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Advice for Fly Fishing Muddy Water

Advice for Fly Fishing Muddy Water

It’s probably cliche to say this, but in Colorado, if you can wait five minutes the weather will change. Unfortunately, this saying has not held true for the past few years. Many anglers in Colorado and throughout the west have become painfully aware that we have been experiencing a severe drought. Our primary concerns while fishing over the past few years have not been spring runoff or even a passing afternoon rain storm. The main problem we’ve been facing is the combination of low water levels and high water temps. These conditions have caused undue stress on trout. The fishing community has attempted to come together to educate all anglers on these stressors with a healthy degree of success. This has been accomplished through marketing and awareness programs by Trout UnlimitedColorado Parks & Wildlife, and other organizations, along with the organic support of most retail fly shops and guides.  

Runoff and Debris in the Water? Don't Give Up!

But it is crazy what a year can do! With the return of the monsoon season in Colorado, anglers have been experiencing daily storms in many parts of the state, dumping a torrential amount of water into our fisheries. Due to the after-effects of severe drought and countless burn scars, stream conditions are considerably different than years past. Drought and burns scars have made the landscape in many areas unable to soak up the heavy rains. As a result, sediment and debris have muddied the waters of many fisheries. Anglers now look at the fisheries that had once provided reliably clear water conditions and ask themselves, is it even fishable anymore? Many more are wondering, How can I fish water that looks like the Chocolate River in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? Well, I have a few pieces of advice. 

Five Recommendations for Muddy Water Fly Fishing

Number one: Lower your expectations! If you are trying to fly fish muddy water, it is going to be a challenge no matter what other conditions are present. So gauge your level of drive on that particular day. If you’re like me, the challenge of netting a quality fish in off-colored water gets the competitive juices flowing. Plus, when you’re successful, it makes for a great story over beers later!

Standard Fish Behavior is Key

Number two: Fish are still fish. While some fish behavior will change based on conditions, there are some basic fish behaviors that are constant. For instance, I am a firm believer that most fish are lazy. How would you like to swim upstream all day? Look for water that is protected or close to the bank. Muddy water or not, that’s where our lazy friends like to hang out. RareWaters properties, like all rivers, are a blend of pools, riffles, seams, and more. It’s time to think like a fish and target different sections with a setup that increases your chance of a strike. 

Setups for Off-Colored Water

Number three: Don’t be scared of shadows. My first fly fishing setup for off-colored water is typically a larger hopper dropper combination, with my dropper being larger than I would typically use in the summer. Why the hopper? Because it’s summer (and why not), plus, it’s an indicator (I know, I know). Keep in mind that fish are not always keyed into any particular pattern, especially any particular pattern for muddy water. They are looking for and reacting to shadows, which is why I use a larger dropper than I would normally use.

A hopper fly and dropper fly to be tied in a setup

If that first setup isn’t working, maybe it’s time to try a new fly (or two). Another possible technique for off-colored water is streamer fishing. Try to use darker-colored streamers. Again, this is due to fish looking for shadows. While streamer fishing in muddy conditions, I still start to look for fish in protected areas and closer to the bank. Don’t be afraid to use some kind of streamer leader or streamer-specific line. This will help keep the fly down in the water column. And don’t hesitate to think outside of the box while streamer fishing. Try a double streamer setup, a smaller streamer first followed by a larger one.  Keep the distance between the streamers to less than 12 inches.

Two dark-colored streamers to be tied on the same line
San Juan Worms

Number four: Worms come out to play. Try dropping a San Juan Worm in muddy water. With heavy rainfall and runoff, the banks have become saturated and guess what lives in those saturated banks? Worms. As you get accustomed to monitoring and reflecting insect life-cycles in your fly selection, don’t forget to think about how the conditions on the banks might give you an opportunity to use a simple San Juan Worm. 

Fast Riffles = Quick Decisions

Number five: Look for fast riffles. When you’re in a hurry but also hungry, your food pickiness will drop significantly. The same is true of trout. Applying this logic to muddy conditions, you should keep in mind that faster riffles can be a productive option. With water moving at a faster speed, fish cannot take as much time to make selective eats.  Take advantage of their haste by targeting them in the swift riffles. 

A man and a woman drink beer by a campfire beside a river in Colorado

If my recommendations above fail, keep in mind that you could be at work…and that you more than likely have a bottle of another kind of “off-colored brown water” in your bag or back at your vehicle. If you’re a seasoned angler, you’ve likely already cracked it open and followed the first bit of my advice for fishing off-colored waters…you’ve successfully “lowered your expectations.” And cheers to that!

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