Fly Fishing High Muddy WaterNathaniel Treichler
Flooding can be a major problem for fish, not just us humans.
With vast amounts of debris and sediment being pushed downstream, it can be tough for fish to discern what’s food and what’s not. Not only that, but, too much sediment can clog up their gills.
But, fish still got to eat.
Table Of Contents
- How and where to fish “Blown Out Streams.”
- How to use USGS Flow Data to know when to fish streams.
- Should I wade into the water?
- Use big flies or use small flies?
- Do trout spread out or group up?
- What tippet and leader size to use.
- Natural flies or flashy flies?
- Why it’s best to fish water you know.
- The best flies for muddy water.
Blown Out Streams
“Blown out” streams are when the water is extremely fast moving with a few inches or feet higher than average and full of sediment, aka dirty water.
Yes, you can still catch fish when streams are blown out.
Fish dislike high muddy water just as much as us. They, typically, stay close to the edges and down close to the bottom to avoid the powerful currents. Due to the friction of the water meeting the banks of the stream, water along the edges can be drastically slower than the rapid center. The combination of slower moving water along the bank and the bottom of the stream makes it safer for fish to swim. So, seams, eddies, and slow water along the banks are the ideal location for fish seeking refuge from the storm to rest.
Fish the Edges
The life of a trout is all about consuming vs. conserving calories. High water also means swift currents and fighting against that torrent takes a lot of energy for a fish. When the streams swell, trout will push to the edges of that current, sometimes right off the banks, to escape the rushing water. It’s not terribly uncommon to not even have to wade during these high water events because the fish will be holding between the bank and the middle current in the softer areas that offer some sort of respite.
Get Upstream of Tributaries
Figuring out high water becomes a game in understanding entire watersheds. A burst of rain upstream of one significant tributary can blow out the entire main stem downstream of the confluence. A good rule-of-thumb is to keep working higher upstream into a drainage to get above as many tributaries as you can. With each tributary avoided, that’s that much less water entering the stream you want to fish, and that can help lessen the blow after a snow melt or heavy rain.
Find the Pools
Much like fishing the edges, finding a deep pool can really help anglers catch fish during high water. Riffles and runs that fish well at normal flows will all of a sudden be raging rapids, but deeper pools can hold some semblance of normalcy in response to the increase in water flow. Areas that might have once had little current will now have some, but it’s still a better bet than trying to navigate the heavy moving water that’s not only difficult on the trout, but potentially treacherous to wade in. Fish will flock to these slow water refuges and it’s possible to have a banner day just by locating one of these places that will hold fish during high water.
Find the Soft Water
The biggest key for fishing streams and rivers in runoff is finding the soft water. Riffles and runs that are usually likely spots for trout can now be raging torrents that aren’t even wadable, much less fishable.
Finding the soft spots, usually near the banks, is the way to go during this time. In trying to escape the heavy current in the middle of the river, trout will push to the edges trying to find the reprieve, and as such, fish can be absolutely stacked in those slower-moving areas. In some ways, runoff can be easier to fish because it narrows down where the fish can be. Eliminate the heaviest of current, then look for the soft water that also holds some depth and odds are pretty darn good there’s some trout present.
Head for the Lakes
Runoff can quickly make a favorite stream or river a messy or dangerous option to fish.
Swift water is not to be trifled with, and a few people each year perish in the gushing currents. High mountain lakes can offer a perfect respite for those looking to get an adventure and great fishing!
While they are impacted by runoff in their own way (namely swift inlet/outlet streams and colder water temps), from ice-off until early fall the alpine lakes of the Rockies are terrific options. They can hold a variety of fish, and it’s a stark contrast to the streams and rivers at lower elevations. Targeting cruising cutthroats with dry flies while standing beneath towering snowy peaks is certainly a fine way to keep your mind off of the heavy runoff down below!
- Long stretches of water followed by a deep pool
- Deep water
- Eddies behind obstructions like fallen trees, boulders, etc.
This is exactly where you want to place your flies.
Check The Gauges
Runoff is a volatile time across the Western United States. Stream levels can spike overnight, either from snow melt or increased release from dams, making for ever-changing fishing conditions. While those spikes might seem negative to anglers, there is also opportunity in times like these. A bump up in CFS (cubic feet per second) can churn up rocks and debris to really get food flowing in a waterway. Often some outstanding fishing can be had in the immediate aftermath of a water level surge.
By checking stream gauges with the USGS Water Flow Data, anglers can better understand how their favorite streams fish, what flows are better or worse, and time their trips perfectly to maximize their efforts.
While it’s obviously a way to see when it has peaked, and subsequently on the way down, there are also times when you might want to time up a fishing trip for a bump in the flows. Sometimes a 100-200 CFS increase can really stir food up in drainage and create a phenomenal opportunity to have great action.
For anglers that frequent the same waters year after year, take some notes on what spots fish well at each flow and that will help for next season. Some areas can fish well at 250 CFS, but aren’t so productive at 500, but then good again at 750. It all depends on the bends of the stream, structure, current, etc. Slowly learning what areas fish best at each flow can go a long way in sustained success for the coming seasons.
