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High Water Steelhead Fishing

by Matt Barthels
Schmidt Outfitters

If you are like me, you are sick and tired of winter by now and looking forward to the warmer days of spring. The Great Lakes region as been plagued by bitterly cold temperatures and a whole lot more snow this year. Unlike years past when we had snow-melting thaws throughout the winter, this year most of the snow as hung around. When spring finally decides to roll around, we will have a lot of snow left to melt off, and as a result, our rivers will swell with water and run pretty big.

Many anglers take one look at the stained water and heavy flows and figure it's not worth the time and effort to fish in those conditions, but by changing your approach, you can have tremendous success in spite of the water conditions. The same warming weather and rain that bring about higher water levels also triggers the upstream migration of fresh steelhead. Upon entering the river in these conditions, these fish are greeted with strong currents and limited visibility in the main current flow. The fish will quickly move out of these spots and into softer, more comfortable water. As an angler, this means that some of the go-to spots will simply not be holding that many fish. Look for softer current seams created by structure and thoroughly fish the inside seams of bends. A lot of the areas that are too shallow and slow to hold fish during other times of the year will hold fish when the rivers are running high.

When fishing in high, stained water, it doesn't do a whole lot of good to fish really small, natural fly patterns. With the limited visibility, you will want something a bit bigger and easier for them to see. Black and purple fly patterns will always hold a good profile, even in murky water. Larger black stoneflies and buggers in black and purple are staples in my spring fly box for dirty water. Also, as we continue into spring, the salmon fry begin to hatch in big numbers. These fry are abundant and easy prey for both steelhead and resident brown trout. My top fry patterns are Kevin Feenstra's BTS and ice minnows. Another sleeper fly in higher water is a larger chartreuse caddis larva. Of course, one of the constants when steelhead fishing is the effectiveness of egg flies. Again, small, natural-looking eggs will go unnoticed and I tent to fish a lot of the larger and brighter rag eggs. If beads are your thing, don't be afraid to bump up to 10mm and 12mm beads in brighter colors.

As far as technique goes, on the smaller rivers, I prefer to fish flies under and indicator with a floating line. This technique makes it possible to fish right in the woody debris that are the main structure in our rivers. On our larger streams like the Manistee, indicator fishing can be very productive. However, when the river really swells, utilizing the bottom drift method is the most effective way to fish. This method allows us to get our flies down where they need to be in almost any condition, and by changing weights, we can slow the presentation down, giving the presentation more time in the strike zone and more time for fish to see the flies.

Standard steelhead equipment will work just fine during higher water. For rods, 7 or 8 weights will get the job done. I prefer to use an 8 weight switch rod (my go-to is the TFO Deer Creek). The switch rods really help when fighting fish in the higher water. A high quality reel with a good drap and plenty of backing capacity is a must when trying to stop a big fish in heavy water. For the terminal end, there is no need for fluorocarbon when the water is colored up. I almost exclusively use 8-10 lb Maxima.

This spring, if the rivers start to swell, head out to the river with confidence. Making small changes to the way you approach the river can provide for some memorable days, even in higher water.