It had been too long since I made it to the river. I was at a new job with the airlines and had been living in Kansas City for about a year. It was high time for a fly fishing trip to re-cage. I set my mind on some good old fashioned, summer dry fly fishing in the Rocky Mountains.
I had been burned before by spring snow melt on summer fly fishing trips. Determined to avoid that scenario, I decided that August on the Provo River in Utah would be a safe bet to avoid high water flows and hit some great dry fly fishing with terrestrials. Somehow, I failed to avoid the high river, but I did manage one of the best days fly fishing of my life.
My father and I met at the Salt Lake City airport, grabbed a cheap rental car, and drove to the Holiday Inn just off the highway on the edge of Provo Utah. Unknown to us at the time, this trip was the beginning of the Shemchuk Rendezvous. We decided my brother needed to come on our next fly fishing trip, and that we needed go at least twice per year.
After dropping our bags at the hotel, we visited a local fly shop. A very pleasant guide told us that the Provo River was “a little high” but still fishing good. She showed us some flies that had been working and offered several versions of a fly I had little experience with. The scud. We paid up, said thanks, and drove off to get some fishing in before dark.
I do not remember what the CFS (Cubic Feet per Second) was, but I clearly remember walking up to the bank of the Provo River and thinking, “Epic fail Jason.” The water was more than “a little high”.
Confusion set in. How could this have happened? August should have been great for water flows. Surely, all the snow had melted from the winter. I struggled to imagine how we would approach the river and find trout.
Later we discovered that there had been a drought. We had planned our trip for the week that the state was letting extra water out of the Deer Creek Reservoir for the farmers in the valley. All that effort to avoid the snow melt and we still got stuck with high water.
We had no choice but to spend the next four days plying our luck and pursuing trout in less than optimum conditions, leaning on some experience and learning as we went. Things were not going according to plan.
High rivers could be due to snow melt, rain, or in my case, the unlucky and untimely release of water from a hydroelectric dam above a tailwater fishery.
Here are some tactics to get you into the fish when you land on the banks of a river that is “a little high”.
Fish the Upper
The further up the river you go the fewer mountain streams have an opportunity to flow into the river. This fact, combined with the cooler temperatures high up, usually makes the runoff at least somewhat less predominant. Wading can be easier, and the river begins to be a more familiar scene where normal trout hangouts are recognizable.
Fish Way Up
If the river is way too high, it may be time to take a hike. Fishing the mountain streams is the same concept as fishing the upper. There is less opportunity for the water levels to rise. This is an option if everything is blown out and you don’t have many choices.
Fish a Tailwater
A tailwater is a river that flows downstream from a structure, reservoir or hydroelectric dam that regulates the flow of water. If the snow melt is making the rivers too high to fish, it may be hard to find another river nearby that is much better. A tailwater fishery is sometimes a good bet because the water flows are less dependent on snow melt. It is not a guarantee, because as the water above the dam rises, they may have to let water out, but the flows can be moderated and less extreme. When they were letting water out of the Deer Creek Reservoir on the Provo, we took a day and went to fish the Green River. The long drive wasted some time, but we made it to another tailwater that was easier to wade and caught some nice trout.
Fish Through It
If the river is high but still fishing, it is going to require adjusting your tactics a bit to find where the fish are.
A trout is still a trout in high water, and his trout DNA still drives his behavior.
It may be harder to identify, but the same principles of where fish lie in a river, and what they eat are applicable when the river is high.
Where Do the Fish Go?
Slack Water. When the water rises, and flows increase there is less slow water for fish to rest in. The slow water that does exist is prime real estate for fish trying to relax and eat food. This means trout will “stack up” in slack water, dead drifts, pockets, and eddies that provide a reprieve from the fast currents. This can be good for fishing. If there are less places that fish want to be, then that means more fish will have to re-locate to the good spots. With normal water levels these areas can be stagnant and might not be as good fishing because there is less flow and less food.
Back Currents. Another hot spot when the river is high are back currents where the water flows upstream. Like slack water, these areas provide a place for a fish to sit tight and move in and out of seams to feed without having to work too hard.
Shelves and Undercuts. Shelves that are usually not underwater and undercuts that are usually further up the bank are good opportunities for locating fish in a high flow situation. As the water rises fish can move closer to the grassy overhangs and shorelines that were unreachable before. This helps them reach food in the earth there.
Should I Change My Rig?
I make some basic adjustments to my set up when I am fishing high water. The deeper water means longer leaders and heavier split shot. I try to not use more than two split shot at a time to help prevent tangles, so I will just use heavier pieces. The heavier split shot helps the flies get down in the deeper, faster water.
Fishing high water flows makes everything a little less about finesse and more about muscling the rig out to the fish. I move my strike indicator up as required for the deeper water and use larger tippet, such as 4X or 3X, because the need for light tippet is not there. Dirt and debris from the banks are washing into the river bringing water clarity down.
What Flies Should I Use?
I almost always nymph in high water, but terrestrials and other dries can work well along banks and shelves where fish are closer to that food source. Bigger nymphs, streamers, and worms are good options. Think about how the rain or run off is affecting the bugs in the ground and exposing them to the trout habitat. These food sources are displaced by the water and make it to trout in the river.
Ask a Guide
It is always a good idea to call ahead and ask a guide how the river is fishing, but it is especially good to get some tips when the water is high. If you are not familiar with fishing high water, you may get some bang for your buck paying for a guide. They have seen this river in all seasons and all flows, and they have got a way to catch fish that will work. A guide’s services, even for a half day, can help you learn what is working on the river and guide you through the tactics of fishing high water.
There is usually a line in the sand between “water’s pretty high” and “river is blown out”. If it is not obvious to you if the river is even fishable, a guide shop can help you tell the difference. If the river is blown out there will not be anyone fishing it. It can be dangerous to get in or near raging spring rivers. If this is the case, they can help point you in the correct direction towards other fishable streams.
How It Played Out on the Provo
Our inaugural Shemchuk Rendezvous on the Provo began in frustration and ended in pure joy. We fished the Provo the evening we arrived with limited success. The next day we fished the upper with more luck. Day three we drove out to the Green River and caught some nice rainbows. On the last day we returned to the Provo and found a very good section of slack water. I set up a long leader, with 3X tippet, and heavy split shot. I tied on almost every fly I had, and then started nailing beautiful big browns on a size 14 orange scud. A fly I had never fished before, in a river I had almost given up on. One after another, each more beautiful than the next. I fished that slack water and caught those browns until it was too dark to see the takes.
If you show up and the water is high do not lose hope. The fish are still in the river, and they are still eating. You may just have one of the best days fly fishing of your life, so Wadeoutthere.