Fly Fishing for Trout in Changing River Conditions, Island Angler June 2016, page 5

For the first time, on May 11, Fisheries & Oceans Canada granted emergency authorization to reduce water flow on my home river, the Cowichan, to below 15 m³/s before the traditional flow pattern ends June 15. To put this into context, a flow rate of 4.5m³/s was reached approximately August 8 in 2014 & 2015, and this year’s flows could potentially be adjusted to this rate as early as May 19. The River Forecast Center says that this years’ conditions have seen small snowpack & early melt, combined with low precipitation, creating a possibility of drought conditions similar to last year’s on Vancouver Island.

When river levels drop too low, fish can be stranded in pools separate from the main river. In addition, at water temperatures higher than 20-21℃, there is less dissolved oxygen which is significant enough to cause much strain and distress to a fish. This is why extreme conditions in recent years have seen freshwater closures. Keeping this in mind, it is highly likely that we are going to need to learn to fish new water this summer, if we want to keep our lines wet. The only rivers on Vancouver Island which have not been subject to these closures in recent years because they contain sufficient water refuges to adequately protect fish, even with normal angling pressure, include the Campbell-Quinsam and Qualicum River.

For myself, the best way to learn how to fish a new river is by reading the water. All rivers have certain features in common and recognizing these gives you a much more intimate knowledge of the river. Keep in mind when selecting a location, that a trout’s priorities include oxygen, food, shelter to hold in and cool water.

The first thing to do is break down the sections of a river. Look for the seams, any place where 2 currents meet – this is the ultimate food highway for trout. Riffles are sections which are shallow, rocky and highly oxygenated, with a choppy surface appearance – ideal for holding and feeding, with a forgiving surface turbulence that causes your fly to tumble naturally along with the flow. The run is the area directly behind a riffle where water becomes deeper and the current more uniform. This provides shelter for trout in the deeper water and easy access to feeding, especially where the riffle meets the run. Pools are the deepest section of the river, where the current is slowest and provides a safe haven for the fish to escape danger or the mid-day sun. The tailout is the shallow flat portion at the end of the pool, which creates a funnel for insects, and the perfect place to cast to a rising trout. The shallowness dictates your need for stealth in approaching these productive, yet vulnerable waters. An eddy is an area of the river where structure, such as contour or a log interrupts the current flow and changes its direction. Look for the delightful, swirling, reverse current that has an ability to funnel and trap insects drifting by.Structure such as rocks, boulders and logs impede the flow of the river, creating a visible “bump” on the water’s surface and indicates a pocket of slower water which is ideal for holding, with a change in current which pushes food into the pocket. Contour features including gravel bars, drop-offs, sharp banks and bottom holes can provide further opportunities for trout.

Rainbow trout are more finicky, and like faster water than brown trout and cutthroat. Rainbows are most likely to go aerial when hooked and may combat you in a magnificent show. Brown trout tend to be more wary and elusive, and will dive deep when hooked. Cutthroats tend to be more opportunistic in their feeding patterns and always provide a feisty fight.

Don’t underestimate the importance of following your instincts. If a section of water strikes you as even remotely fishy, at least stop for a couple of casts. The very first time I fished the Campbell-Quinsam system, when scouting the river, I found a fishy looking pool under the bridge on the Quinsam. However, at the confluence with the Campbell, there was a large number of fishermen that appeared successful. I took my place in line and began casting. After a full day, I had caught and released one lone pink salmon, while watching everyone around me limit out within an hour or two. My partner had even enticed and landed a beautiful, rare, chrome summer steelhead. Around dusk, the black bears began roaming the river, and most fisherman departed and headed back to their campsites. Slightly foolhardy, I still needed to throw one last cast. I hiked over to the original fishy looking pool I found, stood beside the bridge pillar, casted once and caught a fresh, shiny pink salmon. Casted again, nothing. Casted a third time, and caught a large, feisty cutthroat. Released him, and heard rustling in the bush. I stepped back to investigate and on the other side of the pillar, I found myself face to chest with a large black bear fishing the same pool. I backed away, up to the road trembling with my heart in my throat and then bolted back to camp. At least, I learned to follow my instincts, cast my own waters, and not wait until I have to compete with bears for fish (they will win every time).

The other important consideration is understanding the flies in your box. Dry flies imitate the adult stage of a fly and hatches can move trout up to the surface of the water to feed. Wet flies, or emergers, are meant to mimic the maturation of a nymph as they rise through the water to hatch on the surface. Streamers are intended to be fished below the surface, and emulate minnows and other small baitfish. Nymphs are the immature larvae stage of aquatic insects and are fished to entice trout holding on the bottom of the river.

Fishing in low, clear conditions involves a certain amount of stealth and awareness of the influence of your presence. From below, anglers project a large shadow and resemble a threat that will send most fish down for cover. Keeping this in mind, tread gently with care, and try to stay out of sight. I’ve had the most success when I downsize my fly and tippet to avoid spooking the trout. Cover all the water in a methodical casting pattern and work your way across the water – don’t walk through water your should be fishing first. Accurate presentation is key, so be sure to mend your line to counteract the effects of drag on your fly. If your fly isn’t attracting any attention, change patterns or vary your strip speed.

None of this is intended to say this is the way; it’s just my way to look at a river. I see choppy water tumbling through riffles to darkening runs where the flow stabilizes, cascading into a deep lazy pool. Don’t just see water when you look at the river, see the intricacies and structure that gives it character and provides hints to the treasures lurking in its depths.