Dirty Water Woes


Spring time can be some of the most productive when it comes the chasing chrome in the river. It can also be some of the most frustrating. Water conditions are the leading factor in this frustration. Spring rains combined with snow melt can quickly turn ideal conditions into absolute disaster. But it’s nothing to fear. Mother Nature is not the one to dictate when we can and can’t fish. We need to capitalize on the short time we have, dirty water or not.

I grew up steelheading on a river that ran dirty for the majority of the spring. I had no choice but to quickly adapt. At first it was frustrating and complicated and led to many fishless days but now I’ve come to enjoy fishing dirty water. Dirty water scares people away, and often leaves me with a river to myself. Despite what many think, it is entirely possible to catch fish when the water looks more like chocolate milk. Here are a few tips that may help your success.


One of my favorite things to do as a steelheader is fish new water. There is very little more satisfying than walking up on new water, reading it correctly and hooking a bunch of fish. This is NOT an advisable approach to dirty water. In high dirty water it can be easy to make a mistake and even the smallest misread can be the difference between catching and not. When water is high and visibility is low you increase your odds by fishing water that you are already familiar with. High water can hide obvious fish holding locations, knowing those locations ahead of time will prevent wasted time fishing water that isn’t holding fish. Most steelheaders have one or two rivers that they consider their ‘home water’, water that they’ve fished days on end and are intimately familiar with. These are the rivers that need to be fished under tough conditions.


I’ve got more than a few years of steelheading under my belt but I’ll be the first to admit that every day is a learning experience. Every season, and on more than one occasion, I’m left riverside scratching my head. But steelhead are creatures of habit and often times it’s these habits that make them predictable and easy to find, even in dirty water. Remember, these fish have to make it a long way to reach their eventual spawning grounds, expending incredible amounts of energy in the process. The last thing they want to be doing when they finally do stop for a rest is fighting heavy current just to hold their position. Slow water is key. The dirtier the water is the slower moving the water you’re fishing should be. Slow deep pools, current breaks (logs, downed trees and boulders that slow the current) and current seams (the break between fast and slow water) are all good holding spots. Fish slow and fish deep; the current is its slowest at the bottom.


Don’t be afraid to bulk up. There are times when steelhead are spooked and need to be finessed; this is not one of them. Visibility is poor at best, you’d have to hit them on the head with a stick of dynamite to get them to give up their position. Bulking up on terminal gear will help to get down into the strike zone quickly; bulking up on bait, fly or lure size will make the fish take notice of your offering. Try throwing something dark. Most assume that bright colors are needed in dirty water, but dark colors will work just as good if not better. For dirty water steelhead it’s more about contrast than color. Dark colors contrast the dirty water and stand out against the background.


Fish one spot very methodically. The fish are there, but you may have to hit them on the nose to entice a strike. Multiple casts to the same spot are always necessary. Fish until you’re confident that you didn’t miss a thing. I’ll often pick one stretch of holding water and spend hours covering it and believe me when I say it’s a strategy that usually pays off.

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