Water Visibility and Stream Trout Fishing – Part 1

Guest Blogger: Joe Dellaria, Woodbury MN

Part 1: Water Visibility and Stream Trout Fishing – Three Different Outings

I don’t know about you, but I am always looking for ways to improve the size and quantity of fish I catch. Over the past few years, my experience helped me to piece together a factor that has substantially improved my fishing success. Understanding this factor has connected seemingly random experiences on the river that never made sense. Having said that, I realize, as we all do, that there are many factors influencing our success on the river. I am not claiming this is a “Silver Bullet” that will always lead to success. But I can say it has helped me figure out how to adapt more quickly and to consistently catch more and bigger fish. If you are interested in that, then read on!

This blog explores some influences of what I call water visibility on trout fishing. You may not know what that is as I coined the term (To the best of my knowledge I am unaware of this concept being discussed previously – if you are aware of this, please let me know). It comes from combining two familiar factors: water clarity – how deep you can see into the water, and available light – how sunny or dark it is when you fish. It is the combination of the two that unlocked how this factor influenced where fish are most likely to be under different conditions.

This is a five-part article that is laid out as follows:

  • Part 1: Describes conditions and results for three different days. These led me to the concept of “water visibility.”

  • Part 2: Discusses other factors influencing fishing success and describes “water visibility.”

  • Part 3: Discusses how “water visibility” explained why the fish were in different areas on the three days.

  • Part 4: Discusses how “water visibility explains other “Random Experiences” on the river.

  • Part 5: Where and How to Fish Based on Water Visibility.

THREE SUCCESSFUL DAYS WITH VERY DIFFERENT CONDITIONS

The following describes three different days on the “home stretch” of my favorite stream. They occurred over a three-week period in March. It is a stretch where I know every hole and every run, and every secret spot that holds trout (some claim I know every pebble – I think that is an overstatement (at least a little)). This is the stretch I like to fish when I don’t want to think very hard about where the fish are. The conditions were quite different on each day.

I use these three outings as they were on the same river during the same time of the year. Comparisons are more valid as there are fewer variables to consider. There are dozens of other outings (my wife claims hundreds) that are explained by this concept. I will add a few more examples at the end of the article.

Wherever it is legal, I like to use a two-fly set-up. It gives me two different shots at catching a fish and/or helps me figure out what the “fly du jour” is faster. It fortuitously turned out I used nearly the same flies on all three outings; thus removing another potential variable.

Day 1:

  • Time-first week of March

  • Weather-clear and sunny

  • Water-low and exceptionally clear

It was an unusual March day in the Midwest; the sun was out with little wind making the near freezing temperatures tolerable. The lead fly was a bead-head mini-streamer and the dropper fly was a #16 bead-head lightning bug. Ten of the 13 trout came on the lightning bug. The three largest trout pounded the mini-streamer near shallow cover as the sun was dipping below the horizon at the end of the outing. Most of the trout were caught in the middle of the river in small depressions or on edges in two- to three-foot-deep runs.

 

Day 2:

  • Time-second week of March

  • Weather-cloudy with a gentle rain

  • Water-high and cloudy

Based on my first outing, I was brimming with confidence on my second trip. I started with the same two-fly rig. Nothing else was the same. Since the previous week, the river had experienced a flash flood run-off. Unusually warm weather coupled with rain raised the river seven feet when it peaked. By the time I got to the river, the water was cloudy. Usually you can see every rock in four feet of water. The bottom was visible in less than a foot of water. The river was still up about one foot from the average for this day according to the Wisconsin River flow website.

No one else was on the river. They probably thought it was still too high to fish. It turned out to be a record day for me. I caught 27 trout in less than four hours. This was the kind of day every trout angler dreams of. The fish were scattered all over the river except in the middle. Most of the trout came on the mini-streamer. I hooked five fish in a row at the head of a pool where I almost never catch a fish. I landed three of them. The run ahead of the pool surrendered three more fish. Six fish from this stretch of the river was unbelievable. I doubled-back and refished one of my favorite runs on the way back to the car and caught ten fish out of a run and a hole that was barely fifty feet long. A truly remarkable day!

