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Low Water vs. High Water Tactics for Trout

This time of year, anglers can expect to find low and clear water on many high country streams and freestone rivers. On the other hand, tailwaters like our home stretch of the South Platte below Cheesman Reservoir will be experiencing sustained higher flows. This disparity in water conditions can require completely different tactics from one location to the next. We thought we’d share a few tips on how to tackle low water versus high water tactics for trout.


Low Water Tactics

The late summer and early fall timeframe means low, clear water conditions on some of our favorite creeks and rivers in the high country. Trout in these conditions can be easy to spook. But these conditions also come with great opportunities. Dry fly fishing continues to be effective. And right now in many places we’re enjoying some of the best hopper fishing of the year!

“I think it's worth noting that when the water is low and clear the fish tend to sit on the bottom and middle of key runs,” Anglers All media manager, Davis James commented.

Get used to finding fish in locations you wouldn’t otherwise find them during higher water conditions. In fact, stop and pay close attention when approaching the water and especially before you set foot in the water. It’s easy to spook fish in these conditions with splashes, pushes of water and foot steps.

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As you near the water, be conscious of your profile and approach from downstream. With the trout facing upstream, you’ll often be forced to approach from below. Keep a low profile. In some cases, it might be necessary to cast from a few feet behind the bank or even from your knees. Avoid getting in the water whenever possible.

Approaching from downstream means you’ll be making some upstream casts. Start at the bottom of a run, cast upstream and allow your fly to drift back toward you. Carefully strip your line through the drift to keep slack off the water. Then continue working upstream, a few feet at a time.

“When it comes to rigging for low water conditions, long leaders in 6x or 7x are often ideal,” Davis noted. When you’re making those upstream casts, a long, fine leader will prevent you from “lining” the fish, or spooking them by laying the line right over their head.

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This is prime time for hopper fishing. But you may find that in clear water, fish often shy away from large or gaudy dry flies. When this is the case, size down your dries. What’s more, fish minimalistic droppers beneath your dries like thread midges and RS2s. That hopper-dropper combo that was working for you a month ago might need to go down a couple of sizes in these conditions.


High Water Tactics

Meanwhile, Davis points out that our local tailwater on the South Platte River is experiencing higher flows from a bottom-flow release from Cheesman Reservoir.

“During these higher flows, the fish tend to access the shallow edges and slower pocket water,” Davis said. “In contrast from the low-water tactics, this calls for using bigger flies like stoneflies, scuds and worms as attractors with 4x and 5x leaders.”

In these higher tailwater conditions, start with a fluorocarbon leader in 4x or 5x, then attach about a 16-inch section of tippet. When the water is high like this, weight and depth become critical elements. For a few tips on the basic nymph rig and where to attach your weight and indicator, check out this video as Ben Baxter explains:



In high water situations, we recommend weights like the Loon Outdoors Camo Drop weights in the Big Water variety. Fly patterns like Pat’s Rubber Legs, San Juan Worms, Twenty Inchers and Hunchback Scuds are a few of our high-water favorites. If you see fish working along the banks in slack water, don’t be afraid to splash a hopper in tight to the bank.

In addition to the larger patterns like stoneflies, worms, and scuds, don't be afraid to go flashy! Trout in low water often have the luxury of being cautious and extra selective, but that is not the case during high flows. In off-color, fast moving water, fish have to make a snap decision when it comes to feeding. Even tricky tailwater trout will eagerly eat patterns they would snub if given the chance to investigate them. 

If you're fishing a double nymph rig, paring your larger flies with a smaller, flashier nymph can be deadly. If you're planning on fishing during higher water conditions, be sure to bring along a few Rainbow Warriors, Psycho Princes, Duracells and Frenchie Jigs. 

For more details or for help getting started, please don’t be afraid to ask questions. We’d love to help you get ready for a great day out on the water! You can visit us here at the fly shop. Or call us at 303-794-1104.

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