It was a little after noon on opening day of trout season. My buddy Al and I were sitting in the bar at Uncle Toms Cabin sipping a beer. We had just ended a two week period of almost constant rain, and the Rubicon was a muddy and raging torrent. We sat quietly as we listened to the conversations of about a dozen other fishermen packed into the small room. The topic was all the same, the terrible high water and fishing conditions. “Yah I took one look at the river and didn’t even get out of the truck”…. “It’ll be another two weeks before there’s any point in even wetting a line”…. “It looks like chocolate milk”….
Al and I remaining silent, looked at each other grinning from ear to ear, reflecting upon the ice chest in the back of the pickup, filled with ten fat Rainbow and German Brown Trout ranging from fifteen to twenty inches that we had just plucked from a fifty yard stretch of the river at Lawyers trail in less then two hours. We left never sharing the story of our success with the other fishermen in the bar, laughing and stroking our egos all the way home.
The fact is contrary to popular belief you can indeed catch trout in even the most extreme high water conditions. The key the success is a combination of fishing very close to the streams edge, backwashes, crevices and other pockets where the trout congregate to seek protection from the strong current, with a large chunk of meat that the fish can smell in zero visibility (night crawler, mini crawler, big bug, etc.), held down with a lot of weight to hold in the pockets (up to two ounces).
I have used two basic rigs that work well. One is a basic Carolina rig which is my personal favorite because the sliding line allows you to better feel the strike when using heavy weight. Avoid conventional sliders that the weight clips to, they tend to get hung to easily. Use a number four to eight bait hold hook, or my preference, a small short shank O’Shaughnessy salt water hook. The heavier wire of the O’Shaughnessy seems to help better stick and hold the harder mouthed browns. You will at times be fishing very small pockets of water so use a short leader no more then about eighteen inches long. Use six to eight pound non-florescent clear monofilament tied to a small swivel with an eight to ten pound main line. When fishing very rocky areas as in the Rubicon go to the heaver line, and change your line often, to help compensate for the heavy line abrasion you’ll encounter using this method. Use standard bullet or egg sinkers, up to one half ounce each, and as many as necessary to hold in the pocket or backwash. It is essential however to use no more then necessary. Too much and you will constantly be getting snagged, to little and you won’t hold in the current. The other rig that works well is a basic Steelhead pencil sinker rig when using up to about three quarters of an ounce.
When fishing in high water I prefer a longer rod seven and a half to nine feet for the additional reach, in about the six to fifteen pound range, fiberglass, with a light fifty- fifty action. I couple this with a slightly larger spinning reel than one would normally use for trout for better balance with the longer rod.
Fishing the near shore side of the stream in high water conditions almost never involves casting as your line is seldom more than five or six feet and at times only inches from the shore or it won’t hold in the current and that’s also where the fish are hiding as well. The additional reach of the long rod allows you to most of the time, simply drop the bait directly into the pocket. This method is somewhat similar to Toole dipping or jigging for rock fish.
First find a good back wash, or a crevice leading down into the water. Drop your line into the water at first only a few inches from the edge, (the fish hold very close to the edge in high water) take up the slack and wait about five to ten seconds. If your weight holds and you don’t have a fish yet, then slowly lift the rod tip about a foot, moving it only about six inches at a time further out into the stream and drop it back down. Repeat the process until you have found the deepest part of the pocket or backwash you can reach and still hold in the current. This can sometimes take several attempts. Once you have reached that spot, stop jigging and hold a tight line for no more then about five minuets then try a new pocket. It’s critical to maintain constant contact with the weight and never allow slack to form in the line or you won’t feel the bites.
Once bitten apply a slightly harder than normal hook set to compensate for the heavy weight, and get ready to chase a fish down stream if necessary. An extra long net five to six feet can very helpful in landing a fish in these conditions while keeping the person doing the netting high and dry at the same time. When fishing deep under-cuts or rocky overhangs in deep water, in order to get the weight to hold in a certain position, I sometimes submerge my entire rod in the water and reach to the back of the cut with my rod tip before dropping the weight, then pulling the rod from the water to fish.
When fishing the far shore, cast directly into the pocket or further, even onto the shore and then pull your rig back into position. After casting, at all times hold the rod over your head with the tip as high as possible and take up any slack line. You don’t want your line sagging through the fast current in mid stream or it will pull the rig from the pocket. This is another reason the long rod is beneficial. The higher the rod tip, the steeper the line angle into the water allowing your line to enter the water nearer to the far shore and the better your weight will hold.
Probably due to the high visibility of the large lead weight in clear water, this method only seems to work well in high and, muddy or stained water conditions. So when the water clears go back to your split shot, but when its raging and looks like chocolate milk, no matter how crazy it may sound, break out the lead and try it for yourself. You just may stop trout fishing after the water clears from then on.