Without a doubt, the theme of the summer in the Northeast was the never ending rain. My dad always says one weather extreme follows another and after not getting much of any precipitation all spring, the rain just didn’t stop this summer. Much of Vermont experienced a 100 year flood event this past summer and most other areas have seen excessive rainfall if not severe floods as well. So what is a trout angler to do when the rain just won’t stop and the rivers are high and occasionally muddy?
As a competitive angler and guide I am faced with these challenges often. When in a fly fishing competition the rivers and “beats”, which is a small stretch of the river that each angler is given to fish for a set period of time, are set in stone. Regardless of what the river conditions are that day I have to make the most of my 2-3 hours to fish a 200-400 yard piece of water. Often in competition I have had to deal with high water, and on more than a few occasions the river has been chocolate milk. Every time I have been faced with these obstacles I’ve been able to catch trout and finish at or near the top.
The first thing to do when fishing high or muddy water is to understand that fish do not stop eating when things get dirty. If you can get past the mental roadblock that tells you to go home, you’ll be ahead of the game. Prior to launching my guide service I used to go to the river when the conditions were terrible just to learn how to catch fish. I told myself to be a good guide, I’d need to learn to put people on fish no matter what. This paid off for me in a recent competition where I drew a beat that did not have the fish numbers to win, but when a wild storm turned the river to mud, I was able to catch quite a few fish, when most gave up.
Once you have committed to fishing high dirty water, you need to asses where fish will be holding and where you can safely wade. If the water is very high and pushy, the fish will find the slower water on the bank, at the tail outs of pools, and behind mid stream structure such as rocks, bridges or islands. The depth of the water is really not that important because the water is so dirty that trout are not susceptible to predation from overhead. During a competition in PA I won a session in very high chocolate milk fishing only two places on my entire beat, an 18” deep piece of flat water downstream of an island and behind a bridge pillar. If the water is dirty, but not really pushy then fish the same areas you would if the water were clear.
Tactics are the final piece of the puzzle you’ll need to get right if you want to catch a big high water trout. Unless you see fish rising, which sometimes happens in chocolate milk if there is a good hatch, I’d skip the dry fly unless using it as a suspension device. My go to method is nymphing but I adjust the flies slightly. In another recent comp the river muddied up badly and rose about 10” during the session. I had been catching fish on a dry fly, and small size 18-20 nymphs. When the mud hit all I did was up size my nymph to a size 16 and select a black fly with florescent pink tail and cdc collar which would create a good profile and show up against the light colored mud. I continued to catch fish almost as fast in the mud for the remainder of the session. Often the fish will focus on bigger attractor nymphs and stoneflies. Lastly, high water means it is streamer time. Many big trout will go on the hunt when the water is high and you may catch a true trophy when the water is up. In fact during summer and early fall high water is almost the only time I can find big browns in my area. The few that are around seem to disappear until they start to think about spawning in the fall when the water is low. There is a big storm rolling through as I write this piece, and you can bet I’ll be out on a wild trout stream tomorrow morning looking for a trophy.