Day 3:

  • Time-third week of March

  • Weather-cloudy with a gentle rain

  • Water-slightly high and just a little hazy

Another week passed. It was Friday and it was almost 50 degrees with a very light drizzle. The river was almost back to the normal level for this time of year. The bottom was visible in about two feet of water. Remembering my success from the previous week, I went straight to the pool to see if I could duplicate my five-fish-in-a-row performance. Not a fish to be caught! The run leading into the pool also failed to yield a fish.

Then events took a turn for the worse. I snagged my mini-streamer in a tree and it broke off. In my haste to get to the river, I had forgotten to grab my fly-fishing vest. Fortunately, I had some extra flies and leader material in the back of the truck. The only fly with enough weight to get flies deep enough was a #6 bead-head stonefly. As far as I know, there are no nymphs that big in the entire river. But that was all I had. So, I tied on the stonefly nymph and a #16 bead-head black midge nymph and hoped for the best.

There was a dead tree in the water on the left side of the run leading into the pool. Sometimes a fish will sit tight to the tree. It is a tough cast. I call these either/or casts. Either you get the fish or you snag your fly. Because the river was still a little high I decided to cast upstream of the dead tree and use the current to pull the fly down the length of the tree. The flies hit the water and boom, I watched the trout slash at my flies. I set the hook and the fight was on! It turned out to be a very healthy broad-shouldered fish, much bigger than average for this river. As I netted the fish, I saw the bead of the stonefly nymph hanging out of the mouth of the trout. Amazing! The fish pounded a stonefly nymph that it had probably never seen before.

The fish were in completely different locations again. The pattern for this day was either shallow water with cover or in the middle of one to two foot deep runs on the current lines. I ended up catching twelve trout; most of them came on the midge nymph dropper. All were above average size.

5 thoughts on “Water Visibility and Stream Trout Fishing – Part 1

  1. Joe Nicklo

    Great article! I read and re read the article several times to completely understand the variables being considered. My first question: were you dead drifting or swinging you rig? Second question: during the three days at any time were you wade fishing? Third question: during the three days with different conditions, did you rig with the same leader setup … length and tippet size?

    Reply
  2. NoSlimeSlinger

    Excellent account of some great fishing. It is strange how different setups work on different days. My thinking is that they will eat most anything presented well. It doesn’t always have to be what they are currently feeding on. Once in a while, I’ll keep one for breakfast, and upon checking stomach contents, you even find a twig or two in there. Thanks for a great presentation here.

    Reply
  3. wayne berlie

    our local river holds fish in different areas, and they feed selectively in unique ways depending on what the food de jour is, and well as water flow, and visibility. these factors are what has intrigued me with fly tying and fishing for the previous forty-nine years. you learn, and are amazed by each adventure no matter the fishing success of the day.

    Reply
  4. Joe Dellaria

    Hi Joe,
    Good questions. I’ll try to answer them:
    1. Most of the time I start with a dead drift. However, if that doesn’t work, I jostle my rod tip to give the flies a little movement.
    2. All of this is wade fishing – in your mind, what difference would that make
    3. The set-up was virtually identical in all cases. I most likely used a 9 foot tapered leader that was either 3X or 4X. The dropper was one tippet size less and would have been 15-18″

    This is a 5-part article. This part provides the observations that led me to the idea I will be presenting in the later parts. I will eventually show how this concept explains the three days. Let me know if you have other questions.

    Reply
  5. Andrew Nezworski

    My biggest thing I have learned over the last 5 years fishing the driftless, is sticking away from pressured fish…I literally went from being happy with a 6 fish day, to now averaging over 40..I have also started primarily fishing 3 flies (unless dry fly fishing, which I rarely do), due to the fact that those flies will produce but each one is set up for different trout behavior. I also try not to fish the same stretch of water more then two or three times in a year, which leaves me plenty time to explore new water..if you ever want to fish feel free to email me

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *