Nymphing High and Dirty Water: One Possible Approach

Dirty water can offer excellent nymphing opportunities. You may need a light weight nymph but in a larger size to create a big enough profile for trout to locate.

Dirty water can offer excellent nymphing opportunities. You may need a light weight nymph but in a larger size to create a big enough profile for trout to locate.


For years my nymphing rigs were too heavy for fishing high water events. My rationale was increase flow meant heavier rigs to get down. Right? Well, sometimes this is the case, but what we need to understand is how much impact the high water has on a trout’s positioning.

The fact is that high water events (like a strong rain storm) create increased water volume, and sometimes off-color water, in streams and rivers. Some storms are severe enough that the trout will be pushed to the side of the stream, holding in shallower water as refuge from the increased flow. Remember, streams are dynamic-they vary greatly in depth and gradient, so this advice may not be pertinent to your home waters.

A recent storm left a local limestone stream well above average and off color. The velocity and turbidity in the middle of the stream were severe enough to make fishing almost impossible, which left the shallow edges as the only possible target. There were fishing opportunities, but they sure weren’t out in that turbulent water, regardless of the weight I attached to my flies or line.

Fishing the edges is not a concession we make; it is probably where the fish are. So, we need a light enough rig to drift over the shallows and not hang up. When I say shallow, I’m speaking of anything from 6-20 inches, with slow to medium current.The typical large/heavy stonefly or jig style nymph is too heavy, a recipe for snagging bottom. But we need a fly with a large enough profile (so trout can locate it in murky water) but light enough that it drifts naturally.

The one approach that has worked well for me in such conditions was to float a sighter using a larger #10 Higa’s SOS nymph with a 3/32” (2.0mm) tungsten bead, with a short 3’ tippet. No additional lead wire wraps-just the weight of the bead and the hook. This pattern has a large and dark enough profile that fish can see in such conditions, plus I find the larger size does an excellent job of imitating slate drake nymphs. Any large pattern with a dark profile will work in these conditions, but it needs to be light enough to drift in along the shallow edges. Sometimes this means using a brass, instead of tungsten, bead. Or it may mean using a beadless pattern with several lead wraps. Whatever your preference, please remember that high and off-color water may require bigger flies, but these patterns need to be lightened.

The 2019 spring/summer season has provided more than our share of storms, but it has also provided some of the best fishing I’ve had in recent memory. Everything in this game is counter-intuitive. One would think, for example, that we would need bright flies in off-color water or night fishing. Nope. Trying to fish heavy, off-color water has to mean super heavy nymphs, right? The truth is that the fish you are targeting probably aren’t even there. They don’t like that water any more than you do. They’ll be on the edges, in relatively shallow water. Big, light flies may be the ticket to catch them. Good fishing!

A light weight #10 Higa’s SOS nymph has been a good nymph for dealing with recent high and dirty water conditions.

A light weight #10 Higa’s SOS nymph has been a good nymph for dealing with recent high and dirty water conditions.