Handling Cloudy Water

Muddy-Waters-in-ZionGuest Blogger: Joe Dellaria

This is hot off the stream. My line has not even dried yet. Yesterday I arrived at the stream and got a big surprise. I had gotten up before sun up to be on the stream early. My intention was to focus on big fish.  The rain gauges at two nearby towns suggested everything would be fine, but it was not. The stream looked like tea with cream. I could see the tops of rocks only 5-7 inches below the water. “Not good” I thought to myself.

I have faced this situation many times and failed in all but one. Well actually, I failed, but I “guided” my son to a fish any fly fisherman would be happy to catch. Our family spent two weeks in Yellowstone the year our oldest son, Joel, turned 16. That was a strategic decision, as we wanted to drive straight through for over 18 hours. He gave us a third driver!

The week was great. It never rained during the day, but it rained almost every night. Consequently, the streams were high and muddy for over half our stay. Knowing this was prime trout country; the three boys and I donned raincoats and waders and hit the streams every day. On this particular outing, I fly fished and the boys threw spinners. We fished over two hours. The boys plucked off a few smaller trout. I could not get a hit. I tried small bead head nymphs, big bead head nymphs, an unweighted streamer, and some dries to no avail.

I resigned myself to watching the boys. Joel spotted the vague outline of a midstream sandbar and cast to the leading edge. The lure had barely hit the water when there was an explosion as Joel set the hook. We knew from the bend in his rod this was a big fish. It took several minutes before we got our first peek at the fish. Joel had the fish almost to the bank when it decided to make his last run. We saw the sides of the fish and all four of us squealed with delight and fear. We waited with pounding hearts hoping to land the fish before the hook pulled out. It was a struggle fitting a 24 inch, 4 ½-pound brown into an 18-inch trout net, but I did. I have the picture of Joel holding the fish in my office. I am pretty sure his smile is longer than the fish!

Back to yesterday. I wanted to fish, but remembered all my past failures to catch fish under these conditions. I remembered Joel’s fish and knew the fish could be active. Then I remembered my big white bunny streamers. They were heavily weighted and gave a very seductive wiggle when twitch. I quickly tied one on and checked to see whether it was visible in the water. I could see it down to six inches or so. I figured there was nothing to lose, since I already was at the stream and began to cast.

It only took a few casts before a nice fish nipped at the fly nearly at the end of my rod tip. I thought to myself, “That’s encouraging. There’s at least one interested fish.” So I continued casting. About ten minutes later, I saw a little side pool that broke the current. My first cast hit the water so hard the fly bounced up a couple of inches. To my amazement, a nice trout jumped out of the water trying to get the fly. It took a couple more casts to get the fly into the same spot. I held my breath hoping for the best. Then, drat, I snagged a rock. Just as I was stepping over a rock on the shore to get my fly, the rock suddenly ran up and around a submerged boulder at the top of the little pool. Several minutes later, I slid my net under a fat and very healthy 16-inch brown!

“Pretty cool,” I thought. That was enough to keep me going. No more than five minutes later, I hooked and landed a twin to the first fish. Now this was getting interesting. I cast another two hours and turned over a dozen fish that were as big as or bigger than the first two. Here’s what I learned during that time:

  • Fish were always tight to cover – that could be a rock, the shore, a log, or steep edge
  • The cover provided a brake for the current
  • The fly had to be placed within inches of the cover to get a strike
  • Twitching the fly produced more strikes than a dead drift

I missed nearly all the other fish. As I pointed out above, it was necessary to get the fly tight to cover. This called for a short line. Trust me; I wanted to catch every one of those fish. But, watching a 16-20 inch brown slash at your fly several feet away out of nowhere leads to an automatic premature hookset. You have to steel yourself and concentrate on not setting the hook until the fly disappears AND the fish turns. By the end, I was getting better and got a couple smaller fish.

While it is exciting to see big trout swat at your fly, the fishing can be tedious. In many cases, I recast a good-looking spot 6-10 times to get the fly to the right spot that triggered the strike. That’s part of the problem as it is harder to concentrate on each subsequent cast. Inevitably, the fish always strikes as you are about to give up.

I should also point out that it is rare for a fish to strike more than once. If I turn a fish, I always take a couple more casts to see if the fish will go again (that’s how I got the first fish). If nothing happens, move on. You can waste a lot of time if you keep casting the same spot.

It is important to remember that wading with extreme caution is essential. With six inches of visibility, you can’t see submerged obstructions. If you don’t know the river, be even more cautious. Don’t take any unnecessary risks. One could easily fall and hurt themselves or worse yet are knocked out and drown. No trout is worth that.

Secondly, there is a limit to how high the river can be for this method to work. In this particular case, the water was up 3-5 inches. I don’t know exactly where the break point is, but I have a rule of thumb. Whenever I feel uncomfortable with the current, I stop fishing. Remember, this is a potentially dangerous situation. Use caution. If you are uncomfortable with the current, that’s a sign it’s time to get out of the river and go to a nearby diner for a nice meal and a hot cup of coffee!

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