High and Dirty Steelhead by Roger Hinchcliff

High and Dirty Steelhead by Roger Hinchcliff

Seasons change and they come and go every year.

With spring and fall means rain. Even a warm up in the dead of winter with melting snow can blow a river out. So with that rain or melting snow our creeks and smaller rivers will start to rise, carrying muddy water, and that dumps into the main rivers. When the river starts to clear you will find Steelhead anglers everywhere in the Great Lakes region chasing their beloved Steelhead.

roger hinchcliff steelhead

This is a very common problem that every river angler must deal with. Many anglers will stay home if the water is running too high and if visibility is to a minimum, but I must say sometimes you’re missing out by not going during high water periods.

If the river is chocolate milk and unsafe that’s one thing but if there is some visibility and it’s safe I still fish. No fish is worth losing your life over. Always practice safe wading with a wading staff and wear a wading belt. Or use a boat and cover water safely. If it’s safe to go then I’m on the river and choose to fish differently. Steelhead can be caught on jigs, flies, spawn, spinners and minnow baits in a variety of conditions and at different times of the year. Every river has its own run clock and runoff rate.

Now smaller rivers will come into shape faster than a larger river but this depends on what part of the country in live in and how those rivers are feed. Be it run off or cold water springs etc. So bottom line is, some rivers near you clear up at different rates. So if your home river is a larger one and takes a while to shape up, then all the more reason to learn high dirty water tactics.

What to do

First if the water is cloudy, head upstream, above the inflowing creeks. You should find clearer water there. Don’t know where they are then get on Google Earth or get a map of the river. Do your homework before you even leave the house.

When I arrive I also get out of the car and stop at bridges and boat launches. I will put my waders on and judge the clarity myself. By stepping in the river and looking at my boot and look at how far down I can see it. I even take my measuring tape sometimes and measure it to be exact for my fishing journal. I’m looking for at least a foot or more. What a lot of people forget is the visibility downstream vs up stream sometimes can be like night and day.

There have been many days where guys forget this very important fact and I have had that section of fishable river all to myself.

dirty tannic water

Next, always check water temperature while you’re there.

Remember the gauge you’re reading the flow on with your computer at home or smart phone will give the flow data and may offer water temperature as well. But this can sometimes be miles and miles away from where you’re fishing. So keep that in mind and that’s why you should check water temperature in real time while you’re there. 

Water temperature will tell you where the fish will be. With higher temps fish will usually be in the faster choppier water and in colder water you’ll find fish in the softer water. Like slow deep runs, pools and flats. How’s that for making it simple? 

Benefits of High Water

With rising rivers means fresh fish in the system and those fish are usually the biters or what we call the players. Keep that in mind when you’re making a plan that should drive you to get out and give it the old college try. I have often reminded anglers over the years fishing is math. A numbers game the more casts you make the better your odds. You can’t catch a fish from your recliner at home can you?

Some more benefits of having stained or cloudy water allows you to use heavier line which means less fish lost. You can approach Steelhead much closer than normal with high water. They can’t see you as easy; this is to your advantage. Stealth is something many anglers ignore. Wade up stream that way you approaching fish from behind.

Hence why when I walk up on a hole I just stop and look at things for a minute and make a plan. Sometimes during high water those fish are real close to the bank trying to get a break from current or the silt. Or using those travel lanes to slip up the river where it’s easy. So consider making a cast or drift before you go stepping into the hole and spooking the fish you’re after.

Visibility and Colors

 Also during high water and less visibility fish sometimes are on the move during day light hours. Not just at night I have seen this first hand. So some holes might not have a fish in it and a few hours later it will. But sometimes they get their move on during cloudy, high water days remember that. On bright days they usually hold during the day.

fishing plugs Everyone thinks lure color is the main thing to focus on in high dirty water. Yes it’s important, but not as important as the lures contrast. Certain color combinations provide more contrast in the water, hence drawing attention to your offering. I personally love black or gold lures accented with the colors, like chartreuse, red and orange in dirty water.

I also believe that bigger lures isn’t always better in high dirty water. I actually sometimes use a smaller lure profile in dirty water. The fish will tell you what they want based on their level of activity. That changes by the water temperature and the water clarity. Sometimes they are willing to move great distances to hit your offering when other times you have to bump them on the head with your offering. Hence why the water temperature and clarity is so important to a Steelhead fisherman.

Vision and contrast is only a small part of the equation. Things like scents, the lure or fly’s motions and displacement also come into play. You have to experiment with your presentation and offerings. You just have to pay attention to the clues the fish and river give you. So if you’re a fly fisherman, or casting lure’s you need many sizes, colors, actions and shapes to try. If you’re float fishermen try different sized Beads or pieces of roe and spawn bag sizes, and in different colors. 

My advice is to try different things before leaving a hole that you suspect has fish in it. If I’m in my drift boat I will have 3 or more different rods already rigged up. I will have anything from Streamers, Jigs, Plastics, Beads, Roe and plug rods. I have been accused of fishing like the Bass guys by having so many rods in the boat.

That last drift or cast with something different might provide you a fish and give you a pattern to build on. It’s happened to me many times and made me and others a believer. Once you have a pattern together time to catch fish and show your buddies it’s possible during high water periods.

Suggested reading is a great book called “What Fish See” by Colin Kageyama. What you think your lure or fly looks like above water is not the case under water. What fish really see is affected by many factors. Learning this or changing the way you think about this subject can also improve your success rate. This book was a game changer and eye opener for me. Next might I suggest an app called Fish Head. This app is available on your Android and iPhone. Keep track of favorite rivers, flows, temperature and weather all at your fingertips.

Remember to cover ground and change tactics often until you find what they want and you just might have a day to remember. I hope this article has inspired you to get out and give Steelhead fishing a try during high water periods. We only have some much time to get after this fish at certain times of the year.

roger hinchcliffSo get out there and make the most of it. As always practice C.P.R. Catch, Photo and Release. May all your Steelhead Dreams Come True.


- Written by Roger Hinchcliff

Author, Rod Designer and Fishing Tackle Representative



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