High Water Steelhead
Spring snow run off will usually leave the rivers and streams higher than most of us would like to fish. By the time the water levels drop down to the 'ideal' level, some of the best fishing of the spring can be over. Fishing the high water is not as intimidating as the rivers may look.
When fishing in the swollen rivers and streams, keep in mind that the water is fast and very cold. Not a good time for a swim. When it comes to high water steelhead are different than most trout. One of the biggest differences is that they are a high water fish. It is the push of the rising rivers that brings the runs in.
The first step in fishing for steelhead during high water is to find the fish. Obvious as this sound, this is the hardest part. With the river level up, there is more river for the steelhead to hold. Or is there? In Spite of the fact that steelhead are a high water fish they do not like the heavy currents anymore than we do. The river currents will force the steelhead into the soft pockets along the riverbanks and out of many of the pools that they would normally hold in. What all this means is that most of the steelhead will actually be holding in shallow water. And that will take away 90 percent of the river.
During high water steelhead will be holding in the tails of pools, pocket water along the bank and in a few pools where the currents are not as heavy. The most important of these soft spots are going to be located along the riverbanks. The reason for this is during the high water flows, the steelhead will run up river along the riverbank where the currents are not as heavy. Steelhead will stop and hold in many of these pockets. Another word of caution, fish can be holding right at the rocks on the shoreline. Approach with care as not to run off any steelhead that might be holding tight to the shoreline. Along with the pocket water, do not overlook the side channels. Steelhead following the shoreline will easily find their way into the side channels. Fishing in these side channels is just like fishing in any small stream and can make for some challenging but interesting fishing.
Along with springtime high water, the water clarity can be a concern. In the Western end of the lake, we have to work with some really muddy water. In really cold water 33 degrees to about 40 degrees about two feet of clarity, or see your feet in knee-deep water, is about the all the visibility that is needed. Once the water temperatures rise to about 40 degrees and up, ‘'fear no mud''. I have had many good days of fishing with only six inches of visibility.
Do not worry even in the muddy water the steelhead will still find your flies. With a little care and observation steelhead will often give away their position. And yes you can spot the fish. Steelhead has a bad habit of giving themselves away. Spotting the steelhead can be as obvious as the fish sticking its nose out of the water. More often they are spotted as shadows along the river bottom. Many times steelhead are overlooked as rocks. During the spawn, a flash of color or a cloud of mud can give away the location of a spawning female. The trick is to go slow and look carefully. A good pair of polarized glasses is a must.
Despite all the high water, most of the fishing will happen in relatively shallow water to 2 to 4 feet deep. A standard rod and reel setup that is beefed up a little is all that is required. A 10 ft. 8 weight fly rod, a reel with 200 yards of backing and an 8-weight weight forwarded fly line, and leaders 10 to 12 feet. Remember when a good steelhead is hooked the fish will most likely head for the main river into the heavy river currents. This is where all that backing comes in handy. Remember high water means dangers waiting. It is best to let the steelhead run down river into a quiet pool and play the fish there.
Most of the steelhead will be holding in the pocket water. This is where dead drifting is best suited. I am not a big fan of strike indicators but they are useful for this type of fishing. Flies that will work best for this type of presentation; are standard nymphs, stone flies, hairs ear and egg flies. When fishing the tails of pools and the gravel bars, I like to fish the fly with a down and across presentation. The reason for this is that I can cover a lot of water fast. Flies such as traditional wet flies and spey flies are made to order for this type of presentation.
Steelhead fishing in high water can be a little bit daunting with the whole river to look at but, as the various pieces of that river are broken down, the rivers do not look as big. And remember, steelheads are a high water fish.