GEARING UP FOR HIGH WATER!
Ok, so there is still a gazillion feet of snow in the Gaspe but should that really keep us from organizing our gear and getting pumped for the opener? I mean most of us have been cooped up in our houses and offices for way too long to let a few residual snow banks stop us from peering down the edge of our favorite pool! Well ok, some folks in NB or NS might actually have to bring a shovel and ice pick if they are thinking about hitting the opener for black salmon (April 15) but the for those only venturing out for June 1, we should be fine. Emphasis on the words should be!
I guess I should start off by telling you all really how much snow there is and what sort of conditions we can expect, as this will not only shock most of you, it might give you a bit of insight on how you can properly gear up this year!
So here is the deal, the 2013-14 snow season will go down in the annuals as one of the coldest and largest snowfall years in the last century! Maybe not THE coldest or snowiest, but certainly one that has made most of wish it had been over two months ago. I even read recently that it was THE worst winter based on the "misery index" for winters. I have to say that I could not agree more with that statement and this is coming from someone who spent 38-days this year in Patagonia, Chile!
Thankfully, warmer days have finally arrived and some of this snow is transforming back into water and trickling down into our river systems which where all but dry all winter long. With so much snow and ice build up in our woods and rivers this year, many are speculating that this will be a year with very high water and I tend to agree with that statement, although if we get two weeks of straight sunny weather followed by a week of rain during April, we could just see all of this flush out by early May, but I seriously doubt it. There is still an amazing amount of snow in the East and it does not seem like it wants to leave anytime soon! My money is on high water for the openers!
If you have never fished Quebec or the Maritme Provinces, you should know that there are a few rivers that open around (May 25) for "bright salmon" and as I already mentioned, black salmon season opens April 15th in NB. I can pretty much guarantee that they will not be fishing on April 15th this year! The important thing for you to remember if you have not fished in QC before is that the majority of Quebec salmon rivers open on June 1st.
It must be said that starting the season off with high water is not uncommon in our part of the world, however, in the last decade we have had just as many lower water and medium level starts as we have had high water starts. For instance, last year was a super high water year for us on the Cascapedia but the previous two years were actually much lower than one might suspect. All three years saw our rivers full of bright fish from the start. Last year we had lost our snow sometime back in late March and by early April (this time) our rivers were flowing wide open and the mountains were free of any residual snow. Tons of rain is what got our rivers up last year and that is important to remember because since it was rain water raising the rivers, the water temps were in the higher 40's to lower 50's at the start of the season compared to what most likely will happen this year with snow and ice run off. This can change a lot of things for us.
It is important to make the distinction between rainwater and ice run off as the two have very different temperature ranges and can affect fish migration timing as well as success rates while we fish. Rain water is usually a lot warmer than ice run off and as long as it is not melting snow and flowing into the river conditions are usually good for prompting fish to enter their natal rivers. Warmer water temps also encourage salmon to take a fly better than really cold temps. If we find ourselves with a spring that has a very cold run off period (like we are expecting this year) and our rivers flow for long periods of time at, or, below 40-degree F, it not only can stall the fish at the mouth of the river but it will most certainly make them quite lethargic if they happen to be in the river. So, in a nutshell, we do not mind high water but we just do not want it to be super cold!
Let's base our "gearing up" on the premise that we will have not only high but most likely colder water flowing by June 1 this season. If we use colder water temperatures as a baseline then we need to assume that the fish that have returned will be a bit less lively than usual. This is important to think about as we prepare to cast our flies to them. We might want to consider preparing a few different types of sink tip set ups along with a full sinking line set up
Although 99% of anglers usually prefer to use floating lines, even in the early season, when we find ourselves faced with the combination of high AND cold water conditions we need to rethink how we are going to fish. The primary function of sinking tips or full sinking lines is to allow us to get our flies down to the fish. Depending on how much we mend our lines will determine how far down we are getting in the heavy currents. These lines allow us to swing our flies very slowly and close to these lethargic fish. I say lethargic fish because when water temperatures are very cold salmon, and most other creatures for that matter, slow their activty down quite a bit. Putting our fly as close as we can to the fish will increase our chances immensly as the fish will not have to travel as far, or as quickly as a normally swung fly on a floating line. Another consideration is when water levels are high, typically rivers are a bit colored or very colored. A fly swung deeper and closer to a fish will allow that fish to either see it or feel it better as it passes by them. I will talk about the "feeling" the fly part a bit later.
There are basically three options for sinking type lines:
1. The full sinking line which is exactly what it sounds like, a line that sinks fully from end to end due to a lead, or some other sinking material core. This sort of line is super hard to get out of the water unless you strip it way back to the tip of the rod but does tend to get down pretty well and has very little hinging associated with it.
2. The sinking tip line, which is a line that has a tip that sinks but still has a section that floats at the rear. This sort of line is generally easier to get out of the water due to the floating part towards the rear. Most line companies offer these tips in 5' to 20' lengths and different sink rates. This also applies to the full sinking lines. Sink rates are simply how many inches the line will sink per second in the water. The deeper and faster the water, the faster sink rate you may want.
3. The sinking head system is the final type of set up you may want to consider getting your fly down in the water column. These “heads” or “tips” can be a poly tip, Mow tip or just a straight piece of tungsten type of line cut to length. I tend to use this sort of set up myself as I can easily switch from one sinking rate (type) to another with a loop-to-loop system. I use the words heads and tips because there is a distinction from using “tips” attached to floating lines for single or double hand lines and full “heads” that are primarily used with double handed rods but not restricted to them alone. Let’s just call them tips for the purposes of this blog. I tend to use 10’ tips for single hand rods and 14’-15’ tips for double hand rods but again, this depends on the water height and the current flow. I would suggest having a fast sink, extra fast sink and a super extra fast sinking tip with you this June! Having a few T-12-14 set ups would not hurt either.
Now that we know we will most likely be swinging deep and slow for our salmon this spring, we need to make sure we are getting the most out of our sinking set-ups. First and foremost, we need to remember that since we are trying to get our fly down fast, we need to make sure we match up the proper lenght tippet to the sinking line or tip. I am still amazed by how many people I see using a sinking or sink tip line with a traditional 9’ leader attached to the end. A long leader on a fast sinking line sort of defeats the purpose as you will undoubtedly get a hinging affect between the end of your tip and your leader/tippet. A mono leader/tippet, being lighter than the sink tip won’t sink at the same rate as the higher density line, therefore creating a situation where your fly is actually a lot higher in the water column than you would expect. Instead of using a long leader with these sink tips, simply use a straight piece of tipper that corresponds with you fly size. Larger tippet for larger flies and smaller tippet for smaller flies is the general rule of thumb. I suggest tippet lengths of 18” to a maximum of 48”. If you bump into me on the river this June and the water is high, I will most likely be using a 14’ super extra fast sinking poly leader with about 24” of tippet. And that tippet will most likely be fluorocarbon as it sinks better than mono.
So now we know what sort of line we will need but what the heck are we going to use to chuck these rigs? I mean they are heavy and a bit tough to get out of the water each time we want to cast. Although the recent tendency has been towards using longer and lighter rods you may just find yourself digging out that old 9wt out of the closet or basement. Not to say that you cannot use a 7wt or 8wt, because you can but you will most definitely find that the larger line sizes will be easier to cast using these sort of set-ups. People ask me if they should over line or bump up a line size to their existing set-up and I tell them that it is probably not a great idea. Sinking tips and heavy flies will most likely already feel a bit heavier when you cast so your set up will already feel way over lined to start.
If you are using a single hand rod I would suspect you want to be using an 8, 9 or even a 10 weight line whereas with a double hand set up you can get away with a 7-8-9 weight set up. The double hand rod offers the angler not only a much better chance at casting these heavier line set ups but also allows us to manipulate the speed and depth of our fly by mending. The longer your rod is, the better mending ability you have. Even a foot difference from a 9’ rod to a 10’ rod can make a big difference in mending. And the advantage does not stop there! A longer rod will also allow you to have a bit more leverage while you try to rip all of that weight out of the water. Something to think about when you buy your next rod!
Along with the DH rod advantages I have already mentioned, longer rods simply cast longer and allow us to roll cast in tight spots much better than shorter rods. So I guess size does matter, eh? Incredible that we have seemed to answer that age-old question in a fly-fishing blog but alas, it has been done!
Alrighty then, we now have our rod, line and leader set-ups pretty well dialed in, now lets get down to fly selection. I am going to offer two scenarios to consider, however, please know that there are many more scenarios you may encounter but I think these two of the most common:
1 - High and clear water is my favorite scenario for early season fishing. Why? In a word, visibility! When you get to a river that is high and clear, it probably means two things; 1- that the river is on the drop, or 2 - the river is probably starting to warm up a bit. Clearer rivers tend to spark a lot more confidence in any angler over a chocolate brown colored river and the reason is simple - we can see our fly swinging! We figure that if we can see it, the fish must be able to see it and this in turn equals confidence, which is 50% of the game! In the early season when I get to a high, clear river my first fly through the pool is something fairly large and something that flows like a spey fly or a longer winged fly. Why? Simple, early season fish still have smelt and baitfish on the brain and I want to trigger their hunting instinct with a fly that looks like one of their last meals before entering fresh water! Here are three flies I tend to use 1. John Olin Longwing 2. Dylan Spey 3. Picasse.
It is also my opinion that fly colour is not so important during the early season so the old adage of bright day bright fly / dark day dark fly sort of goes out the window for me. What IS important for me it is size of the fly, followed by style of fly. As I already stated, it is my fervent belief that big bright fish are looking for flowing movement, such as a baitfish, more than anything else.
Another thing to consider of the water is high but clear is the fact that your fly depth will most likely not need to be as deep as if the water was colored and this is simply because the fish can see the fly better. As long as the waters are above 44F you should be able to get away with intermediate to fast sinking poly leaders with a large fly. Remember to make your tippet length about 2 feet long!
2 – High colored river on the rise is usually a great time to catch fish but if it is dirty or getting really dirty there a few more challenges that you need to think about. The first challenge is getting your fly down to the fish so they can see or feel it pass close to them. When the visibility is poor for us, it is also poor for the fish as well, that is pretty obvious. Earlier I mentioned the fish "feeling" the fly pass by them. You might be wondering what I mean by "feel" as fish obviously do not have fingers! Atlantic salmon, like other fish, have what is called a lateral line. The lateral line is a system of sense that is found in aquatic vertibrates which actually helps them sense objects in the water, either stationary or moving. This helps them in zoning in on their quarry at sea and your fly in fresh water, especially when the visibility is very low. It is important for all anglers to remember this fact and realize that even if the water is chocolate brown, fish can still sense your fly!
Let's get back to how we want to approach a rising river that is getting dirty. The first thing to remember with Atlantic salmon is that they really never seek out super fast water in which to rest in. And when rivers are on the rise and getting dirty the last place they want to be is in the middle of a big current! Instead, they will seek out seams and slower moving water where there is less debris coming down at them. This probably means they will be seeking out areas that are a bit shallower than where they would normally rest, if for only the time it takes for the river to stablize and clear up. For me, this is a great opportunity to swing my fly past an aggitated fish. One that has been pushed out of its home and is probably a bit pissed off that it cannot rest in a comfortable spot free of crap peppering it!