During runoff, water levels rise dramatically as snow melts from the mountains to swell rivers below. As this happens, the places trout hold change quite a bit. Those deep runs and seams in the middle of the stream now become raging torrents incapable of holding a fish.
In these situations the fish push to the edges, or softer water, as they search for a reprieve from the current. When this happens there’s no need to wade even but a few steps into the water! The fish are holding in close and effective casts can be made from the bank. Not only is wading more treacherous during runoff, it ends up spooking many of the fish!
Use Big Flies
While small bugs will continue to hatch throughout runoff, anglers need to focus their efforts on flies that the fish can see. Even in areas where sediment and farmland is low, waters will still become off-color with enough runoff. That’s why large streamers, stoneflies, worm patterns, and egg patterns all become staples during this high water period. Just accept that snags are going to happen, you’ll lose some flies, but catch fish in the process. It’s just the name of the game during runoff.
When You Find One, Keep Fishing
Trout tend to pod up during runoff as they seek refuge in any slack water they can find. This is especially true during heavy snowpack years when water levels surge to extremely high levels. It’s just a numbers game more than anything else as a certain percentage of the waterway is no longer fishable due to high water. That alone forces trout to congregate in the softer spots, so if you catch one, odds are there are a few others nearby!
Use Heavier Tippet And Leaders
You will also want to ‘up’ the strength of your tippet and leader. Rather than risking your chances by fly fishing light 6x to 4x line, use line from 3x to 0x and here’s why.
Fish see ⅓ of what they normally see in dirty water. This means you can get away with heavier tippets and they still won’t see it. Play it safe and up your weight.
Fish Deep and Flashy
The upper water columns are usually filled with the debris during rain events resulting in off-color water.
That’s easy to see as twigs, branches, and leaves come drifting by in the current. Anglers can combat this by getting their flies down deep and using flashy patterns. Flies with plenty of flash work especially well in these situations. Rainbow warriors, wooly buggers, and certain stoneflies work fantastic when the water is off-color. By fishing them in a multi-nymph rig anglers can effectively cover the bottom of deeper holes and runs where trout will be hunkered down waiting for the water to clear.
Fish Water You Know
Of all the challenges facing anglers in off-color water, perhaps none are as daunting as the inability to accurately gauge water depth. Runs and drop-offs are indistinguishable in poor condition, but this hardship can be lessened by fishing water you know. Those little pockets of depth and deeper channels will be known in even the murkiest of water. This can help save time probing from spot to spot finding appropriate depth and make it so that every cast is in the fish zone.
5 Trout Flies For Muddy Water
Your odds of success are heavily dependent on your choice of fly patterns in murky water.
Usually, I like to fish smaller flies and little nymph patterns, but fly fishing in high water and in its apparent low water clarity means you need patterns that can be easily spotted. That’s when I leave all that in the car and bring a small selection of bright attractors, large heavy nymph patterns, and flashy streamers.
Don’t be afraid to go big. Remember, water flows are much faster and higher so it will take much more weight to get down to where the fish are holding. If you feel like you’re not getting down fast enough, add a split shot or two a few inches above your flies.
Here are trout flies we use in high muddy water.
1. White Muddy Bunny
White shows up well in dirty water and has a decent contrast. Most anglers do not know that streamers, like this one, dead drifted below an indicator can be extremely effective.
2. Newbury’s Dirty Hipster
We like this fly for the simple reason that it has a larger profile, a bit of a flash, and a heavy tungsten bead than other nymphs. In fast turbulent water, the Dirty Hipster will be easier to see drifting by. You can also makeshift this pattern with more flash and synthetic dubbing for a brighter appeal.
3. Tungsten Missile
Tungsten Missile nymphs were designed to present a lot of flash in a fast-sinking slender body with a buggy presentation. It’s not that it perfectly resembles any insect in specific — it’s that the Tungsten Missile looks edible enough and has the right silhouette.
4. Beaded Black Woolly Bugger
In muddy water or high flows, trout probably won’t venture far into the main current to chase a Woolly Bugger on retrieve, but dead-drift one of these is an easy meal too good to pass up. We will fish soft pockets and eddies by swinging this through with great success.
5. Squirmy Wormy
Aquatic worms are commonly found in the banks and muddy streambeds helping decompose leaves, fallen branches, and other organic matter. Heavy flows will often sweep these worms up from their holes and put them drifting helplessly in the current. Target downstream of structures like rocks, trees, roots, and anything else that would drastically slow down flows and give these feeding trout a break from the current.
Here is the complete breakdown of tips for fly fishing blown out streams:
- Cast along seams and slower moving pools along the banks and behind obstructions.
- Use weighted nymphs to get down near the bottom
- Streamers can be swung for larger fish
- Split-shots are great for adding more weight
- Use indicators to place precision shots in seams you can’t reach
- Never attempt to cross the stream or wade in
- Use a wading stick to carefully place your feet along the banks
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