Hell or high water

by T&T on July 2, 2013

Casey Cravens – Dunedin, South Island, New Zealand

Weather extremes shaped the rhythm of the South Island’s angling year. January floods scoured our rivers. Then the big dry hammered water levels for three months—until June’s massive floods. The Mataura jumped to 80 times its low-water levels. The Taieri went from 20 cumecs to 1,200. Anglers wonder how this will affect next season. I suspect the larger brown trout are holding up okay. One of the most genetically varied vertebrate species, they are remarkably resilient. Sometimes they behave like salmon. Other times like catfish. Fisheries scientists worry about the impact of anthropogenic climate change—and increased floods and temperatures—on cold-water species. But this is one ray of hope. In a diminished world I have faith in brown trout.

We’re just past winter solstice. Days are short and cold and often gray. The poplars at Pensioners’ Pool are denuded and skeletal. Another turn of the wheel and the axle tilts and the cycle of life winds down.

But there’s still a spark of activity. Brown trout are paired up in the tributaries. Mallards and teals are flying north chasing the sun. Camoed duck hunters huddle in maimais drinking coffee and whiskey, waiting for a moment to punctuate the silence. On sunny days mayflies and midge hatch. Winter can still offer fine angling, particularly in estuaries and river mouths of our winter-season lakes. But with much of the water closed, there’s a sense the fishing gods have rolled up their tents and ridden away.

This time of year Australasian anglers envy those in the Northern Hemisphere. July in the Rocky Mountains has an opposite shape and cadence: one of swelling, opening and accelerating towards mid-summer’s pregnant “zero degree” days, as Ted Leeson describes them, whose evenings last forever and culminate in a rise form: the angler’s jeweled lotus. Heading towards this timeless moment, the landscape is charged with coiled energy. Rivers run turgid with snowmelt. Meadows explode with wildflowers like cinquefoil, larkspur and shooting star. Blue wing olives then salmonflies and drakes and Pale Morning Duns unfurl their wings like petals.

The transition from fall to winter, or spring to summer, often results in volatile river levels. But this doesn’t mean you have to put away the fly rod, as a trip earlier this year reminded me. The experience turned into a refresher on fly fishing high water.

NS 5 bends deep
Know the lay of the land

Our flight hugged the jagged gray-brown peaks above the dark green beech forest then crossed over the blue mother lake. Helicopter trips always make you feel alive. As though you and the landscape are being reborn. But we were also apprehensive. One concern was river levels. Rain was forecast.

It’s imperative to do your homework before a wilderness trip–especially in wet weather. This means knowing how rain or snowmelt raises the river and how quickly it clears. To anglers, river flow charts, and the pulse of flood and recession, are as important as an EKG to a heart surgeon. But there are no flow gages at our destination. We rolled the dice.

As we crossed the delta the view from the Robinson R44 raised our hopes. Braided in its lower end, the river was a translucent blue-green and clear enough to sight fish. The headwaters rise in permanent snow. We were targeting an area a little more than halfway up the watershed, above most of its tributaries, where the river is confined to a single channel.

High water is big-fish water

We were also worried about encountering other anglers, possibly from a lodge with two helicopters. Calling area pilots before we left, I heard the lodge owner was put off by the forecast and having his choppers serviced. No one was at the hut  when we landed. And we never saw another angler during our trip. Solitude more than compensates for rain and cold.

We unloaded gear and walked down to the river. We spotted trout in the nearest pool. Great expectations. Back at the hut, by the time we’d had single malt and finished dinner the rain started. At first, no one said anything about the weather. But the chimney smoked and burned our eyes unless we cracked a window. When we did the rain drummed louder. I could hear Peter and Marcus shifting in their bunks.

“Peter,” I said, breaking the silence. “You know how on the last two trips we worried the weather had buggered the fishing, but we did okay?  Well, I hope our luck hasn’t run out.”

“Maybe,” he said. “But ya gotta take it as it comes. That’s fishing. I’m just happy to be here. The snowy mountains. And the river is one from your dreams.”
That’s what a guide likes to hear. Peter and I are both ex-jocks and share the belief that half of life’s success depends on showing up.

“But you never know,” I said, brightening. “I’ve also had great fishing in high water.”

You might have the river to yourself

Before dozing off I recalled other high-water trips.

On the first day of the high-country season one year, I walked four hours over a mountain pass in sideways rain and sleet and northwesterlies gusting to 90 k. By the second day all but the demented decamped the valley. I persevered. The trout were hungry. Even when I cast short they’d often turn around to eat. Fishing a swollen pool with a foam line running below a beech tree, I landed three fish over eight pounds on my Greenstoner nymph and broke off one bigger.

