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Taming Ultra-Fast Water

by Dave Karczynski
photos by Stan Karczynski

X_DSC_7673_midEvery river is its own country, its own universe, and some of them are pretty darn quick.  This past week I fished the fastest river I’d ever had the privilege of my setting my tightly supported, heavily cramp-on’ed feet in—the Bialka.  Bialka in Polish means “white,” and that whiteness had everything to do with the color of the broken water coming down the chute—it was falling-down-a-staircase fast.  But there were fish here, and plenty of them, if you could make the right presentations, which was  easier said than done.  Ultra-fast water makes for some presentation challenges that can only solved by weight and reach.  Here are a few tips and tools to think about when you’re confronted with seriously sluicing currents that laugh at your 80-foot casts and smirk at your mending skills.

Boots that Bite

In order to get into position to do piscatorial damage, you’re going to have to add some grip to whatever you’re wading with, be it screw-in tungsten studs or something a bit more serious.  I’ve been using Patagonia’s Ultralight River Cramp-ons for the past year and can vouch that the stuff will keep you upright when you really shouldn’t be.  Now they look a bit ungainly, and its true that you’ll need a minute or two to attach them, but they make such a monumental difference in the amount of traction you have that I never forego them on sketchy mountain beats.  Just don’t talk too loudly about how much like a mountain goat you feel or you’ll be in the same position I found myself in—designated fjorder for the camera crew’s delicate equipment.

A Rod with Reach

On ultra-fast water, size matters.  The faster the water, the more important those few extra inches of reach can be.  Note we said reach, not cast.  That boulder field of roaring pocket water doesn’t care about your double-haul.  It cares about how much fly line and even butt section of leader you can keep off the water at any given moment to give your fly one more millisecond in the zone before it gets sucked out, down and away.

On fast water, my go-to rod length changes from 9 feet to 10.  A ten-foot rod is still easy to cast conventionally when the water calls for it (though your loops won’t be quite as tight), but it really excels at presenting on the other side of fast current seams and sneaking up behind boulders, where the windows are the size of a tea cup plate and you’ve got roiling water all around.  That extra foot will let you get close enough to make a dappling presentation—you’ll be surprised at how long you can keep a fly putzing around on the surface.

I also like ten foot rods for throwing dry flies across large rivers with deep and uncrossable center channels.  It’s not so much that that extra foot enables you to cast further; it’s that it allows you to perform reach casts and various long-distance aerial mends with a bit more authority.

Lastly, both short- and long-line contact nymphing are not only more effective with a longer rod, but much less fatiguing.  Less reaching and less raising will add a few hours to your fishing day—and months or years to your fishing shoulder.

This year my go-to ten footer has been the Sage ONE in a four weight.  It’s light and lean–an important consideration with a ten foot, single-handed rod you might be holding on plane with your shoulder for a good part of the day.  It eagerly handles ultra-close in work (throwing mostly leader from behind a huge boulder) and won’t buckle when you need to go the distance and present a dry fly way down and way across over multiple current seams.  Lastly, that extra foot of beef in the butt makes it a four weight that really fishes like a five–still plenty strong for pulling fish out of current, a great all-around big-and-bad water tool.

Hooks that Stick but Don’t Get Stuck

There’s a lot to like in modern European hook design.  I recently got turned onto one in particular that’s made me want to retie all the nymphs in my box.  It’s a Czech hook—the HENDS 154—and it excels for nymphing the fastest of fast water, where you are contact fishing or not at all (this is no country for indicators).  In these types of situations you want a hook that grabs fish but not rock, and the 154 does just that.  Because it’s a jig hook, it rides hook point up, and because of the wide gap in the bend of the hook oversized hook eye, you can freight this thing with just about any size bead you like—big beadheads and thin, epoxied hydrodynamic bodies are the new black.  Last but not least, the eye of this hook is oriented perpendicular to the hook shank instead of parallel—very smart, since it means that the invariable wiggle that happens during a fight will not contribute to the unseating of the hook.

Big Bright Beads

We’re talking tungsten, tungsten all the way down.  Yes, tungsten is pricey, but millimeter for millimeter no other material gets you down nearly as fast, and keeps you ticking bottom for quite as long.  My favorite tungsten beads come from the good folks at the Montana Fly Company—their “lucent” beads give off a great metallic flash that still feels natural.  But the real reason they take the cake is their color selection—their thinking is very much outside the beadhead box in that each of their colors is a welcome distance from the norm.  I tie my pheasant tails with their Blood Red instead of copper and my caddis pupae with their Deep Blue bead instead of black.  Euro nymphs, which are often simply fast-water nymphs, often have hotspots engineered to garner a response from fish that might only have a millisecond to strike or not.  Tying your favorite nymph patterns with a slightly off-kilter bead color can make a real difference, especially with pressured fish.

Live-Wire Leaders

I’m a big fan of what Umpua is doing with both its pre-made leaders and leader building material—and what it’s doing is giving them some color.  Dry fly fishing super fast water, it’s not only your fly line that can kill your drift, it’s that first bulky half of your leader as well.  The Red Hot series helps me get a visual cue as to how and where my leader is laying out in current so that I can dial in my presentations that much quicker.

It’s even better as leader material for long-line contact nymphing, a subtler variation of chuck-and-duck.  The big difference is that when you’re chucking-and-ducking you’re generally throwing a ton of weight ahead of your nymphs, which are typically unweighted.  The Euro version is a bit more delicate and more subtle—the only weight you’re slinging are the beads of your nymphs. Umpqua’s colored mono is easy to see—even in 3x—and will tell you where your fly is and what it’s doing.

Last But Not Least

Fast water is tiring water, and being tired can be dangerous on fast mountain streams.  For this reason I always throw a few packets of cheap instant coffee into my daypack.  Add these to some water—either in a cup or, if you’re in full-on fishing dirtbag mode, in your mouth—and you’ve got energy where you thought there was none.  Does it taste good?  No.  No it does not.  You’d be very hard pressed to refer to its ingestion as a “coffee break.”  But this is less about relaxing than keeping you alert enough to stay safe, and staying safe is always where it’s at.

MidCurrent Fly Fishing
 
Dave Karczynski's writing has appeared in The Flyfish Journal, Fly Rod & Reel, The Drake, Fly Fusion and others. A Robert Traver Award winner, he lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he teaches writing and photography at the University of Michigan.
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