Trout Fishing in High Water

When spring arrives all of us fly fishing anglers breathe a sigh of relief. It's time to dust off your fly rods, get the flies you tied over the winter ready and start thinking about which river you're going to hit on the opening day of the season.
trout fishing in high water

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With the end of winter also comes a lot of high water thanks to snowmelt or early spring stormy weather that fill up the rivers. It is worth fly when there is high water? Yes, absolutely, and here is how to go high water trout fishing.

Finding Fish In High Water Flows

Finding Fish In High Water Flows

The first key to success in high water trout fishing is finding out where the fish will be sitting in the river. Since the water levels will be high, a river you know like the back of your hand might look very different when the water is high. Don’t be put off by this, remember to think like a trout, where would you be in a fast high water river? That’s right, in any slow water you can find.

Look for slower flows along the banks, in eddies, inside bends, behind cover like trees or rocks, and in soft inside seams. The slower water flow in these areas will allow the trout to hold in them without wasting too much energy and while feeding on a meal or two. So when fly fishing high water, slow water is the only place you fish.

What depth do trout sit at in high water?

high water trout fishing

High flows equal a lot of current and trout will often sit deep at the bottom to avoid the stronger surface current of the stream or river, but this is not always the case. It’s worth paying attention to the runoff levels and whether the river or stream is rising, falling, or holding.

If the river levels are rising, then chances are it’s experiencing a lot of runoff and runoff also equals a lot of debris. When this happens, the trout tend to move from deep on to the bottom and a few feet closer to the surface.

They are still in areas with slower water like along the bank but have moved up in the water column to avoid being hit but logs and such that were brought into the river by the runoff and are now a weapon of the current.

So, when you’re fly fishing in high flows, be sure to check if the rivers are rising, holding, or falling, and then adjust your fishing depth accordingly.

When you find fish, you find a lot of them

When you find fish you find a lot of them

When fishing during high water, once you hook a fish, keep on fishing in that same spot. There are only so many places in the water where fish like trout can hold in these kinds of conditions and they will most likely be stacked up in a shoal. Just keep running your flies through the same hole with the same drift and you’ll keep having to get your net out.

Don’t stop fishing that spot until you are sure you have caught them all, plus don’t be afraid to fish that spot again later in the day.

Big fish come out to play in high water

If you’re one of those fly anglers that’s always wanted to catch a big trout in a river of 7lbs or more (which means all of us!) then after runoff and in high water is the time to do it. Bigger trout love to hunt under the cover of high and dirty water with less visibility so it’s certainly the right time to use streamers in rivers, and big ones too.

What gear should you use in high water?

Rods

Rods

When high flows are pumping, it’s not a time for your delicate 4 weight fly rod. You’re going to be fishing heavy flies and when you hook up to a fish the current is going add a lot of fight.

The rod to use is a 5, 6, or even 7 weight when the water is high. This will give you the edge when casting big heavy flies to edges of banks or seams and if you do connect with a big fish, then your rod will have the power needed to fight it and the current.

Check out our breakdown of the best rod weights below:

Leader & Tippet

During times of high water, visibility isn’t that great and while fish can still see, presentation isn’t all that important. Plus with the chances of a big trout taking your fly, it’s not time to mess around with light leader and tippet.

You should be fishing 0X-3X tippet during high water just in case you find a monster on the end of the line. Plus your fly patterns will be heavy so you’re likely to get into a lot of snags, and you’ll get a load more flies back with heavier line.

Want to know the difference between a leader and a tippet? See our post here on Fly Fishing Leader and Tippet Explained.

Fly lines

It’s highly recommended to walk the bank of the river with two rods during high water. Have one loaded up with a sinking line and a streamer and the other ready to with a floating line and a nymphing rig. This allows you to cover a great range of depths and hunt for those larger specimens. 

Carrying some split shot is also a good idea in case you need to tie some extra weight on to get your fly pattern deeper. You can also add a strike indicator to your nymph setup, which is especially handy when dealing with strange currents.

Which fly patterns work in high water?

Which fly patterns work in high water

As you have probably noticed from what I’ve mentioned above, high water is time for big streamers and big heavy nymphs, and it not’s time to cast a dry fly.

Nymphs

During the runoff, trout are in search of as much free food that can find to fill up on after winter. Luckily during this time of year all the grubs, the insects, and bugs laid before winter will have been flushed into the river providing a lot of free food for the fish and they will be feeding as much as possible.

Fly patterns like worms, copper johns, scuds, caddis, stoneflies, craneflies, leeches, and more are all patterns the trout will eat.

When fishing nymphs you need them to be heavy so they get down deep quickly through the fast water on an upstream cast. This means your nymph needs to be big, like size 4-10, and be weighed down a lot so they can sink to the bottom when landed upstream of the bank or soft water.

You can also get a lot closer to the fish as the water is dirty which allows you to leave the strike indicator behind and make shorter casts. This is where your 10-foot rods come into play as you can hold your flies in the feeding zone for a lot longer.

Streamers

streamers

If you fish a streamer during high water, you might not catch as many fish as with a nymph pattern but you’re more likely to catch a fish that will make your season. I prefer to fish with a big dark streamer and strip it in slow on a sinking line. The darker color is far easier to see for the fish and if there is a little bit of flash in there, it will help catch any light that might break through the surface.

Also, do not be scared to use a huge streamer, I’m talking 4 inches long or more. This tip has caught me more trophies than any other, so use it. Also, don’t downstream too quickly with streamers during high water, give the fish a few chances to see and eat it. Cast in the same spot 4-5 times before moving on.

Presentation is important too but it shouldn’t be soft, make sure the streamer pattern lands loudly with a lot of noise so that fish see it and hopefully eat it without question.

Wading probably isn’t necessary

Now that we have run through all the tips on where the fish will be in high water, what gear to use,m and which fly patterns work well, it’s time to think about strategy.

Since the fish are going to be held up near the bank and looking for food, anglers in search of an early-season trophy should never wade, or almost never. The fish are going to be close to you and out of the fast water meaning you can make your cast from a few feet before the river starts.

At a maximum, you could wade to about ankle depth, or into a slowish area to get your positioning right for a cast, but no more than that. The last thing you want is to spook a trophy trout out of that slow bankside water you were about to fish.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t wear waders though, you definitely should. It’s usually cold out during high water and the river temperature will be super chilly.

Just remember, safety is the most important aspect of fishing when the water is high. Above all be careful, and tight lines!

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