And once, in the Dingleburn gorge during spring torrents, magnificent fish whacked our Buggers in the raging river. One was  a rainbow trout as long as my leg. It cartwheeled then burned downstream through whitewater with me scrambling after it until the riverbank ran into a cliff.

Norwegian salmon fishermen appreciate high water the way Inuits do snow. Some nights in rainy “Russian” weather, an Alta River ghillie tells Ernest Schwiebert, the river is high and you don’t touch a grilse or even medium-size salmon. If you prick anything it’s a Gytefisk, one of the biggest cockfish in the river. Fishing the Harstrommen Pool with a canary-bright Torrish pattern, Schwiebert hooks a 30 kg Atlantic.

Why is high water big-fish water?  Perhaps because big fish handle strong current better. Colored water also makes it harder for wise fish to scrutinize your fly and tippet. High-water events create feeding opportunities as well as danger. Like Wall Street day traders during a volatile market, trout must balance hunger and fear. Rising rivers also shift the trouts’ lies. The environmental change pushes a reset button. It seems to wipe the memories of large cagey fish. Shuffle the deck and luck improves.

Peter’s one of my favorite clients. He’s keen as mustard. Back in Oz he has a reputation for fishing for mako sharks. In boats not much larger. He’s a big athletic guy with good eyes, wades tough water without a complaint and hunts trout with the same edge he once played Australian-rules football.

Peter brought along Marcus, a fellow principal. Marcus was a novitiate but Peter had schooled him on home waters beforehand. Our backcountry expedition threw Marcus into the deep end. Four mornings we fished the raw blue dawn.

The first morning the river was up but clear under light drizzle. Fishing the pool next to the hut, Peter was soon into his first trout, a silvery hen rainbow with a small head and strumpet-bright red cheeks and flanks. He followed up with a larger jack rainbow over four pounds. Marcus answered with his own male rainbow about the same size.

Whew. Trout under our belts put us at ease. Everything else was gravy. We fished downstream about half a day’s walk before working our way back, using beadhead mayfly, caddis and stonefly nymphs. The soft drizzle turned to rain.

Fly choice: more is more

Fly choice in high water should match what the trout can see or feel. Think of the additional current and debris as background noise. You wouldn’t have a harp recital in a loud dive bar. Think Hendrix not Vivaldi. Crank it up and break out the wah-wah pedal. Use bigger, louder, brighter flies with more action. Nymphs with bright copper tungsten beads were the order of the day.

My Wedding Dress caddis, tied with white UV Ice Dub with a blue tint, is as fat as a grub and as bright as a magnesium flare.

My Gingerman has translucent Hend’s Body Quill mounted in the tail as setae, then wrapped up the bare hook so the steel shines through.

I tie my Wasabi Caddis with a hollow green Jelly Cord body the same way—without a thread underbody. It glows like neon.

We also caught fish on “hot head” nymphs with pink and orange tungsten beadheads. High-water angling resembles night fishing. Your flies need to maximize visual and acoustic footprints. For an extreme example of this, go into a fly shop with Tongariro patterns. Lumo, rubber legs and skirts and fiesta colors abound.

A corollary of this is don’t skimp on weight. My Greenstoner has three or four large tungsten beads—one or two green ones at the head and two orange beads in the abdomen. It’s like casting a sparkplug but gets down to deep fish and works well with the Leisenring Lift.

Gimme shelter

Rising rivers pick up gravel, stones, vegetation and, in hundred-year floods, boulders. Floods can also kill 60-70 percent of adult trout, according to one New Zealand study. Trout alevins, fry and parr are particularly vulnerable. And patterns representing them can fish well. It’s also interesting to note that, while rainbow trout often feed in faster water than browns, Salmo trutta, with its penchant for structure,  handles floods better.

Trout and other river life instinctively seek shelter in high water. So as rivers rise, look for new lies. Target quieter water: the margins, drop-offs, the slow inside curve of bends, in the eyes of swirling pools, where turbulence cancels current, near rocks that create backflushes.

One of my favorite areas to fish is the first meter next to the bank. This is an even sweeter spot when the river comes up. Often you’ll find trout resting in water barely deep enough to cover their backs. Or just a little further out and a meter deep, in nooks between canon ball-size stones or drowned tussock. The size of benthic life is directly correlated to the size of the river’s rocks. Big cobble holds stoneflies as well as our larger Nesameletus and Oniscigaster mountain mayflies nymphs, which dart like baitfish. Fish these imitations with a twitch.

On the second day we started on a long deep run on the upstream left just above the hut. This stretch of river must be one of the best in the Southern Alps. Upstream above the run the river sweeps twice in a rounded Z. A snow-fed tributary joins on the upstream left where the river curves and drops into an alluvial fan on the inside.

