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Tips for Fly Fishing High Water

If you love fly fishing, you know that sometimes the weather and the water conditions are not ideal. Heavy rain can cause rivers and streams to swell and become muddy, making it hard to find and catch fish. But don't let that stop you from enjoying your favourite sport. There are ways to fly fish productively in high water, as long as you follow some safety precautions and adjust your tactics accordingly. Here are some tips to help you fly fish high water successfully.

A solid brown trout from a clearing stream after lots of rain
A solid brown trout from a clearing stream after lots of rain

1. Know when to stay home. Safety is the most important thing when fly fishing in high water. Never wade in a river that is above or near flood level, under a flash flood warning, or unfamiliar to you. You don't want to risk getting swept away by the current, trapped by rising water, or injured by debris. Always check the weather forecast and the river levels before you go, and if in doubt, stay home and wait for better conditions.

2. Look for falling water. The best time to fly fish in high water is when the river is dropping and clearing after a rain event. This means that the fish are more active and willing to feed, as they sense a change in their environment and take advantage of the increased food supply. A falling river also creates more fishable water, as the edges and slower areas become more accessible.

3. Fish the headwaters and tributaries. If the main river is too high and dirty to fish, try exploring its smaller branches and sources. These tend to clear faster and offer more opportunities for finding clear and fishable water. For example, I drove past a main river after heavy rain and it was horrible, flooded, brown and completely unfishable. Even in the lower reaches of a favourite tributary, it was pretty bad, you couldn't fish it at all. But I went right up to the headwaters of that tributary, maybe 6km from the catchment and the river was fishable there and starting to clear significantly.

4. Fish the edges, slow areas and side channels. In high water, fish tend to avoid strong currents and seek out places where they can rest and feed with less effort. These include the banks, behind boulders, in eddies, undercuts, fallen or flooded trees, large rocks, side channels, pocket ponds, and diversions. These are also the places where food items get washed into the water and attract hungry fish.

5. Use big, bright, and/or heavy flies. In high water, visibility is low and fish have a smaller window of opportunity to see and react to your fly. Therefore, you need to use flies that can grab their attention and get down to their level quickly. Larger flies like streamers create more movement and displacement in the water, which fish can feel with their lateral line. Brighter flies contrast better with the murky water and create a stronger silhouette. Heavier flies sink faster and stay deeper in the water column, where most fish are holding.

Some examples of flies that work well in high water are:

- Worm Patterns e.g. San Juan Worms or Squirmy Worms

- Bright beaded patterns e.g. Orange-beaded Hare and Copper

- Streamers e.g. Leech Patterns and Wooly Buggers

An orange beaded hare and copper, ideal for dirty water
An orange beaded hare and copper, ideal for dirty water

6. Use heavier tippet and setup. In high water, you can get away with using heavier tippet since the fish are less likely to see it in the dirty water. This also gives you more strength and control when fighting fish in strong currents and around snags that you can't see in the dirty water and which are more prevalent after floods and around the now-flooded banks.

7. Make repeated presentations. In high water, fish may not see your fly on the first pass or may not be able to react fast enough to take it. Therefore, you need to make multiple casts into a likely spot until you cover it thoroughly or get a take. Try different angles or ways of presenting your fly to see if that makes a difference.

Fly fishing in high water can be challenging but rewarding if you follow these tips. You may find some of your biggest and most memorable fish in these conditions. Just remember to be safe, be patient, and have fun.

In the video below I go through these tips on the water as I fish a clearing tributary. It’s a great way to see it all in action so check it out.

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