“We never stand in the same river twice” is a saying that is as suitable for life as it is for fishing. The variables we endure every day – weather, work, family, traffic – are akin to those shifts in the flow of any running water – rainfall and drought, shifting of sands, debris and surface disturbance – provide a unique experience every time we take to the water, even if it is the same one week after week, season after season. Understanding those shifts in the flow and knowing where fish go when waters are high or low will help you be more successful when navigating the changes.
Low water phases provide an interesting opportunity to discover the lay of a river. In midsummer, when early season rains subside or releases from area reservoirs slow down, water levels in rivers typically drop. This gives anglers a chance to figure out the underwater topography that provides fish safe harbor in the spring and locate those deep holes where fish seek refuge when the water gets low in late season. Identify those rocks that split the flow or look for debris like sunken trees, concrete chunks or other obstructions that provide cover or current breaks for fish when the water gets higher.
Fish the deeper holes slowly, targeting the edges in low light periods like dawn and dusk or fish the middles to find out if anything is holding at the bottom of them – particularly in mid-day. Low water conditions area also typically very clear conditions too, so downsize line or switch to fluorocarbon to avoid spooking fish. With the lack of current, slowly moving lures or live bait is key to a natural presentation.
High water on the other hand presents a bevy of changes that can challenge anglers by giving fish more places to hide, forage and explore, and it doesn’t always happen in springtime either. Mid-summer storms can set of a rapid refilling of a river’s banks and can trigger fish movements that seem almost out of season. Faster flows can also create presentation issues as well and adjusting to them is key to catching fish and exploiting their instincts.
With rising flows it is important to look for those areas that were exposed in lower waters of past seasons, and remember where they were and see how they impact fishing when the shores are full once again. Explore eddies created by rocks, downed trees or the shoreline itself and work from the edges into the center of these current break areas where fish hole up in fast flows and pick off prey like minnows, crayfish and terrestrial insects in the swirl. Anywhere smooth or slowly-swirling water brushes up against fast-moving disrupted water creates a feeding seam that fish of all species will use to ambush these food items and conserve energy as the water rushes by.
Faster water creates two alternative fishing methods. The first is exploiting the speed of the flow to trigger a reaction strike. Burning baits along with the moving water creates the illusion of a fleeing minnow or forage item being pushed rapidly downstream, and fish only have a moment or two to react and decide if they want to eat. If trying to fish the river slowly while it is churning away, upping the weight of lures is important to holding on to prime bottom areas where fish like walleyes and catfish relate, even in the fastest flows. Target structure seen in low water to up your chances of success when levels rise and work seams and eddies to catch those fast-water fish.
No matter which river you stand in today, tomorrow or next season, taking what you observe and learn in both low- and high-water conditions will help you find greater success…in our outdoors.