Let’s start by getting some of the obvious points out of the way. We are wrapping up the 2022-23 winter after receiving a record snowpack in the Truckee River watershed. Melt and runoff has started (it is early May at time of this writing) and the Truckee River at the Reno gage is holding around 3,000 cfs and it is anticipated to be near this for several more weeks. To help folks wrap their heads around how best to fly fish the Truckee during high water we have prepared a short list of tips for success during high water.
So we are all on the same page. We consider high water conditions on the Truckee River (Reno Gage) to be when the flow is in excess of 1,500 cfs. That being said, all anglers should approach the river with the understanding of staying within their own limits and adjust individual approach based upon conditions day to day and location to location.
KEEP YOUR WADERS DRY BUT DON’T FORGET THE STUDS!
In high water conditions, fish will typically stack within one to ten feet of the bank. The swift current moving down the river channel pushes the trout out of their usual holding lies mid-channel and moves them up tight to the bank. When walking along the flooded bank, try to avoid going deeper than the top of your boots. This requires you to sneak up on fish that are already in a shallow position. If the pocket or seam requires the angler to get into the water, an upstream presentation is almost always the best way to stay hidden and present flies effectively. This presents the angler with the opportunity to hook some of the biggest rainbow and brown trout the Truckee has to offer. So as to maintain footing in slick conditions, we recommend Orvis Posi-Grip Studs.
High water often calls for the biggest and brightest flies in the fly box. Getting dirty requires the angler to deploy all usable methods… It’s all about giving yourself the best opportunity to find fish when the water looks anything but promising. This may include fishing pegged eggs, worms, and stoneflies. I prefer bright colored eggs and worms in orange and pink in water with less than two feet visibility. Stoneflies with lots of legs are a great fly to hang behind one of these attractors. The TJ Hooker has quickly become a favorite of many anglers since it simply catches fish. This fly incorporates weight, profile, and movement into one package. Don’t be afraid to try wacky flies during these conditions. Pink stoneflies? Sure. Chartreuse Squirmy worms? Why not!
THE BUG BUFFET
When targeting trout in high water, they often congregate in small pockets or seams. The inside edge of a river bend, a back eddy, or downstream side of structure such as woodpiles and boulders all provide habitat through high spring flows. These features break up the current along the bank and allow fish to expend a minimal amount of energy while feeding. European Style Nymphing (ESN) is one of the most effective techniques for fishing high water conditions. This technique uses a tight line approach to present flies through target water. This technique is especially effective in these conditions since target areas are close to the bank. Additionally, drifts are not long during this time so the ESN technique allows anglers to fish flies at depth through a short drift. I prefer the Cortland Nymph 10’ 6” 3wt in these conditions as well as lower water conditions.
Like all other seasons, trout will focus on edges that allow them to swim in slow water but provide them with a steady stream of meals (the bug buffet). As temperatures rise through the Spring, fish generally become more active for a larger portion of the day. High water is all about maximizing efficiency and keeping your fly in the water.
HEAVIER ISN’T ALWAYS BETTER
Most often, anglers assume that in order to be successful in high water, their rig must sink to the bottom as quickly as possible. With most fish pushed up tight to the bank, you will be fishing areas of submerged plants and vegetation. While heavy flies get down quickly, they are more likely to hang up on plants and vegetation along the river bottom. When fishing high water, I bring anchor flies of varying weights to approach different types of water. When tying flies for these conditions, I like to tie anchor flies like Squirmy Worms and TJ Hookers on a range of weights. For deeper water, Voodoo Jig Heads in ⅛ ounce tend to be a popular choice followed by 4.0mm and 4.5mm Firehole Tungsten Beads . In shallower water, anchor flies with Voodoo Jig Head 1/32 ounce or 3.5mm Firehole Tungsten Beads work well. The drop shot rig is also a favorite method of many anglers during this time. By placing weight at the bottom of the leader below the flies, you’ll lose fewer flies. Each situation will call for a different anchor fly weight.
When fishing high flows, anglers can expect dynamic conditions that may change on an hourly basis. Flows and clarity can change greatly during a day of fishing. As flows rise, fish will likely push further to the bank in search of soft water. As flows decrease, trout will likely move more towards the center of the river channel or behind cover. As clarity reduces, anglers tend to have more success when switching to flashier and bigger flies. On the flip side- smaller and more muted flies tend to work well when clarity improves. Clarity tends to improve greatly after the first “flush” in the beginning of spring runoff. All of these conditions play a role in fishing conditions and will require a different approach on each outing!
Finally, have fun! Don’t take it too seriously. High water can be tricky and frustrating at times.. Allowing yourself to be adaptable will greatly increase your chances of hooking a Truckee River trout.
This article was prepared by Aden Breckner, staff member and guide at the Reno Fly Shop. You can fish with Aden by booking a walk trip or float trip on the Truckee River. Call today to get on the calendar.