High Water Steelhead Tactics

After what seemed like an incredibly long stretch of minimal rain the PNW was recently hit with a serious storm system for the first time this year. Apart from a few jumps in flow here and there, the majority of our rivers here in Southern Oregon have not seen a real high water event since last Spring. Due to the lower water conditions, chances of seeing any early fish here in the Rogue Valley were slim. Plenty of folks have been out there trying, and surely a few winter fish have been caught, but all in all I feel it is safe to say the inland season really has not started yet. Until now, that is. Once the Rogue comes back in to shape later this week (hopefully!) there will be the first real chance of encountering fresh Winter Steelhead in our region. With that being said, it is safe to assume this is not the last big water we have this Winter and Spring. Although it can be intimidating, being the first person out there once the water starts dropping can open up some opportunities for catching these fish while everyone else is looking at flow charts.

First of all, it needs to be said that the number one priority in high water conditions is safety. Second, there is most certainly a limit to what can be done; some days we just cannot fish. However if you are diligent in your research and wait for the right moments, every once in awhile you will be pleasantly surprised.

It is true that no one really hopes for brown water when they show up to the river, and you are not going to hear any reputable guide telling you its the best time to be out there. Truth is, it isn’t. Unfortunately we cannot control the weather for extended fishing trips, and this time of year even a day float is not always safe. Particularly on the coast, rivers can rise very quickly. So every now and again you will find yourself looking at a blown out river. Instead of packing it in right away, sit back and take stock of the situation. In these conditions knowing the river you are fishing is super important, not only to determine if there’s a run to safely wade through, but in picking out potential new spots as well.

So we will assume the river in question has been deemed safe, what’s next? For me the number one thing I look for when the water is high and off color is slow water, preferably close to the bank. The neat thing about these conditions is the traveling lanes for fish can become more obvious. Clearly the fish are not going to be sitting out in the torrent of the main river, so take the time to think where you might want to be swimming if you were out there.

When the river is raging there really are only so many places that any fish are going to be able to survive. Some may divert into smaller tributaries and side channels, others may sit 5 feet off the bank on an inside bend, and then there are those that will find shelter in tail outs. I’m sure there are more hiding spots, but the latter two are going to be your best bet at crossing paths with one. Side channels are an option, but most small streams and tributaries are closed to fishing so it’s best to avoid them. Personally I have found the most success (or luck?) in tail outs.

img_0437        A bright Upper Rogue fish taken in a tail out I had walked passed for weeks.

Now that we know it’s safe, and where to focus, it is time to make a few points about actually fishing in high water:

New Spots: It’s important to remember that if it looks different, it is. When you pull up to your favorite tail out or inside bend and see that the characteristics of the run have changed, understand that everything under the surface is now different as well. Do not make the mistake of fishing the same water you always do just because you get ’em there in the fall. Remember what that run looked like in low water, and try to find an area with currents that look similar. Nearly every fish I have been fortunate enough to encounter in blow out conditions has been in a spot I had never fished, or even seen a fish in before.

Color and Contrast: When the emerald green of prime time fades to chocolate it’s time to get crazy with color and flash. Realize that not only do fish rely on sight, but the movements detected through their lateral lines as well. Flies that flutter, flash, and shake will get the attention of Steelhead even when visibility is minimal. Get creative and do not be afraid to try something completely new. If you can see it, the fish can too. Even if you can’t see the fly, a Steelhead is far better equipped to find it than we are.

Fishing the Inside: Maybe your go-to spot is still in the game. Even when this is the case, your best bet may not be to target the usual slot or boulder, but to focus on the seemingly featureless inside water. When the flows get heavy, fish will move out of their primary lies and to the new path of least resistance. You also increase your chances of intercepting travelling fish.

(Don’t) Go deep!: Especially when fishing the inside water, I cannot stress enough how important it is to me NOT to dredge. With color in the water fish will begin to feel more comfortable higher in the water column. That could translate to Steelhead sitting in 2 feet of water at your feet, or perhaps suspended on a boulder a bit further out. Either way, those fish are not going to look down for your fly. Steelhead look up, as anyone who fishes a skater in the summer already knows. Don’t forget that a Winter Steelhead is still a Steelhead, and if you find the right fish it will move upwards to intercept your offering.

Now that this round of storms has settled and our rivers are starting to drop, everyone is sure to be planning their next outing. If it is safe to do so, try getting out a little sooner than normal and do something different. At the very least keep these tips in mind just in case you find yourself in less than ideal conditions later on. If there is one constant in Winter Steelheading, it is the inconsistency of conditions. So push your boundaries, think outside the box, and as always have fun out there. It’s a great opportunity to get to know your home water better, and to find a bonus fish or two for the year.


%d bloggers like this: