Before I retired, I tried to fish two or three times a month. Working Monday through Friday and sharing a weekend on-call schedule, I couldn’t afford to wait for an ideal set of fishing conditions. When I had a week-end day free, I either went fishing and dealt with the conditions at hand, or I didn’t go fishing. I never viewed the latter as a good option. Consequently I have spent a lot of time fly fishing tough conditions.

Fly fishing tough conditions is certainly not a new problem. In fact, in 1590, Leonard Mascall wrote- “Ye shall understand there be twelve manner of impediments or lets which causeth man to take no fish”. While four of them were what we could call “fly-fisher deficiencies”, eight of them were due to seasonal stream conditions and poor weather.

When I think of fly fishing tough conditions, unlike Mascall, I generally lump them into two major categories. The first is what we often refer to as the “shoulder seasons”, and the second is inclement weather.

The Shoulders

The prime seasons for trout fishing generally include spring and fall. This is mostly dependent upon the weather pattern and the resultant condition of the water in the streams. Spring, the first shoulder, often brings too much water, either from snow run-off and/or heavy rains. Streams may therefore be very high and silty. In fall, the second shoulder, the opposite condition often presents itself. This is usually the driest period of the year, and streams may be low and crystal clear. Both conditions, high and silty or low and clear, present a unique set of challenges to the hopeful fly fisher.

Fishing Spring

Let’s begin with the spring shoulder. When faced with high, silty water, the first rule-of-thumb is to hike to the headwaters. The headwaters clear first, and may be very fishable while the water downstream is still “thick as chocolate”.

If the headwaters aren’t available, or the stream is blown throughout, look along the edges, and for long, slow runs and back eddies. Fish move to these areas to get out of the raging currents. In addition, silt settles out as the water slows, and these areas will be the first to clear. The picture below illustrates this, with a quiet, clear, back eddy in the foreground. The remainder of visible stream is unfishable.

fly fishing tough conditions

a clearing back eddy in a blown-out stream

If I can see six inches or more through the water, I give it a go. But fishing these conditions requires a change of tactics. It usually is not possible to wade, due to the fast, deep water. Therefore, the stream must be fished from the bank. If fishing an edge upstream, I like to use a curve cast. This keeps the line out, away from the bank, and avoids lining any lurking fish.

Another approach is to fish the edge downstream. With this approach, the line is fed out, matching the speed of the water, presenting the fly as naturally as possible. When a fish rises, I have to mentally count to three, and wait for the trout’s mouth to close over the fly. Many’s the time I have “pulled the trigger” prematurely, pulled the fly out of the trout’s mouth, and watched it disappear into the turbid water. When that happens, I have to count to more than three before continuing!

One advantage the angler enjoys when fishing in these conditions is that the trout’s vision is limited by the silty water. Thus they can be crowded a bit, and fished with shorter casts than usual.

Fly selection should be carefully considered as well. It is unlikely that a hatch will occur in these conditions. If duns are present, they will most likely be drowned. Thus they will be in the film or farther down in the water column, not on the surface. Terrestrials, if present, are often swept into the water, and may be present on the surface, or drowned. As a result, the most productive approach is to fish subsurface.

To entice a strike, a fly must first be seen. Thus I evaluate the visibility of different colored flies. I drop two or three flies of different colors into the water to check their visibility before making my decision. Most “experts” recommend dark colors, brown and black. But I disagree. I think that tan is often a better choice. The picture below reveals three streamers of tan, olive and black colors, in clear water against a dark stream bottom. While all are visible, I think you will agree that the tan streamer is the most readily seen.

fly fishing tough conditions

tan, olive and black streamers, in clear water

But look what happens in faster water that is moderately silty. Held only three to four inches under the water, only the tan streamer is still readily seen. The olive streamer is no longer seen at all, while the black streamer is somewhat visible an inch above the tan streamer.

fly fishing tough conditions

tan, olive and black streamers in silty water

Regardless of the color selected, a bit of flash incorporated into the fly will add to its visibility.

