High water fishing presents significant challenges, as the swift currents and discolored waters make it more difficult to locate and catch fish effectively. Check out these tips from Nigel Fox for a successful day on the water.

high water fishing

Figuring out trout fishing tactics when there are high water levels can be one of the most frustrating things. What I call a blow-out on the Kenai River is high water and low visibility. You can have high water and great visibility or high water with terrible visibility.

Facing High Water Fishing Conditions

There is never just one single thing that you can do for your fishing trip to be successful when faced with high-water conditions. There is a gambit of things you must change to have a successful day on the water. I will mainly be talking about fishing on the Kenai River because that is where I spend all my time guiding trout anglers. One thing that usually comes with high water on the Kenai is discolored water.

The first thing I do to start my day on the water is figure what section of the river I am going to fish for that day. I generally look for clearer water to fish for that day, if possible. I don’t mind a slight off color where I still have three- to six feet of visibility. But when the Kenai blows out it goes fast and many times there is no visibility at all. Usually, I make the call on the run upriver. After 24 years of guiding the Kenai, I know a few places to go before I leave the boat ramp. Based on my experience, when the river comes up a few feet, you are still able to fish your go-to spots and I always say if the salmon are still spawning, then there will be trout there.

Find The Clearest Water

After I figure out what section of the river to fish, I work on the depth I will be fishing for that day. If the water is a little dirty and only has come up a foot or less, I generally do not change much. But if the water has come up several feet in a 24-hour period, I have to adjust my leader length to be consistently near the bottom. When longer leaders are needed, generally more weight is too; I like to make sure my setup is ticking along the bottom through the drift. It might take a few drifts to figure out leader length and weight setup to get that perfect drift.

Additionally, with low visibility I generally fish a larger setup for trout. If I am fishing a bead setup I will go up in size and a touch lighter in the color of bead. If fishing a flesh pattern, I will go to a larger fly and a little more washed-out color.

Running your Drift

Now that you have the area you want to fish, the right bead or flesh, leader length, and weight setup, you’ll next need to focus on running your drift, whether it is from shore or from a boat. Typically, you are not going to be doing too much shore fishing on the middle Kenai when the river blows out. I think getting your drift speed and fishing depth right is the most important factor when fishing blown-out water, especially on the Kenai River.

high water fishing

Running up through Naptown rapids on the Kenai River during rising water.

If there is a lot of fishing pressure in there area you’re fishing, then you definitely need to be spot-on with size and color of your bait. When I run a drift for my clients in high water, I generally run my drift a little slower than the speed of the current. That helps me really pinpoint where the fish will be holding. It does force the people the boat to cast a little more, but I can live with that. In normal water conditions I run my drift the same speed as the current.

The fall of 2023 presented a lot of challenges for trout anglers on the Kenai River. We had major flooding starting the beginning of September all the way through the end of the month. It is only the second time in 24 years of guiding that I have seen the river in this high of flood stage. It packed all of us into the first six miles below Skilak Lake. With that many anglers in one area, I had to really focus on my presentation and bead/fly selection. I applied all these technics to be successful through the 2023 fall trout season.

Try Switching Rods

You can apply this to a fly rod or to a float rod. In some cases, the float makes it much easier to fish the higher water. Last year, I had many flyfisherman switch to a float rod on some days, because most of the bigger trout were in sixteen-plus feet water. Trying to cast a sixteen-plus-foot leader, an indicator and split shot can make for a long day and just isn’t feasible.

high water fishing

Early morning flycasting in the fog.

Whatever technique you use during high water, whether it is flyfishing with an indicator or spinning rod with float setup, follow the above tips for a more successful day on the water. High water doesn’t mean it will be trouble, just a little more challenging. Some of my best days have been during less-than-ideal water conditions.


Nigel Fox has been co-owner/guide at Alaska Drift Away Fishing for over two decades. He is a lifelong Alaskan and avid bowhunter of the Alaska backcountry. When he is not spending time guiding clients on the Kenai River, he is on another Alaska hunting adventure.

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