Your best bet is to seek out areas close to the bank from 1-4 feet of water, or, wherever you see a nice seam formed on a current line. You will most likely see this wherever you find a bend in the river. Another one of my favourite spots is to fish over gravel bars or beaches that would normally be exposed in normal water. These spots usually offer nice structure where the fish feel comfortable.
Once you have identified an area you think might be holding fish, it is time to tie on an offering. Big bright flies may be your thought but do not discount white and black! They can be deadly. The contrast of white and/or black seems to be just as effective for me as bright colored flies in the early season, especially when the water is colored. I think this has a lot to do with the fact that they are feeling the fly more than seeing it. Therefore, the key, as far as I am concerned is to get that fly close to the fish so it can see or feel it pass by them.
In order to get your fly down deep, you will need to use a super fast sink or extra super fast sink tip line, poly leader or full sink. The depth you actually achieve will depend on the current speed and how much you mend. Mending will allow you precious seconds to let that line and fly sink to the salmon’s level. I suggest you present your fly very slowly to the fish as they will most likely be a bit lethargic, especially when the water is colder. Along with a slower swing I tend to pump my fly as it swings so that it will stand out amongst the other crap being swept down by the current. This pumping action is very effective for me in the early season when I use big flies. The "pump" can be fast or slow, it does not really matter. Experiment a bit next time you are out there, high water or not, you may be pleasantly surprised!
A couple last considerations while fishing a high dirty river; first, watch out for floating trees and branches! Although we may not think about it too much, a rising river can be a very dangerous place as logs and entire trees can break free from the banks and drift just under the surface and cut the legs out from and unsuspecting angler! I know this because I have seen it with my own eyes and it is scary. Make sure you are wading into safe waters at all times and if the water is high make damned sure that wading belt is EXTRA tight!
From a fishing perspective a dirty river means there is most likely a lot of crap floating down at the same time as you fly is trying to swing. Do not be surprised to feel bumps and grabs that are actually sticks and leafs hitting your line. A good way to avoid getting hung up a lot is to switch from a traditional single or double in the larger sizes to a larger length tube fly but with a smaller trailing hook. The smaller hooks usually tend to pick up less debris than larger single or double hook flies.
Finally, know when your river is just too high to fish! I know some of you will travel half way around the globe in search of salmon but be smart, if you see trees floating down river it is probably best you visit the local fishing museum or local pub rather than chance it.
Here are a few bullet points to think about:
- Longer and heavier weight rods will help in high water. Allow the angler easier lift with sinking type lines and increase mending capabilities for getting the fly down.
- Three sinking line types are generally used; full sink, sink tip, poly tip or MOW tips. Each has its’ advantages and disadvantages. No matter what system you decide to us, keep your tippets short (18” – 48”).- Change your approach to salmon fishing in high water. Realize that the fish are no longer in their normal resting spots. They are more than likely closer to shore (or you) than you think. Try to fish seams and slower moving water where gravel bars might have been in normal to low water.
- Know the depth you’re fishing by choosing the proper sink system and mend appropriately. If you find yourself snagging on the bottom, you are probably using a line that is sinking too fast, or, you are mending too much. Remember, there is no fun or sport in snagging a fish! EVER!
- Clear and high means you probably do not need as much depth. Fly choice in the early season is not as important as long as you are using a fly that flows. Remember, salmon have smelt still on the brain as they enter the rivers.
- High and dirty, get the fly down and swing it slowly. Switch to tube flies with smaller hooks if you find yourself snagging a bunch of crap that is floating down.
- Do not be afraid to use black or white flies along with your brighter flies in dirty water. Fish use their lateral line as much as their eyesight to locate and zero in on your fly offerings!
- Always use caution while wading in higher water, especially if the river is on the rise. Submerged logs and trees can really ruin your day if you get hit in the back of the legs - so stay safe!
And remember, pictures are great but try to keep the amount of time you handle your fish to a minimum. Keep the fishes’ head submerged at all times and only lift the fish parallel to the waters surface.
Tight lines and screaming reels to you all