As we walked slowly upstream scanning for trout, the bank rose four or five meters above the river. We spotted a broad-shouldered fish actively feeding two feet out. Newbie got first crack. I rigged a single Gingerman three meters below a small sheep’s wool indicator. Marcus slid down and crept up on the fish. Peter and I kept low, back from the water, and selflessly offered expert advice.

“You’re still casting well below it,” Peter bellowed. “Get closer!”
“Not too close,” I yelled. “And don’t kick any rocks and scare it.”

For some reason, the peanut gallery’s advice wasn’t producing the desired effect. Within five minutes Peter was chomping at the bit. “If he doesn’t get a decent cast off soon,” he said, “I’m going down there myself.”

The river was roaring too loud for Marcus to hear us. But he inched up below the trout. The fish slashed repeatedly at twigs floating by, exciting us and making me wish I’d rigged a terrestrial or mouse. So don’t rule out dry flies when fish are holding high in clear water.

Marcus cast short then moved up again. The first good cast the trout moved sideways and its mouth flashed white but wasn’t hooked and canted back to station. The second good cast and bang!  Marcus’ rod bowed and the fish gave a good account of itself.

“You’ve got 12-pound tippet on,” I yelled. “Horse that fish in before he bolts.”  I’d gone up a notch on the tippet as the river rose.

Typically, when you hook a strong rainbow in fast current it turns downstream in a burning run. If you’re smart you sprint to get below it. High water, however, can work to your advantage. Trout don’t like leaving the security of the bank for the torrent of silt and deadly blind debris in the middle of the river.

I scrambled down the bank, entered the river and lifted the net out in front of me to test the heavy current. Damn, I wanted a longer net though I hate carrying them. The river was roaring so fast there were boils like whitecaps on a big southern lake in high winds. The trout sensed me and zoomed towards Marcus. I paused, then came up gingerly. “When I say ‘now’ drop your rod tip,” I yelled, closing the distance.

“Now!”
Marcus obliged, the trout drifted down and I netted it. A muscular male rainbow of five pounds.

I checked Marcus’ tippet and flies. Peter shot off ahead, scrambled down a steep bank, crossed the side flow and followed a gravel spit where the river came to a bend below a fern-covered bank with a spring inflow.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Peter freeze, crouch then flick a cast directly in front of him. His right shoulder rolled back, his forearm lifted then his rod doubled. Peter gave no quarter. The man has good instincts. He just backed up and I quickly netted the trout. It was a lovely male brown with an olive back and buttery belly.

I checked Peter’s tippet and flies then turned to help Marcus. While Marcus nymphed broken water Peter spotted another fish just upstream, again in just inches of water. Another quick cast and he hooked it. This fish shot out in the middle of the flow briefly then downstream. Peter bent his rod deeply and followed. The fish came out of the fast current and we landed it in the same flat shallows. This second fish was also a brown: humpbacked, chrome and speckled with pepper-black spots. I marvelled at the variation in the browns landed within 20 meters of each other. Both fish were between eight and ten pounds.

We were pumped.

I looked up the narrow valley to the left. Dense beech forest covered the steep slope to the tree line where snow frosted chocolate brown peaks like a bundt cake. A small but steep and swift tributary roared down the mountain gap and joined the river above. The warm rain and snow melt would raise the trib while we fished upriver and I mentioned this, as well as the following public service announcement, to Peter and Marcus as we forded.

We crossed and fished upstream til late afternoon and picked up half a dozen fish, most over five pounds and within a meter of the bank or right below ledges.

About 4pm the consensus was to head back.

The plan was I’d start dinner while they fished near the hut. When we got to the tributary, it was doubled in volume and the color of cafe au lait. We picked up stout branches and probed the water before we put our feet down.

Think Safety

New Zealand rivers demand respect, especially in high water. A good rule of thumb is to avoid wading over your knees in rocky or swift water. Always assume water is deeper that it looks. Use a wading staff or stick to probe the bottom. And look downstream to scan where you’d end up if you slipped.

River danger shapes our national character. Some areas like Fiordland and the West Coast are among the wettest places on earth, averaging 268 inches of rain a year. Within just 20 years of the first New Zealand settlers’ arrival, by 1870 rivers had resulted in 1,115 recorded drownings. Between 1920 and 1983, the country experienced 935 destructive floods. Small wonder that in the nineteenth century drowning became known as “the New Zealand death.”

Like bear stories in Alaska, rapidly rising rivers are familiar plot twists in our fish tales. In Norman Marsh’s Angling Yarns, the author recounts being stranded on a cliff face above a Clinton tributary overnight with rising flood waters licking below his boots. Brian Turner’s Into the Wider World tells of a half-baked, “she’ll be right” trip with mates. They cross the Haast on air mattresses to reach an angling El Dorado. But they’re stuck across the flooded Thomas River for days, run out of food and his mates start showing signs of hypothermia.

I once was stranded across the Makarora on a trip to the Young on the edge of winter when, after a week of rain, the river flooded and sleet turned into a hard freeze. My then wife was eight and a half  months pregnant. I knew she’d worry when I didn’t come home. But I stayed put. I just wished I’d saved more whiskey. That same weekend a German tramper drowned trying to cross just below us.

A friend’s colleague was once hiking the Mingha-Deception track when his wife developed severe blisters and couldn’t walk. He went to get help but tried to cross a rising river. He drowned. I visualize her waiting as darkness fell. Utterly preventable. When in doubt, it’s better to spend an uncomfortable night in the bush than the alternative.

Persevere

One of my favorite stretches of the river is just downstream of the middle hut. I call the Big Two-Hearted Pool. Two muscular branches collide there at 90 degrees below a big island. The dueling currents form a nice self-cancelling backflush below a rocky shelf where trout don’t have to fight the flow. They can drift and feed while barely finning. We’d taken nice rainbows there the day before. After Marcus worked the run right across from the hut without a touch, we headed down to the pool to check on Peter before I returned to start dinner. A warm hut, steak, a nice pinot and  Marcus’ grappa were calling my name. But then I heard another voice.

“Get down here, you big girls’ blouses, and look at these fish,” Peter yelled. Marcus and I were both tired after a 12-hour day. We dragged our carcasses down to the pool. A pod of big rainbows was circling the eye, slashing at something in the water. I’d seen similar behaviour in shark documentaries. By this point the once gin-clear water had taken on the color of talcum powder stirred into limeade. We couldn’t see the big rainbows until they dramatically materialized at the last minute.

“This calls for a different fly,” I said, reaching in my vest. I’d tied up some big meat flies for just the occasion. A brown-and-olive Woolly Bugger crayfish variant with lead jig eyes, splayed marabou claws and long sparkly rubber antennae.

“What do you call that?” Peter said.
“A Feather Duster,” I said, waving it. “A quick tie and gets the job done.”  Crayfish patterns are underutilized.

Casting them required an open-loop lob. But my Thomas and Thomas NS 5 handled the weight remarkably well. And the tip was sensitive enough to detect strikes. The conditions did however did make me want to try their new NS 6 next spring with one of the specialty streamer lines on the market. One good thing about the design of the NS series is, despite their reserve power they flex into the butt and protect tippet when fighting big fish.

Aggressive takes made the fishing deeply satisfying. The fish were stout hearted in the oxygenated water. Peter and Marcus landed another half a dozen rainbows before dinner. Had we returned to the hut we would have missed the feeding frenzy. Peter’s attitude made all the difference.

The next day was more trout cornucopia. The river was a milky green. And the river was higher than I’d ever seen it and filled its channel to the brim. But we got heaps of fish, mostly rainbows over five pounds with a few bigger ones, and a couple of browns. Marcus nailed a rainbow of eight pounds. The Feather Duster was the fly of choice. One fly landed ten fish before it shredded. Peter landed a good rainbow jack with a kype and it slipped in his hands before we got a photo. When he hugged it the fish’s kype caught his cheek and bloodied it. Neither Marcus or I mentioned it too him. As the day wore on the wound bled down his face and onto his vest and jacket before it coagulated, giving Peter a savage look that made us snicker til he finally wised up. The fish were so bitey.

On the last morning before departure we rose early for a quick fish. Marcus and I were downstream of Peter. When we heard the chopper in the distance I walked upstream to Peter. His eyes were large and his cheeks ruddy.

“I just got my biggest fish of the trip,” he said, breathless. On his camera monitor he showed me the photo of a rainbow jack that, up against his rod, came about an inch short of the first guide: about 28-29”.

The final tally between them was over 40 fish. Marcus landed 15 fish over five pounds, including one of eight. Peter managed over 20 fish from five to at least 11 pounds. I’m not usually one to go on about numbers. But I found them remarkable because we worried the rain would ruin our trip. I love that river.

* * *

The end of Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It contains a sentence that always resonates:


The river was cut by the world’s great flood
and runs over rocks from the basement of time.

I once thought Maclean was being metaphorical and alluding to the Biblical Flood. But he was also being literal.

About 15,000 years ago one of the largest floods in geological history occurred when an ice dam broke and a wave of water equivalent to thirteen Amazon Rivers rushed down the Blackfoot River at 130 kilometers an hour to the Columbia. A similar flood 200,000 years ago severed Britain from France and carved the White Cliffs of Dover. Floods are among the most devastating natural catastrophes to shape salmonid evolution—as well as the human consciousness that observed them. It’s not surprising the big deluge is a common narrative in myths of apocalypse as well as rebirth, going back to Gilgamesh.

How does this relate to fly fishing?
High water isn’t the end of the world. Think of it as a new beginning.

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