Dirty Water — Tight Targets

by | Apr 20, 2020 | 6 comments

Trout fishing is something that takes time to learn, but anyone can do it. I don’t believe there’s a fishing gene. No one is born with an innate fishing ability that the rest of us don’t have. Fishing talent is different from artistic talent in that way. Because it’s not a gift. It’s a developed skill.

Mercifully, there are no shortcuts. Time on the water is the only real teacher. And the boastful angler with a few seasons of experience sounds silly to all but the other inexperienced anglers — some of them, anyway. There are no experts at twenty years old. Truthfully, there are no fishing experts at eighty years old either, because this game changes on us constantly. And it opens up new avenues just as we accomplish something with the last one.

So I’ll say it again: Trout fishing is easily learned by anyone who puts in the time — by first understanding and then practicing the necessary skills. I see more successful anglers out there than ever before. And no doubt, that’s because we are in the golden age of information. Whatever you want to learn, it’s right there at your fingertips. And that’s wonderful.

But while there’s an abundance of good anglers these days, it’s still hard to find those who can put fish in the net under tough conditions.

When you’re first learning to sling a fly rod, it makes sense to choose favorable days. Fish the clean water. Stay out of the wind. Look for clouds in the forecast and shade on the banks. Find the sweetheart sections and fish hard. It’s in these times we know that trout should take our flies. It’s tough to make excuses when all the elements are in your favor, and great conditions lend confidence to every angler. We focus harder because we believe we should catch trout. And then we do.

But a new challenge opens up just after you you’ve learned the game with some competence.

Are you there yet?

Then it’s time to take your fishing skills into more difficult conditions.

READ: Troutbitten | Angler Types in Profile — Goldilocks

Dirt

Of course, many daily elements of a river challenge us. But perhaps none shows up more regularly and drives more anglers away than dirty water. And judging by how many cars I saw in the parking lot this afternoon, not many people are willing to accept the challenge.

The habits of anglers are predictable, so seeing only two other fishermen in three miles of water was no surprise. One of those was my fishing partner that I met in the lonely lot. On a Saturday in April, we had the place to ourselves. Why? Because the water was up, and it was dirty.

Photo by Bill Dell

What’s What . . .

Sure, I prefer to fish water clear enough to see the bottom — same as anyone. I like reading the river and guessing where the next trout is holding. And I enjoy comparing the surface currents with what I can determine about the water underneath. It’s more fun that way. But dirty water is not a reason to stay home.

Understand, there’s a difference between dirty and muddy. These are general terms with a range of meanings, but I’ll put a number on it.

Twelve inches.

If visibility is twelve inches or less, well then, things are pretty muddy.

Today, visibility was at least twice that. And I’m not saying it was clear enough for trout to make out details at two feet, but if you dunked your head under the water and looked upstream, you could probably see shapes coming from about twenty-four inches away. And if those shapes looked like food, you might be interested. Maybe not.

I have a bunch of tips for fishing this kind of water, and I’ve learned to enjoy the challenge. But all of my tips start with this . . .

Keep the Targets Tight

When faced with big, dirty water, there’s a natural draw to start chucking flies into the lurch or to just cover water as usual. But I suggest dramatically adapting your approach.

Fish close, at half your normal casting distance or less. Focus on short but effective drifts. And if you’re nymphing, refine one tight target until you’ve learned it well — then get a few excellent drifts and move on. Fishing this way takes longer than normal because we can’t see the bottom of the river. We use the flies as a probe to learn the contours of our chosen piece of water.

READ: Troutbitten | Nymphing: The Top Down Approach

If fishing streamers, keep the targets tight, but move faster than when fishing nymphs. I don’t give trout many looks with a streamer, so I continue moving to cover water. But I do it with short drifts in the right places. (More on that in a minute.)

I mostly fish nymphs or streamers in high and dirty water. Although, at times I throw a dry dropper rig. (They took my dry twice today.) I use the nymphs to learn about the currents and the structure below. And I use the streamers to get a trout’s attention at slightly greater distances. Both are good tactics. And I let the trout make their choice.

