It's early on a Saturday, and you've loaded up your car with your fly rods, your vest, your waders, and some newly-tied flies. You've worked all week, tended to your family, and dreamed of casting your fly-line in a trout stream; you stayed up late on Friday, tying flies while your wife slept, knowing the alarm clock will awake you in four hours; you're excited, you're amped up, you're ready to go. You drive your car to a far-away stream, opening the windows to let in the warm May morning air. Two hours later, you pull into a parking area, rig up your rod, and finally (finally!) walk down a well-known path. You're keenly aware that it's there waiting for you: that is, the river, the current, the hatch, and, most importantly, the trout, all located beyond the next bend, and over the next hill. And then you see it, and you yell in frustration: the stream is impossibly high, and overflowing its banks.
Every fly fishermen has been in this position. We all lead busy lives, and not all of us can spend 100+ days on the water. We carefully arrange our schedules, creating small pockets of fly-fishing only blocks of time. We prepare, we await, we execute....and then we stew in disappointment when river conditions threaten our special, sacred time on the water.
I was stuck with this situation last weekend when I traveled to the Poconos to attend my niece's first tee-ball game. I intentionally woke up early, drove the requisite three hours while it was still dark, and arrived at the Brodhead Creek before the sun made its way over the dissected plateau that masquerades as the Pocono Mountain range. When I glanced at the raging river, however, I knew I was in trouble.
Living south of the Poconos (but still in the unparalleled Keystone State), I didn't know how much rain my home region had received in the late weeks of April. Adequate research would have revealed this problem, but I was overwhelmed with dissertation revisions, approaching pedagogical duties, and family holiday obligations. You should have known better, I told myself. You should have checked the USGS's website for water levels of the Brodhead and Bushkill Creeks, I thought, as I angrily berated myself for my lack of foresight. Eventually, my self-anger died down and I began to plan. If you are ever find yourself in this situation, I recommend the following pieces of advice.
First, give the river a try anyway. High water isn't necessarily a bad thing, and I've landed trout on the fly in genuine flood situations. When the water rages, work a big, flashy, colorful streamer along the riverbank, and drag it through any obvious trout lies. Fish are creatures of opportunity, and they will eat even in flood-stage conditions. If they see your presentation, and it's right near them, odds are high they will strike your fly. Heavy, large, bead-head nymphs also produce in high water. Two years ago, I caught a 15 inch stocked brown trout out of the Brodhead Creek during a significant high water episode. It took a size 8 bead-head stonefly nymph. The ensuing battle was one of the most memorable fights I've ever had: a decent trout, hooked in flooding water, battling me near a precariously-positioned rapids section. It worked out, and I'll always cherish that memory. If I would have walked back to the car without trying the rapidly-rising river, I would have missed out on a great moment.
Second, go to another river, preferably a smaller one. Smaller streams clear out faster than large ones; this occurs because they are less integral parts of the dominant watershed system, and they drain less overall acreage. This past weekend, I left the Brodhead and headed to a number of smaller wild trout streams. These creeks were high, but they were more fishable than their parent streams. I ended up landing a few wild trout, hardly something to complain about, even though my initial plans were dashed.
Always remember that time on the water is what you make of it. You cannot control horrendous conditions, and blown-out rivers are sometimes impossible to fly fish. But if you adhere to the two key strategies I've outlined in this post, you may catch a few trout anyway.
Image #1 - The Susquehanna River in flood stage.
Image #2 - Wild ginger in bloom.
Image #3 - A creek chub I caught in high water conditions.