Hell or High Water

Fly-Fishing During Spring Run-off

  • By: Maximilian Werner
billy peterson brown[1].jpg

Here in Utah, spring runoff usually starts in May, peaks in June and sometimes stretches well into July. Exactly how long the process takes depends on the amount of snow pack.

Although this year’s snow pack totals vary geographically (southern Utah had an epic snow year, whereas northern Utah was generally below normal), as of January 1, the snow pack total of the Provo River was listed at 137 percent. On top of that, we had a particularly wet May. Anyone who understands the importance of water here in the West knows that the more we get, the better. But this general truth is easy to overlook: For many anglers, all that water typically means delaying spring fishing or at least seriously undermining one’s ability to catch trout. At least that seems to be the perception.(PHOTO: BILLY PETERSON)

A couple weeks ago, I called my friend Banjo and asked him to go fishing. I knew he hadn’t been out for a while, so I was sure he would go come hell or high water. Maybe he would have gone come hell (he‘s Irish Catholic, after all), but high water was out of the question.

It’s spring runoff, MW. Sorry, but I’m going to have to pass.

Of course I didn’t blame Banjo: When the water is that high there is almost no dry-fly action to speak of, and nymphing is next to impossible. Assuming an angler can find a line at all, the water is moving so fast that the flies get swept far down river before they’ve even had a chance to sink. There are a lot of bad feelings in the world, and pulling up to the river for some fishing on your day off and seeing the water moving high and fast is one of them. I can only speculate about how the high water affects the trout, but they probably cope with it in much the same way we cope with any adverse weather condition: They do their best to get out of it.

As part of the restoration of the middle Provo (see http://www.mitigationcommission.gov/prrp/prrp.html for details about this project), crews placed boulders along the banks and in various places throughout the river. These boulders create breaks in the water, which is one of the places where big trout hold during high water. The breaks farther out in the river are harder to fish because of drag, but fishing those along the banks is easy going provided the angler understands how the structure of the breaks informs trout behavior.

When I was a kid growing up in northern Maine, the snow would fall for days and we might spend days at a time indoors. Trips to the store or anywhere else were kept to a minimum. Luckily, my mother kept enough food in the house to get us through the storm. For its part, the trout likely hunkers down and eats whatever happens to floats into its immediate environment.

The environment I have in mind consists of the high, fast water; the relatively still water that forms below boulders or other obstructions; and the seam that joins the fast and slow water. However much the waterscape may change, what does not change is that the trout must balance its need for food and protection without wasting energy.

This is probably why I don’t see trout lolling in the slow, clear water below the breaks. For while these areas offer food and don’t require the trout to spend much energy, they expose the trout to predation, especially from fish hawks, whose chicks hatch through May and June and need to be fed a steady diet of trout flesh.

I hadn’t yet figured all this out when I first started fishing below the breaks, so I would cast to the middle of the slow water and strip. I enjoyed watching my streamer do its thing, but rarely did it attract the interest of trout. Then I tried stripping across the fast water into the slow water along the bank and that seemed to work. Whereas before I wouldn’t get any strikes, now I was getting a strike every once in a while. Eventually a pattern emerged and I realized that the closer I fished to the seam, the greater frequency were the strikes. I know this seems obvious: Look in any fly-fishing manual and there will be a section on seams as preferred trout habitat. However, insofar as most manuals depict seams as relatively benign transition zones, they do not accurately describe the seams that form during high water, which are extremely fast and powerful.

Banjo’s refusal to fish that day again comes to mind, for during high water one would not expect trout to be doing much of anything except hunkering down, sitting tight, and waiting for the deluge to pass. But like my friend Metcalf always says whenever we are confronted with less-than-ideal water conditions, the trout have still got to eat. Thus life goes on despite changes in the environment and for trout that means hunting high water seams with predictable regularity.

Why this didn’t occur to me sooner is a function of my humanness. In the past I’ve said things like If I were a trout, I would do X. But most of the time it’s not what a trout would do, but rather what I would do as a human. I see the fast water and my initial reaction is avoidance. However, our imaginative avoidance has little to do with the trout’s reality. That is, trout cannot avoid high water. They have no choice but to deal with it while at the same time meeting their basic needs. The water is not my home, so I often misunderstand it and by doing so I misunderstand the trout. But I don’t think it has to be this way.

I don’t know where we get our ideas about fishing during run-off or any other time, for that matter. Maybe they are a combination of instinct, experience, and the advice from the boys down at the local fly shop. Whatever the case, sometimes it’s better to quiet those voices and try something that doesn‘t seem to make a whole lot of sense. I know many anglers measure their own and other anglers’ worth by how much they think they know, so the idea that we would ignore bits of that hard won knowledge might seem unthinkable.

But that is exactly my point: We become so entrenched in our ways of doing things that we forget that fishing is part of life and that life is really just one big experiment.

Maximilian Werner is the author of the recently-published Black River Dreams. He wrote the second place story in the 2008 Traver Fly-Fishing Writing Award competition. Contact him at mswerner@gmail.com.