Sunday’s Classic / 3 Tips for Fishing High & Dirty Water for Trout

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Trophy brown trout landed during high and dirty water. Photo By: Louis Cahill

Have you ever pulled up to a stream after a heavy rain ready to fish but canceled your fishing plans because the water looked too high and dirty? I’ll be the first to admit there are times when this is the case, but very often, anglers turn around and head home when they should have Fished-ON. The fact is, trout can see a whole lot better than we think in dirty water with their ultraviolet vision. If you fish the right kinds of fly patterns and target the right water, in many cases you can do pretty darn good fishing in water conditions that are high and dirty. Even better, your odds at catching a trophy class fish are increased because the dingy water will mask your approach and also keep big educated trout from being able to scrutinize your fly patterns so much. So go ahead, call those anglers you despise and tell them the waters blown out. You’ll have a good chance of having the water to yourself and wailing on fish all day long. Don’t be afraid of dirty water. In many cases it can be your friend.

Tip 1. Target the Right Kinds of Water

So you’ve decided to take my advice and fish on, good for you. The first thing you need to do when fishing high and dirty water is target high percentage water. I search out the slower moving seams close to the banks, long stretches of fast shallow water that are followed by buckets or deep water where the fish will stack up, and eddies behind boulders or lay downs. These are all safe havens that trout search out refuge in during high water. They all allow trout to save energy by staying out of the excessive current, while capitalizing on the large influx of food sources drifting downstream. Increased flows and rising water increases the amount of food available for trout. Many aquatic insects get flushed off the bottom of the stream, while others emerge from the freshly submerged stream banks. Examples of this are big stoneflies that are normally found hiding away in clumps of debris and under rocks, and cranefly larva or earthworms that get washed in from the high water flowing along the banks.

Tip 2. Choose Larger and Brighter Fly Patterns

The second thing an angler needs to do to increase their success rate while fishing high and dirty water is choose the right kinds of fly patterns to fish. This is the one time when I feel I don’t have to carry my entire arsenal of gear. I’ll gladly leave my fly boxes with all my tiny fly patterns and light tippet spools at the vehicle. I’ll rig up a 9′-12′ 3x-4x fluorocarbon leader and carry only my fly boxes with large nymphs, bright attractors (eggs and san juan worms), and streamers. What ever you do, don’t be afraid to go big with your fly selection. For instance, larger than average egg patterns work really well in dirty water. The larger profile and bright colors allow the fish to pick them up quickly in the low water clarity. I also like to use big bulky nymph patterns, like Kevin Howells, “Big Nasty”. Any rubberleg stonefly patterns in black or brown will work. If you want to try something a little different you can fish streamer patterns dead drifted under an indicator, like white zonkers, which can be deadly. Most anglers do not realize how well white shows up in dingy water. Your standard Grey woolly bugger work fantastic for imitating cranefly larva, or you can take a more realistic approach using a “Barr’s Cranefly Larva”.

Tip 3. Don’t Be Shy with Split-Shot, Fish Thoroughly, Try Streamers

One things for sure, make sure you pack plenty of split-shot and don’t be afraid to use it. The higher water is going to call for adding more weight to your nymph rig to get your flies down in the strike zone. Be sure to take more time to fish pieces of water more thoroughly before you move on and make sure you get plenty of drifts close to the banks. The trout will use the irregular banks as current breaks. Remember that you’re going to have to get the flies closer to the fish for them to see them, and they usually won’t get spooked from repeated casts. Overall, I find nymphing most productive for me during high water, but  streamers can be just as deadly. Try pounding the banks with streamers patterns that push a lot of water. Rubber legs, some flash here and there, and rattles incorporated into your streamers, can increase their effectiveness. Lastly, your retrieve speed should generally be slower rate than what you would normally retrieve in normal flows and water clarity, but by all means, change up your retrieve if you’re not getting bites.

So there you go, that’s my tips for fishing high and dirty water for trout. I hope it persuades some of you anglers out there that normally avoid these water conditions to stick around and fish on.

Keep it Reel,

Kent Klewein
Gink & Gasoline
www.ginkandgasoline.com
hookups@ginkandgasoline.com
 
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20 thoughts on “Sunday’s Classic / 3 Tips for Fishing High & Dirty Water for Trout

  1. nice post, i also enjoy chasing after trout in high and dirty water. we had a lot of high murky flows this spring and it was make or break in guiding to be able to find the fish in these types of situations. on another note, we’ve had lots of rain and runoff this early summer and it’s made smallmouth fishing challenging. what are your tips for catching smallies in high and dirty water?

