Fly fishing is like farming. So many things can go wrong. I spent last week fly fishing some beautiful mountain creeks in Colorado. I had a great time with my two sons, a brother, and a nephew. But the fishing was lousy. The creeks we fished flowed clear, but the water was unseasonably high. It was late July, but the water levels resembled what is typical in late June. In fact, we scrapped plans to fish an outstanding stretch of a river that fishes best at 600 cfs (cubic feet per second) when we learned it was flowing at 1700 cfs. Fly fishing high water is no fun.
We made the most of a tough situation. Notice that I’m not calling it a “bad situation” because the higher water reflects above average snow pack in the high country and an abundance of rain. This is good.
By the end of the week, we caught a few fish, enjoyed some fantastic scenery, and laughed a lot (especially when a group of people on horseback rode past us on a trail above our stream and the lead wrangler pointed us out and said, “Look! There are some fly fishers in their natural habitat.” Yup, that’s us!).
When the water is high, here are a few important practices to make the most of your experience:
Exercise extra caution when fishing high water
Fly fishers should always be cautious in and around moving water. High water, though, calls for extra caution. The problem is not wading in deeper water. The problem is wading in faster water that delivers a lot more force. Make sure you have a wading staff, and don’t take unnecessary risks. Save yourself for a more productive day when the water levels subside. When in doubt, stay out!
By the way, if the water looks like chocolate milk, stay out! Never wade if you can’t see the bottom.
Add more weight
If you’re nymphing or slinging streamers, you’ll need more weight than usual to get those flies to the bottom where the current is slower and the fish are feeding. Some runs will simply be too fast to fish successfully. But if you think you have a chance, put on an extra split shot (or whatever kind of weight you like to attach). This weigh will slow down your fly as well as help it sink.
Choose visible flies when fishing high water
If the water is off-color, you’ll want to choose more visible flies. This means larger nymphs or streamers with some flash to them. Off-color water is a great time to put on a San Juan worm since the conditions often dislodge worms and send them floating down the current.
Look for slower water
This is about the best advice I can offer.
Last week, I caught trout on dry flies, nymphs, and streamers. But every trout I caught was in a slower moving stretch of water. This meant skipping a lot of runs I’d normally fish. I did my best when I found pocket water or pools or eddies where trout were feeding on the surface or just below it.
One day, one of my sons and I fly fished a one-mile stretch of high mountain stream. We only found five fishable runs. We had a lot of action in each one. Yet we did a lot of walking and wading to get to those spots. So skip the fast stuff and find the calm, slower water.
Yes, fly fishing resembles farming. A lot can go wrong. When it comes to high water, go to a lake if you have the time. Or wait a week or two if you can. But if your only chance to fish is during high water, you can still make it enjoyable.