Story and Photographs by David Hughes
The first time catching trout in high water, especially if it’s off-color, is finding the fish. It’s an old rule: If you fish where trout are not, you’re not very likely to catch them. It’s possible that the most important skill in all of trout fishing at any time of year is learning to read the water. The value of that skill is magnified when the water is up and opaque.
Last spring Jason Newmack, guiding out of The Lodge at Eagle Rock on Montana’s Missouri River, took my wife, Masako, and me off the main river for a day to fish for brown trout in a favorite tributary stream that has its sources on the slopes of the Big Belt Mountains but flows for most of its course through lands that I’ll call gently rolling buffalo hills. The buffalo were missing, but the trout were there.
Snowmelt, conspiring with an unlucky rain a day or two earlier, caused the creek to be high and what generously could be called cloudy. Masako and I stood on a bridge, looked down at the water and expressed our lack of enthusiasm about fishing it.
“The trout are still in there,” Jason said. “We’ll just need to find them.”
The first thing he taught us: When the water is pushy, trout move out of central flows and look for soft spots where they can hold without fighting strong currents. More often than not, those areas of easier living are located at or near the edges of a stream.
Bank lies are usually easy to read in high water, once you get accustomed to the idea that trout will move into lies that would put them at risk of predation in normal flows. The same silted water that makes them more difficult to locate for the angler makes them almost impossible for predators to spot. Trout that normally hang out in the safer central depths become comfortable in clouded water that is just two to three feet deep, especially if it’s slower and less brutal than the water around it.
Protruding boulders, indentations in the bank and eddies are all obvious edge areas where the current is broken and trout can hold at their ease. Any boil breaking up to the surface, whether right at the bank or 10 to 15 feet from it, speaks of a boulder interrupting the current along the bottom. Sometimes you’ll find a riffle corner—a small shelf that deflects the current outward—where at normal flows there might not be any water. Aquatic insects and crustaceans migrate onto that shelf. Trout move into the peaceful water just downstream from the shelf to intercept any unfortunates that become dislodged by the current.
Trout are highly motivated to feed in spring. They’ve struggled through the paucity of winter. The water, even if it’s high and less than pretty, is warming up, prodding aquatics into activity. Salmonflies and golden stones, those big and early season insects, migrate to shore as nymphs for the process of crawling out to emerge as adults. These migrations are another reason you’ll find trout taking up lies along the edges in spring. Big stonefly hatches often happen when the water is still high. Trout see a combination of abundant nymphs crawling awkwardly along the bottom and gathering at the shoreline, then they see increasing numbers of adults falling from overhanging vegetation, fluttering anxiously along on surface currents.
We always think first of fishing streamers when the water is high and off-color. That’s not a bad idea, but be sure to toss them to those soft spots, not the more brisk and brutal central currents where you normally would find fish. Use streamers of modest size unless you’re only after monsters. Size 2 to 8 will be visible and substantial enough to move big trout, and you’ll get fewer boils behind them that indicate a trout lost its courage when confronted with a streamer tied on a hook measured in oughts. Streamers should be at least moderately weighted but somewhat less than bricks. You want them to penetrate the surface and achieve a few inches of depth quickly. You can always pinch a split-shot to the tippet just ahead of a streamer, if you want to get it down faster. If you cast one that’s weighted so heavily that it plunges instantly to the bottom in all but deep and fast water, then you’ll catch the bottom far more often than a trout.
Cast those streamers into water that is less than swift. Give them a beat or two to sink, and then coax them into movement with a retrieve that is also less than swift. The idea is to surprise the trout but not frighten them into fleeing. If they don’t strike instantly, which they often do, then the next idea is to con them into a chase. You want your streamer to lose the race. If it wins, you might not get the trout to come back.
The second common method for fishing high and cloudy spring water is with big nymphs rigged under strike indicators, their sink rate usually enhanced by split-shot. Like streamer fishing, this can be a good idea, but remember that you’ll be fishing those soft spots, so you don’t want to rig as heavily as you might think. Use a big bubble indicator; trout won’t be put off by it floating overhead in water with poor visibility. Drop a large nymph three to five feet beneath the indicator; trout will be pleased by a substantial bite, especially when they’re seeing and eating more big stonefly nymphs than anything else. But it’s always good advice to add a size 16 nymph on a trailer tippet 10 inches to a foot behind any big nymph. Trout can’t help noticing that big nymph drifting toward them on the currents. It’s amazing how often they pass on the size 6 nymph for reasons known only to themselves but can’t resist the little size 16 nymph trotting along behind.
We caught brown trout on both of the above methods—streamers and nymphs—that day on the engorged spring stream in Montana. But Jason also introduced us to a version of the dry-and-dropper system that wasn’t far off from what we’d used for years, most often when fishing small water, but adjusted for the water conditions we faced that day. The difference turned out to be the size of the flies and, perhaps as a consequence, the size of the trout we caught on them.
Jason rigged me with a size 8 purple Chubby Chernobyl dry and dropped a size 10 copper/purple Prince beneath it on three feet of stout tippet. While I began nibbling upstream along a promising edge, he rigged Masako with a combination of a size 6 battleship called the Salmon Fly Chubby Chernobyl above a size 10 Pat’s Rubber Legs. In both cases the foam flies, with their white wings, served mostly as platforms to support the nymphs below. They did an excellent job as indicators, though in addition they drew up a few explosions that, unfortunately, failed to result in solid hookups.
Jason guided Masako into position downstream from a broad boulder that protruded so slightly that the current cascaded over the top of it scant feet out from the bank. It was an obvious lie. It didn’t take many casts to locate the three-pound-plus brown tucked behind it.
A few minutes after that excitement I approached a place along an otherwise featureless bank where the roots of a small shrub directed the currents unobtrusively outward. It would have been an easy lie to overlook, but I was covering every bit of bank anyway, placing upstream casts a foot or two away from overhanging vegetation. The big Chernobyl dipped suddenly under just downstream from a shrub, and after a couple of near catastrophes a trout slightly smaller than Masako’s came to Jason’s hand.
It’s easier to condense action in an article than it is on a trout stream. We weren’t into trout like that all day. We covered a lot of high and cloudy water for every trout we found. We used the three different methods and, as mentioned, all worked in their turns. I suspect we switched methods more out of frustration at a long stretch of fruitless fishing than failure of the flies. Soft lies were spaced at infrequent intervals along the stream. So we’d switch methods when we probably should have just reeled up and trotted along until we came to the next promising spot. But it was too pleasant a day and place to be to hurry through it.
One common thread ran through the entire day: Whenever we arrived at an obvious lie, it didn’t matter which method we used to fish it. Trout were in comfortable ambush lies where they were primed to launch attacks. Their size made it well worth all the trouble it took to find those obvious places.