No matter the fly type, I enjoy the chance to stay extra-close and work on the short game. Under dirty conditions I can stand right next to my target and perfect the drift in a way that I cannot after the water clears.

Photo by Bill Dell

Where To?

Fish the edges. Of course everyone tells you this. But stay disciplined and do it.

Venture into the side channels and find the lazy seams next to backwater. Look for anything that gives trout a chance to efficiently search for food. Think about that. Then fish more than the edges. Pick out small pieces of water that have some current-break to them. Look for structure and find the soft water around it. Or find a shallow riffle and pick it apart systematically. I especially enjoy fishing nymphs in such places.

Flies?

You don’t need big flies in dirty water — not if you keep your targets tight and stay in the kinds of water mentioned above.

Ignore the raging currents in the middle. Walk past the good run that produces trout on stonefly nymphs under normal conditions. Then take that same rig — the same flies, and move over to a better target for colored conditions.

Remember, in dirty water, visibility might be a couple feet. And trout can see the flies. So going big or bright may not be necessary. Sure, be ready with bold flies like that, but also be ready for trout to eat the same things they did before the rains came. Around here, it’s been 14’s and 16’s to match the Henricksons and caddis that they’ve been following through the column. And those are the flies that got the job done today too — in high, dirty water.

Success is more about picking good spots and staying tight to the target. Fish close with repeated casts rather than trying to cover a lot of water with each drift.

READ: Troutbitten | Troutbitten Confidence Flies — Seventeen Nymphs

Photo by Josh Darling

Mud is Mud

I’ve painted a rosy picture here about dirty water, because I truly enjoy the challenge. And I’ve had amazing days with trout constantly at the end of my line and no one else around.

But when the water is truly muddy, with visibility of a foot or less, fishing is tough. Consistent success in the mud is rare. There are strategies for muddy water too, but those rely on a lot of luck and a good dose of hope.

Dirty water is good. Muddy water is bad. But it’s all better than staying home . . .

Fish hard friends.

 

Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky
T R O U T B I T T E N
domenick@troutbitten.com

 

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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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6 Comments

  1. Great article Dominick. I am such a believer in time on the water to improve. Wish I found more of it, but I’m always trying.

    I’ve started to think that flashy colorful nymphs are better for use on sunny days and darker, simpler flies are better on cloudy days. Do you think things like flash or beadheads (For the shine) are more useful in murkier water?

    Reply
    • If a person waited for the Bighole river to clear it would never get fished . It’s always tea colored . Sometimes we just need to adapt to water conditions.

      Reply
  2. Dom,

    Great article. I found similar conditions recently—both with fisherman and fish. One aspect of lack of fisherman in these conditions that cannot be ignored is online fishing reports and stream gauges. The “stay home and tie flies” report and seeing a stream bump over the historical 75 percent mark on USGS have to contribute to folks not making a trip. I’m not mad about it.

    Thanks for the good thoughts.

    Reply
  3. Some good fishing in muddy water.As long as it isn’t too muddy.Green or white weenies .Renegade fly with a silver tungsten bead or sometimes small black nymphs with silver beads work well for me.Recently been using mops & micro mop flies.Think the micro mop might be even better than the weenie.In smaller rivers I find the fish get pushed into slack water.The trout are often stacked up in large numbers.(in a small area)

    Reply
  4. “Its not a gift, it can all be learned.”
    That statement is my favorite but I enjoyed this article thoroughly.

    I’ve been following my passion all my life to get here, but I still am climbing the mountain to learn more.
    Yesterday I fished an Ohio LE stream for steelhead in conditions I called “chalky”. Visibility was 10 inches but water was olive not muddy. I caught one and missed a couple other bumps swinging big streamers. I found the few fish I did, in the waters you described. Hope to get to PA soon for full time trout. Stay Healthy all!

    Reply
  5. Great advice, Dom! Particularly relevant during these rainy spring months. I’ve found dirty water to be some of the most fun to fish as I feel like I learn something new every time I fish it. Cheers.

    Reply

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