    • Scott,

      I’m no expert fishing for smallies on rivers. I’ve got much more experience fishing for them on reservoirs. Hopefully someone in the G&G community can provide you a few tips for high and dirty water on the rivers.

      Kent

      • Scott, I was just up in Michigan this week and fished for smallmouth and carp on the Huron River and had a blast. Schultz Outfitters in Ypsilanti was awesome and more than willing to share tips and point me in the right direction while I was up there which made all the difference for me. If anyone ever gets a chance to fish the Huron this time of year, I definitely recommend it. Look them up and give them a shout. Gabe, Katie, and Corey will be glad to share some tips on high/dirty water fishing for smallmouth.

    • Water has been high here in Richmond Virginia on the James this year. We’re having a lot of success on streamers for Smallmouth bass that imitate jerkbaits, specifically Murdich Minnow in dark colors. Fish it close to the bank and in slack water

    • I live on the same block as the Kalamazoo River (sister River to the Huron that runs west to Lake Michigan). We love water with color, a little mystery. The cool thing about heavy water is it tends to really stack up big smallies, so if you catch one you are pretty likely to catch a few more right there. Slow is good but don’t hurry to load on the shot they tend to look up when it’s dark and you’ll be fishing soft water anyway. My go to fly for this water is a wooly bugger with silver / copper bead head and rubber legs in a contrasting color. Some are built with different quantities of lead wraps. Start with a short cast up stream and guide through the hole Chech nymph style, let it turn and flutter for a few seconds, often when you start you next cast you’ll set the hook on a fish, although they tend to be smaller ones. When you do get a take you’ll usually feel the weight more than the sharp hit you are use to.

      Obviously I’m wading and it does help to know the river, where the fish tend to hold, and when and where it is safe to wade. Big stable logs that you crawl over with normal flows may move a round under high water. Like I said the fish tend to stack up so you shouldn’t need to cover a lot of water to find a bunch of fish. Have fun, but stay alert.

  2. I love fishing dirty or stained water. My fly selection becomes simpler and its just plain fun in my opinion. One thing with high water that I enjoy is that runs are extended with the higher water, and with that so are the tailouts of those runs. I catch the majority of my fish in these tail outs, and a lot of my bigger fish as well. Great post kent

  3. Kent,
    Is it too soon to pull this post down? We had really high, dirty water for the past two weeks and the rivers were empty of fisherman and big on large, unwary trout. Rubber leg buggers and big black buggers were my flies and that was all I needed with some 3x tippett. Your advice here was spot on and I wish you would take it down to keep the rivers empty. Thanks for all the great advice.

    • Gordon,

      It’s up for good unfortunately :). That is fantastic that you’re catching good fish. Never can go wrong with a black woolly bugger. Thanks for the comment.

      Kent

  4. What timely post. Most of our finest trout rivers are flooding in Alberta right now. If I’m going to fish this month, it will be in high and muddy water. Thanks guys!

  5. Fished a central Alberta brown Trout stream (before the catastrophe happened) and did unreal with a yellow and white bugger. Gonna be a bit before we get back out there though. Keep up the good tips guys!

  6. I love fishing rising waters during the storm. Your mention of crane fly larva is spot on. I do think these get dislodged or injured during high flow. For those of you who have ever held these chunky creatures captive in a tub of water you’ll know that these helpless looking creatures can transform into slender swimming machines in a instant. Their ‘back end’ forms into a thin paddle like tail and off they go. I’ll fish a very large cream colored wolly bugger with black tungsten eyes in a dead drift/ swim/ dead drift/ swim motion. Monster brows love to hit right after I start the swim motion.

  7. Kent,

    I am late to the show, as I saved and just read this email and thread. I support everything you said about tactics. The only caveat is the issue of safe wading when you can’t see the bottom. I do not shy away from muddy water, but I generally stick to places where I know the bottom well. I move slower (which fits with your tactic of working the over water well). My friends and I have had some pretty terrific days on muddy water, usually with less fish than normal for a given location but good size because we use bigger flies as you suggested.

    • Ralph,

      Great tip that I should have added, but you have now 🙂 Muddy water does provided extra risk when wading. Anglers should take extra care and time when moving through the water, especially when they aren’t very familiar with the water.

      Kent

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