Catching Trout in Dirty and High Water

This post was last updated on April 5th, 2015 at 07:10 pm

Tips to catch trout in high, dirty water.

How to have a Successful Day Fly Fishing in High, Stained Rivers

During spring there are several ways to catch trout in a filthy blown out river, you just have to know how. I will outline several ways to turn what could be a slow day, into a day ending with you signing autographs at the boat launch for your new found river fans. Whether you are heading out in the early spring runoff, or after a torrential summer storm that turned the river into a scene from charlie and the chocolate factory, there are always ways to catch trout.

Where to Find the Fish

The first place I would look to score trout in low visibility, would be in slow pockets and eddies. A wide piling on the downstream side of a bridge would offer a great holding area. String up an indicator and drift it along the slow foam lines and seams in the eddies. I would recommend using a double nymph rig setup.  The fish will often stack in these areas while they attempt to acclimate to the changing water conditions. Don’t bother fishing fast riffle water and your typical clear water areas. These fish can’t see, so you need to keep the fly in their face as long as possible. The fish in this slow stuff will be easiest to target. Try slight jigging, or shaking of your rod to to convince the fish to strike. This is effective for two reasons: You are using the trout’s lateral line (an organ in fish used to detect movement and vibration in the surrounding water) to your advantage, and it will in my opinion, often encourage a reaction strike from a fish that isn’t even actively feeding. Its like running from a grizzly bear, it probably doesn’t really want to eat you, but when you run from it or behave erratically, the bear will instinctively have a desire to attack.

Stained Water Fly Patterns

Fishing high and dirty water?  An increase in the water flow will dislodge a lot of food for trout, you just need to capitalize on it. Tie on a bright colored nymph, or even a black one to make it visible to the trout.  You might be surprised how well dark flies will stand out in brown stained water.

A large dark colored stone fly nymph like this will work well in high dirty water.
Flies like this stonefly will stick out like a sore thumb to feeding trout in dirty water.


Some of my all time favorite flies for early spring high water are:

  • Large black stonefly nymphs: High water in the Western US usually occurs just before the salmonfly hatch, so these big nymphs are likely in the area anyway. The main reason I use them is not to match the hatch, but because they get noticed easily because of their size. They have also performed well for me in the Midwest during all times of year.
  • San Juan Worms: High water will erode banks and dislodge logs and debris that hold worms. I have pumped the stomachs of trout in high water conditions, that have contained nothing but small leaf worms and night crawlers. Carry an assortment of red, pink and chartreuse weighted San Juan’s to keep your bases covered.
  • A black streamer fly pattern
    Dark colored streamers like this work great in dirty water.

    High Visibility Streamer Patterns: Often times this dirty water will put the big fish at ease and turn them into eating machines. The fish that would never consider attacking a streamer in clear water, will become reckless and eager to feed on them. Try gold, yellows, blacks and even cherry red streamers in this stained water. Target the same areas mentioned above such as eddies and pools. This is a great time to give the fish very short strips of 2-3 inches, this will ensure any trout in the area of your fly will have an opportunity to eat it. You aren’t looking to cover a lot of water, you should be trying to cover the highest probability areas really well.

Fishing in high dirty water can be a little frustrating at times, but with the right know how you could be a dirty water fly fishing rock star.