April is now upon us and brings with it the possibility that you won't succumb to a fatal case of cabin fever after all. Spring is probably still just a hint, rather than an actuality, but now it's possible to get out on a trout stream with some hope of successful angling.
Buoyed by such optimism, you can break out your fly-casting gear, round up those flies you've been tying all winter and head to a favorite stream. Upon arrival at the stream, however, your visions of casting dry flies to rising rainbow trout likely will be met with a harsh dose of reality.
Rather than sparkling waters coursing around the rocks, the flow is probably going to be gushing over them in high-water torrents. Melting snow or just early spring rains have filled the stream with water that has more of a green tint than the crystalline current of your day dreams.
FINDING THE TROUT
Such water is fishable, but the likelihood of getting the trout to come to the surface is slim. Indeed, many of the tactics that you will be using in in late spring and early summer are going to be tough to apply at this time.
To catch fish in these early spring conditions demands understanding of where the trout hide during high-water conditions and what they can see as they skulk in such places.
The first part of the equation can be explained by recognizing that all wildlife is basically lazy, and trout are not exceptions. The fish are going to look for a spot where they are not constantly working just to hold their position in the stream. It also will be a spot that offers some easy feeding opportunities.
In rushing water that most often means getting down close to the bottom. Water running along the streambed has more "drag" on it, thus the current is slowed slightly. Also, rocks or other debris offer pockets that break the flow.
Rainbows retire to such spots, while staying alert for any forage that passes close by. Then a flip of the tail can provide a morsel of food and a quick retreat to their sanctuary.
WHAT TO OFFER THEM?
Obviously, regardless of the fly pattern you choose, it needs to get deep to have a chance of drawing attention from a rainbow locked to the streambed. That means using nymph or streamer patterns. But there is no "silver bullet" for picking the right pattern from your fly box.
Trout can be fickle, preferring a specific fly one day and ignoring it the next. There are, however, a few tricks to making sure the fish is at least aware of your efforts.
Weighting your offerings to get them down near the bottom is essential. In these conditions, you practically have to hit the fish in the head with your fly in order to get its attention. That can be accomplished by crimping some weight to your leader, fishing with bead-head patterns or a combination of both.
In either case, you probably want to use tungsten for the weight. This material is non-toxic when compared to lead. It also is more than 1.5 times denser than lead and more than three times denser than zinc, which is the other non-toxic option.
That means the tungsten-tied fly will sink much faster, thus making it easier to get the fly down to the bottom more quickly. The faster you can get the fly down, the longer you can keep it in the strike zone.
GETTING THE COLOR RIGHT
Another important aspect of fooling high-water rainbows is tossing the right color of fly. From data based on research by renowned fly-tier John Bernard Sunderland of Yorkshire, England, when fishing deep in off-color water, it is a very different game than tossing dries on the surface.
To comprehend what fish see under these conditions, you first must understand how trout vision differs from our own eyesight. Human eyes detect color using three cones in red, green and blue wavelengths.
A trout uses those three cones, plus an ultraviolet one. All four of those cones react to low-light conditions in off-color or deep water.
On the surface, blue wavelengths of light are more visible to trout. In deep, murky water blue colors become imperceptible to the fish. Green wavelengths, and thus green flies, are the least visible on the top.
Ultraviolet light penetrates much deeper, with flies made of fluorescent yellow or green material giving off the most ultraviolet reflection and are more visible to trout. But if the water is stained, they too stand out less.
On the other hand, a trout sees red at much brighter shades than do humans. In deep or off-color water the fish can see red much more vividly at close range than any of the other colors. And, since early spring fishing entails practically bumping the fish in the face anyway, red ensures that they also see what you are tossing to them.
Offering less scientific support for this research, on a number of occasions I've had guides explain that they usually add a bit of red to nymph patterns they tie, because they seem to work better. Turns out there's probably a reason for that trial-and-error discovery on their part.
The bottom line here is that fishing nymphs and streamers with some red in them should improve the chances of hooking some rainbows in early spring, high water conditions.
TACTICS FOR THE CONDITIONS
Now that you have a feel for where the fish are likely to be found, as well as what kinds of flies and colors should be most successful, there's still one more question to pose. What tactics are going to be best for getting those flies to the fish?
One option is the standard dead-drift nymph rig. That entails just adding a strike indicator on the leader at a proper depth to suspend the fly just off the bottom. But, in swift, high spring water just getting the fly down is not easy.
Another option is employ a technique dubbed Czech nymphing. Originally developed in Poland and called Polish nymphing, the tactic was adopted by Czech competition anglers in the 1980s and now has become associated with that nationality.
Basically, Czech nymphing is a form of tight-line fishing with just the leader in the water. It is practical during high, off-color water conditions because you can get closer to the fish. The stain in the water makes it harder for the fish to detect a stealthy wader's approach.
A nymph rig with from one to three flies are fished just under the rod tip. With enough weight, the offering can get down to the bottom quickly. Even though the drift usually is short, the fly stays in the strike zone for the entire time. With off-color water it's also possible to make multiple drifts through a run without spooking the fish.
A strike indicator can be used with this rig, but an even better choice is one of the new indicator leaders being offered by a number of companies. These leaders have a short butt section that is composed of a brightly colored material. The longer and thinner main portion of the leader is designed to aid in getting the fly down deep.
As the rig drifts you can keep this colored butt section on or near the surface and can watch it to detect even the smallest odd movement resulting from a take. The lack of an indicator floating on the top avoids having swirling surface currents cause the flies not to drift naturally with the current.
WRAPPING IT UP
When you head out for the first day of trout fishing this spring, if the water is high and off color, don't just cuss Mother Nature and head back home. Instead, try these tactics and you can get your fishing season off to a dandy start.