In addition to visibility, a fly must offer enough substance to make it worthwhile for a trout to expend the energy needed to engulf it in these conditions. Therefore, I use flies a size or two larger than I would under normal conditions.

Fishing Fall

The fall shoulder presents conditions just the opposite of the spring shoulder. Streams are usually crystal clear and very low. Fish will move to riffles for cover and oxygen, or head upstream to higher elevations, if available. There, the water will be cooler, and the steeper gradients will have carved out deeper pools.

fly fishing tough conditions

low and clear; note the stealthy fisherman on the rock!

Under these conditions, fish are ultra spooky, and quick to flee at the slightest provocation.Thus anglers must dress in muted clothes, and use every bit of streamside cover to avoid detection. Every aspect of stealth must be employed to have any success when fishing these conditions.

Casting and presentation must be precise. This is no time for sloppy casts or any unnecessary false casts. Long leaders, twelve to sixteen feet, are the rule. I also like to use a rod with a soft or flexible tip, in order to lay the fly down as gently as possible. Always remember, one cast is usually all the trout will give you!

At this time of the season, the aquatic bugs are generally small. Tricos and midges will be the predominant hatches on most streams. They require small imitations, no larger than size twenty hooks.

If heavy frosts haven’t occurred, terrestrials will be an important part of the trout’s diet as well. Ants, crickets, and beetles are all good choices. Grasshoppers may work as well, although I think that pressured fish have seen so many ‘hopper imitations that they are often ignored. They also seem to be more temperature-sensitive, and succumb to the cold before the other terrestrials.

Another option is to fish subsurface. Streamers are a fall-time favorite, but if the water is shallow, tight-line nymphing with a floating line will be more productive, and avoid more snags.

Fishing Inclement Conditions

In my mind, the most frequently encountered inclement condition is high wind. Wind presents two challenges to fly fishers, casting and fly selection.

There are several ways to cast on windy days. The easiest is to use the wind to one’s advantage. If at all possible, cast from a position upwind of the targeted water. Then use a roll cast, pitching the line a bit upward of the horizontal. The wind will carry the line, and unfurl it in the air, before it settles gently to the water.

If a cast must be made into the wind, it will require greater line-speed. This is done by using the double-haul, pulling the line with the line- hand on both the backcast and the forward cast. An additional help is to cast sidearm. This keeps the line underneath most of the wind.

High winds change the availability of foods for trout. Aquatic bugs hatch less vigorously in these conditions. In addition, they are unable to effectively mate and egg-lay. Thus most of the action involving aquatic bugs is below the surface. Nymphs and small wooly buggers are good choices.

In summer, high winds may not always be ill-winds. They may blow terrestrial bugs onto the water surface in great numbers. As always, it pays to carefully evaluate the situation before deciding upon a tactic. Ants, ‘hoppers, beetles or crickets may be just the ticket.

The other inclement condition is precipitation, in solid or liquid form. A good rain changes both ambient and stream-water temperatures. In cool weather it warms things up, while the reverse happens in hot weather. These temperature changes often produce a hatch, and result in gulping fish. During a rainfall, I usually fish a dry/weighted-nymph dropper, but switch to a dry with unweighted nymph or emerger when the rain slows or stops.

If fishing in waters that host white miller caddis, snow will often prompt a vigorous hatch. The trout feel safe from overhead prey, and come to the surface to feed with reckless abandon. Another aquatic bug that likes these conditions is the blue winged olive. So if fishing in late fall or early winter, when snow storms may occur, be sure to have patterns for both of these flies.

Fly fishing tough conditions may not be the most pleasant time to fish, but if properly prepared, some exciting fishing can be had.

Related articles-

Spring Fly Fishing- Strategies for Trout

Fall Fly Fishing- Strategies for Trout

Fly Fishing Season Transitions- Strategies for Trout

written by Al Simpson, March, 2018.