Here's a little article I recently penned for Bozeman Magazine and given the rising waters around Montana I thought it appropriate to share...
Oftentimes the first thing that all fishermen think of when the rivers begin to swell and the waters turn the color of a cup of latte is to stay home or find a lake to fish. A common and forgivable mistake for sure. But for those of us who can’t stay away from streams and rivers for too long, there’s hope, there’s a way if you have the will. Now before we dive into the what, when, where and how, I’ll preface things and say, playing in the mud although fun, sometimes isn’t as productive as heading to some local ponds or lakes. However, it does have its advantages and can provide some solitude on some places where you would be remiss the rest of the year to find yourself alone on a stretch of blue ribbon trout stream.
The first thing to know when heading to the river when things are off color and high is this: Safety First. One cannot be too careful during times of high and turbid waters, and I’ll say this with extra emphasis – if things are flooding and rivers are running twenty times their normal size, maybe playing around isn’t a good idea. In fact, really what we’re talking about here is fishing rivers when they are off color, not necessarily when they are directly in the middle of runoff, but slightly after things are starting to come down some or right before things really blow out – look for when water clarity is still in the 1 foot or less range of visibility. That’s when you can head to some of the local rivers and have the whole place to yourself and catch some fish too!
Now that we’ve covered the safety and a little bit of the when, it’s time to take a look at the where factor when considering which rivers are suited for fishing during the pre and post runoff periods. Some rivers are better suited to hold fish in places that you can access easily, others require a drift boat and a little more knowledge of the water and what are safe floating levels, when in doubt contact your local fly shop to figure out if things are safe or not. One river that always comes to my mind when talking about fishing when things are off color is the Big Hole. The Big Hole isn’t immune to runoff, but it does typically clear quicker and maintains fishability even when things are high and less than a foot of visibility. Rowing this river isn’t for the faint of heart when it’s flowing at over 4,000CFS, but it can be done with proper equipment and rowing skills and the rewards can be big. When river flows start cooking the fish on this body of water tend to congregate tight to the banks, most of the time within a foot of the structure and in any back eddies and softer calm water on the inside of big quick bends of the river. These are the areas that fish will find solace when flows begin to creep towards flood stage, and are the same places that you will find fish congregating in after flows initially begin to subside but before they reach normal levels again. Once flows have established themselves at normal seasonal levels fish will again begin to spread out and you can begin using your standard fishing techniques.
Equipped with this knowledge, when it gets muddy the best angle of attack is to grab a stout rod, a short heavy leader (typically no longer than 4 foot and tapered to 0X), a sinking tip fly line and a handful of gaudy feathered and furred streamer concoctions and aim for these areas of holding water. Floating the Divide Canyon during the famed Salmonfly hatch might yield upwards of 100 boats on the river, however, fishing the infamous muddy water usually only finds a couple of brave or unknowing souls, pretty much the river will be empty. This is my personal favorite setup for the Big Hole, however this technique can be applied on other bodies of water as well. Another such favorite of mine is Beartrap Canyon right before and sometimes even during runoff. As I mentioned safety earlier, I’ll bring this up again, if you are not comfortable wading around the edges of the river when things are high, don’t go. But if you’re conscious of your surroundings, Beartrap can yield some excellent results when things are high and muddy. The water where fish will be holding is going to be tight to the banks and downstream of large boulders where there are soft pockets of water, and the fishing is best done on foot. Short casts and short deliberate strips of the fly are going to yield the best results. Don’t try and cast too far or your line and fly will go ripping downstream.
Before trudging into the water, I prefer to pick all of the pockets along the banks that are easily cast to, it’s safe and it’s a lot more productive as well. Again, the plan of attack is going to be streamer patterns. The reasoning behind this is that attempting to nymph in these small pockets of water is difficult at best, and with high flows typically you can’t keep your indicator or flies in an area long enough to elicit a strike. Plus what you are really doing with a streamer is satisfying the “if I have to expend energy X to get food Y, Y has to be greater than X” equation that all animals adhere to – this just happens to have the added factor of if they are going to strike in muddy water, you’d better give them something they can see. Put these tactics into practice the next time you’re thinking of bagging a day because it’s too muddy, who knows, maybe you’ll catch one of those fish of a lifetime and you can proudly tell your friends you caught it playing in the mud!
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