Thoughts on Taking High Water Trout

JUST A NOTE: The below post refers to trout, however it can also be applied to almost any other fish that is caught in rivers.

On my birthday – the 21st September – Francois Malherbe and myself headed out to du Toit’s Kloof to fish a beat on the Elandspad River, a tributary of the Smalblaar and Molenaars Rivers. All reports had said that streams were in full spate and that fishing would be impossible. Quite a few people said that it was a waste of time and the drive would unnecesarily add to the my carbon footprint!

When the ground is sodden and the peaks are full of snow, most guys stay at home and tie flies.
When the ground is sodden and the peaks are full of snow, most guys stay at home and tie flies.

Over the years, however, I have learnt that fishing for trout in high water conditions is not as daunting as may first appear. I’ve learnt a few lessons the hard way, and others a bit more easily.

Take for instance my first (strong) suggestion. STAY DRY. As a student I didn’t have waders. Wet wading during early season while there’s snow on the mountains and rain in the air is not pleasant. It can also be dangerous. Being wet vastly increases one’s chance of getting hypothermia, which of course may lead to one’s early and unnecessary expiration. Luckily I didn’t back then but do remember getting so cold that I could barely hold my rod and most certainly not tie a fly onto a tippet. So, wear your waders. They’ll keep you dry and happy. Warmth is your friend. If, like Francois, you end up getting some water in your waders, you want to have some spare, dry clothes in the car or in a dry bag in your pack. Wading a full cape stream is not easy, so be careful!

Staying dry is also an important consideration in terms of cameras, phones, car keys or even your lunch! Waterproof accordingly and be prepared!

Even wet waders are better than wet wading - here Francois empties his at end of the day. It also highlights the need to be aware of water depth and current strength.
Even wet waders are better than wet wading – here Francois empties his at end of the day. It also highlights the need to be aware of water depth and current strength.
fly fishing for trout in the western cape
Francois battling the current to get a fly into the far side eddy. Notice the high rod to try and keep line off the surface in order to reduce drag.

IT’S DEEPER THAN IT LOOKS, I promise many fishermen have been caught out while wading a high stream. Use a wading stick, make sure of your footing and don’t fish alone! I used to, when I was young and invincible. I’m no longer invincible but do try to get on the water with a friend who is young and invincible! It makes for shared memories and someone to laugh at when the other falls in!

Safety matters aside, there a few things to remember fishing wise that will help one take trout when the water is high around your waste.

fly fishing for trout in the western cape
Francois gets up top to prospect a likely looking eddie.

GET HIGH WHERE YOU CAN. And I’m not talking about the Rastas collecting Buchu high. I mean that where you can, get on top of a rock, boulder, log, cliff face, etc. The full water often makes sighting fish very difficult, especially if you are up to your navel in it and there are clouds about. Getting a higher visual angle can help beat the glare and make your life a whole lot easier. Having your fishing partner climb the cliff to the kloof edge or sneak onto a towering boulder to play spotter will help you out (or you could be awesome by doing the climbing for your partner!).

LENGTHEN YOUR TIPPET AND INCREASE THE WEIGHT  of your fly. The fast flowing water will often hinder your flies sinking ability. Using a longer than normal tippet between fly and indcator and a heavier than normal fly will work wonders to get your offering to the trout hiding on the stream bed. (I sometime go as long as four foot!) Remember that a trout is going to hug bottom structure in order to use the energy saving eddies to keep its energy expenditure to minimum. I’ve come to believe that because of the pace of the water, a trout will normally ignore small flies that are presented close by to it, rather choosing to not over exert itself for a relatively small amount of energy.

Be aware of your gear. While taking the photos of Francois below, which wasn’t easy thanks to rain and water lapping the top of my waders, I dropped my rod into the stream and if it wasn’t for some submerged branches downstream of me I doubt I would have got it back! It is amazing what an exceptional white water raft impersonation a fly box does as it heads down stream at a rate of knots! Be aware and stowaway your gear carefully.

On that note, don’t be scared to FISH A BIGGER FLY. Bigger fly = more energy potential = a more willing fish. Check also if the water is off-colour. If so, use brighter flies or flies with bright elements in their patterns. These could include fluorescent hot spots, bright silli-legs or bright beads.

And WATCH YOUR INDICATOR even if it disappears below the surface. If your indicator is pulled below the surface, it simply shows that your fly is getting down – don’t change that but rather watch the indicator like a hawk. A bright indicator can often be watched even if it is a couple of foot below the surface.

The nature of a stream changes during times of high water levels, and so do the areas that we should be fishing to. TARGET PRODUCTIVE WATER. This is the most basic, yet hard learnt lesson for many fishermen – including me. Deep water, wier-like counter waves after shallow fast runs, behind boulders and submerged tree trunks and eddies are obvious places. The easiest way to identify these area is look for swirling water that keeps bubbles and debris circulating in a the same area or where bubbles and debris seem to gather and thicken. Target these areas with heavy nymphs or, if the sun has been out all day, with a big terrestrial pattern.

However, the place least paid attention is the very shallow fringe water water right on the edge of the stream banks. I cannot count the times that a fish a exploded in fright out of water that seems too thin and silly for a fish to hold. Never blunder straight into the river, take your time and watch carefully and you’ll be surprised by how trout you will find holding tight against the bank in the skinny water. On sunny days its seems like they’re literally sunning themselves in an attempt to warm themselves in the cold water.

These fish require a different approach to the rest of your high water day. I like to target these fish fish with unweighted small nymphs presented with pin-point casts. They spook easily and you probably won’t get a second chance at them.  A poor cast will result in your intended quarry disappearing into the ranging stream. Take your time, the fish is in no rush and you’ll have only one chance.

Yours truly with a fish that was taken up against the bank.
Yours truly with a fish that was taken up against the bank. Fishing from the deep to the shallow.

Sometimes, either at the end of the day or when all else has failed (it does sometimes!) I’ll change to a sinktip line (or squash some lead onto your leader) and SWING A STREAMER. A big (this depends on the stream and the size of the residents) streamer swung close to the bottom can elicit takes and save a day that could have ended up as a walk in the rain!

2013_Sept_7_Smalblaar_Western_Cape_fly_fishing_rainbow_trout - 029
A different trip on a slightly lower (but still high) stream, Ryan Weaver works a shallow section of water right up against the bank.

3 thoughts on “Thoughts on Taking High Water Trout”

  1. Barbra & Jack Donachy says:

    We especially agree with the tip to fish tight to the bank. Trout, salmon and steelhead (and carp, smallies and even intertidal species) will often move incredibly tight to the bank to avoid current in high water.

  2. metiefly says:

    Another great article – thanks for this!

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