter salmon corker wedged in place with a piece of toothpick.
The point fly is always a stone, normally from #4 to #2, the dropper holding an egg pattern (#12 chartreuse; its function is mostly to bring attention to the stone pattern), or one of the aforementioned nymphs. I sling this mess from my rocket-launching Wild Water 10-foot 6-weight rod.
High waters are intimidating unless you address the river as a whole consisting of many smaller parts. If placing yourself in the mind of a trout is possible, think in terms of energy conservation. This means seeking water-deflecting friction, which at its most simple means casting to the edges of a river, normally along riprap dropoffs found inside bends. Instincts reveal other likely holding water — behind deflecting boulders, in reverse-flow eddies or especially side-channel splits — but if you fish only tight to edges you'll certainly catch your share.
Be that as it may, I've been surprised how often I'm on hand for early-season hatches that occasionally provide action as hot as any scheduled summer event but without the attendant crowds. In waters I know best, this might include small brown stones (which I've seen as early as April), so-called "March browns" (which hatch in May here), salmonflies (big black/orange stones) from mid-May through June, and a form of mayfly I call a "pale morning dun" because of its color and the fact that that is the fly I use to replicate it (in #12). On other waters, the lovely little Blue Winged Olive fly is always worth stocking up on (#24 to #18). Also, thanks to light fishing pressure at that time of year, an Adams in appropriate size normally (if not always) does the trick. Early-season, high-water trout normally aren't particularly fussy.
That also leads me to forsake the nymphing I know will absolutely bring fish on any spring day, and prospect with big, bushy Orange Stimulators when an obvious hatch isn't presented. After a couple weeks of nymph fishing with heavy tackle, it's refreshing to cast a dry, even if it's big enough to defy precision, and even if my catch is reduced by maybe half — though this isn't always necessarily the case.
There was the gorgeous May afternoon on North Idaho's renowned St. Joe River this past spring; waters lapping closer to the blacktop highway than I've ever seen them, when warming sunshine and singing birds simply indicated dry flies. I tied on a #4 Orange Foam Stimulator, if only because I could keep track of it on those raging waters, using my love-worn Sage 9-foot 4-weight to fire the fly tight to brushy, riprap banks. In a single half-mile stretch, scrambling along restless, treacherous banks in tennis shoes and without constricting waders, I netted seven chubby West Slope cutts, not one of them measuring less than 16 inches, the largest honestly pushing 19.
FROM THE MOUTHS OF RIVERS
Another glorious spring day comes immediately to mind from last season. A good friend and I had invested a couple hours on Idaho's North Fork of the Clearwater, catching only a handful of whitefish and some unremarkable rainbows as the water rose perceivable all the while. I grew restless, coaxing my friend to invest in a 5-mile hike downstream where this normally-productive river empties into sprawling Dworshak Reservoir. When we arrived, our efforts seemed for naught, nymphs and dry attractors producing no more spectacular results than earlier. In desperation, I knotted on a monster Wooly Bugger, brown with lots of rubber legging, nipping on a ball of lead. That changed everything. I'll spare you the play-by-play, but let's just say I landed my biggest bull trout (Dolly Varden) to date — a 7-pound fish — and two cuttbows pushing 20 inches — monsters for this part of the world.
This is a good excuse to pull out the big guns and go for gold: streamer fishing, a mode of operation most ignore in favor of more aesthetically-pleasing pastimes, such as flicking dries to rising fish. Be that as it may, streamers are how the biggest trout of the season are caught. Depending on the water at issue, this might indicate a full-sink or sink-tip line and short leader, avoiding the inconvenience of split-shot (always an invitation for time-wasting tangles). This is standard operating procedure on Arizona's White Mountain high-country lakes, where I've caught some of my biggest trout — including a rainbow measuring 27 1/2 inches and weighing more than 10 pounds — on a 8 1/2-foot 5-weight rod.
High water got you down? Not to despair. Trout are there for the taking, maybe just not in the numbers you might wish, or by tactics you hold most dear. Try these approaches to high water and I'm sure you'll grow to think differently of spring runoff seasons.