Finding Hope in High Water
Swinging flies for steelhead in high dirty water isn’t something I look forward to. Most anglers who swing flies for steelhead know fishing is better when the water is coming down. But, just like the weather, fishing can change at any moment. Some-time towards spring, when the snow melts and the rain begins, the rivers here will come up, cool off and become extremely dirty. As an angler who likes to pursue steelhead on a swung fly, this can be a hair pulling situation. What do we do, where do we fish and how can we do it with some success on the swing?
For a guide, who makes his living on the water, this can be discouraging in many ways. How high up river will you have to go? Will the fly tract slowly? Is the water too dirty and are the fish even there? These are all questions that go through my head. The worse one though is when the water is too high and you need to cut your losses and make that dreaded phone call cancelling the trip. High water can be a stressful situation.
Steelhead fishing this time of year is a mixture of old and new fish in the system. The majority of the fall and winter fish are starting to work their way up to their spawning grounds. These steelhead are very lethargic and really need to be coaxed into eating a swung fly. They are much darker now with red crimson stripes and cheeks to match. Then, there are the bright new chrome steelhead that are fresh from Lake Michigan. Under normal water conditions, these spring steelhead, just like the winter fish, will move up the river slowly and hold in normal lies. These are classic steelhead pools that swing your fly well, tracking it slowly with high hopes of coaxing a fish to take. Fishing can be good. The wading and casting easy. Then one day it starts to warm, the snow lets loose and that night the rain comes. The next day the water is up and getting dirty. The game has changed, the deck is getting restacked.
I call this scenario the “Down and Dirty.” If you can wade the river safely without going for a swim, you can still hook steelhead on the swung fly. The first thing you will need to do is change your gear. You’re going to need to fish the fly as slow as you can and closer to the bottom. The water is cold and dirty, hanging that fly in front of their face is crucial. Teasing the fish with a slower swing in these conditions is the best way to get that tug.
You need to start by switching your tackle. First, the Skagit head. These days, line manufacturers are giving us many options when it comes to swinging up fish. The Skagit intermediate head is my go to line here in the Great Lakes and espe-cially when fishing cold or high water. All the line manufacturers make one. My favorite is the Airflo Compact Intermediate and the Airflo F.I.S.T (floating, intermediate, sink-three) Skagit heads. These lines will get your fly down quicker and track much slower in the current.
For a sink tip, I usually run 10 to 12 feet of T-14. Sometimes, I might even use a small section of T-18. Tippet size is where you re-ally get the advantage over the fish. This can be a blessing on this little river which is full of logs and debris. When the water is this high and dirty you can run some heavy line. I will run 12 or 15 pound Maxima off my sink tip (I usually run fluorocarbon under normal river conditions, the Pere Marquette can be very clear).
This is where things get a little dirty. In normal water level conditions, I’m not a fan of fishing a lot of weight on my flies. It’s more difficult to cast, especially, with the Intermediate head. However, when the water comes up high, it is necessary to weight the flies. I have my clients make more roll casts instead of Spey casts. If you have ever seen or fished the Pere Marquette River you will realize a Spey cast isn’t necessary in most spots, just a tight roll cast to get the fly under the overhanging trees will do just fine. I used to weight the flies with either medium to large lead eyes but I find tying them with no weight is far less time consuming.
At the vise, I will make my patterns with no weight and on the water, I will add worm weights to the flies. I learned this a long time ago from my West Coast angling friends. The worm weights I prefer are not super heavy. I use weights no bigger than 1/16 of an ounce. A longer sink-tip and sliding a worm weight in front of the fly will allow you to get the fly down much quicker into the steelhead’s zone.
I find success using bigger, darker fly pat-terns. Add some flash or something bright to grab that fish’s attention in these conditions. I still like to have a lot of movement in my flies. Whether they’re tied as a rabbit leech style or Intruder style, focus on having a lot of movement. I believe this is key in high, cold water, especially if you’re fishing with more weight on the fly. Give your fly more movement in the swing, and especially from the fish’s perspective –the way they might see it as you’re trying to slow it down in the water column.
I thought of this for a while and tried a lot of different materials until one day while surfing the web I found a fly that intrigued me. It was the “Squidro”. This fly was tied by someone who I have always looked up to and had the pleasure working with for few years at Katmai Lodge, Scott Howell. I knew if Scott fished this “Squidro” for steelhead, it did its job and did it well. These flies are similar to the “Squidro”, instead of less material, I use more. I like to bulk the fly up a little, giving it a bigger profile not only from a side view but more importantly, from the back. I use
bass jig skirts, they’re a little thicker and come in wide variety of colors. They hold up well to fish, casting and most importantly, trees. Using the
Intermediate head and the T-14 sink-tip, along with worm weights, your fly
should be down towards the bottom. With this sink rate, you might even tick the bottom ever so slightly. It is not a bad thing if you’re hitting bottom a little. It gives you more confidence that your fly is down in the fish’s zone. If you are snagging up a lot, I would switch the length of your T-14, and lighten up a little. You don’t want to be losing flies on regular basis, and you don’t want the fly so heavy that it prohibits your swing.
Finding Productive Water
Where do you fish when the current is moving and the water clarity is dirty? Over the years, on small rivers such as the Pere Marquette. I have found the majority of the steelhead during high water are in slow flat runs of three to five feet in depth. These could be long runs or just small breaks in the current. Places where these fish can get out of the main flow to rest. When the water comes up, the emergency brakes come off and the fish are on the move. They need to stop at some point to rest.
Slack water, that has just enough current speed to swing your fly can be an ideal spot to battle with a bright chrome spring fish or a giant double-stripe buck from winter. Another area to focus on are the slower more extreme tailouts. When my clients are swinging a run in high water, we hook a big percentage of fish past where you would think the run would end. When you think you’re done with a run, try to fish at least three more steps down. You never know, it could be the day maker.
Always try to let your fly swing all the way in, don’t be in hurry. Let the fly fish until the dangle. Then, let it dangle. When the water is fast you will find a lot of fish on the inside of runs. Steel-head do not like to exert energy, they will take the easiest path possible when moving up the river. They will swim on the slower insides of runs and bends rather than in the main current flow. You will be surprised how many fish can be sitting just off your rod tip.
I have witnessed fresh steelhead crush the fly on the dangle without giving it even a pull during the swing itself. Makes me wonder if these bright fish just happened to be swim-ming upstream and, as luck would have it, swam right into the fly. Getting lucky in these conditions isn’t a bad thing.
These scenarios are what make steelhead so intriguing and humbling. Steelhead fishing always has me thinking outside the box. It’s what drives the passion and addiction for me. Next time the rivers come up and you think swinging flies for steelhead is out of the ques-tion, hopefully these tactics will give you more confidence and some success on the water.
Sometimes you need to just get “Down and Dirty.”
Jeff Hubbard has been a full time Fly Fishing Guide since 1998. Jeff owns and operates Outfitters North Guide Service. He has always has had a passion for swinging flies on smaller rivers, like his home river the Pere Marquette. Where he spends many days guiding clients year round. Jeff has been featured in many articles, T.V. shows and DVD’s. When he isn’t on the water he enjoys some of the other perks Northern Michigan has to offer. You can check out his very informative web site at www.outfittersnorth.com.