How to Fly Fish in Fast-Moving Water [Step-by-Step Guide]

How to Fly Fish in Fast-Moving Water [Step-by-Step Guide]

Springtime is a great time for Fly Fishing. But warmer weather, rain and snowmelt is going to bring those water levels up so knowing how to fish in fast-moving water is critical. This guide will explain everything you need to know, including some valuable tips on fly fishing in water that is fast-moving.

Summer will soon be upon us! The warm weather gets everyone excited! Everyone can shed their winter clothing and get ready for the excellent conditions that springtime brings with it.

For those living and fishing in the United States, this means that there are going to be a lot of hungry fish, and the snowmelt is going to bring those water levels up so knowing how to fish the fast-moving water is critical. This guide will explain everything you need to know, including some valuable tips on fly fishing in water that is fast-moving. 

Man Fishing in Fast Moving Water

How do you fly fish with fast-moving water?

First of all, we must stress that applying common sense during a high flow is very much recommended! Accidents happen when you don't put common sense first. After all, if you cannot see the river at the bottom because it is off-color, there is every chance that there could be a drop-off. This is why you need to operate with caution when you are fishing.

Nevertheless, as the rivers begin dropping and get close to that floatable and fishing stage, this is when you should head out to your nearby stream with your boots, belt, waders, and rod. You need to make sure you have all of the correct equipment for enhanced stability. Usually, throughout high water, you will have the chance to encounter some solid and big fish.

Man in Fast Moving Water Fly Fishing

It is advisable to select water stretches that are a lot easier and a little more forgiving in navigation. It can be pretty good to fish from the bank throughout higher water; however, note that it is not always easy to get around. Those high flows will certainly push fish right up onto the bank, meaning they are pretty much right in front of you.

Should you be wade fishing, you will need to be mindful of your surroundings and where you are fishing. If you are floating, it is imperative to be on your toes and be aware. Often, you will not even need to get in the water, as you will be fishing the first three feet from the bank.

Large Rainbow

Fish a streamer or subsurface nymph pattern when fly fishing in fast-moving water

While it is not always a possibility, you can sometimes locate some hatches. In some of the rivers, the trout may have adapted to enjoying their feed on the surface of the off-colored water. Many of the trout have adapted to still feeding actively on the high water in adult duns and emergers, so make sure you are on the lookout for any rising fish in the slower waters.

Catch More with Best Fly Fishing Flies for Trout

If you are fishing toward the end of the runoff, you are going to find mayflies and stoneflies hatching, which shows that anglers can find fish close to the bank or on the surface. If you fish dry flies in slower water sections or on the bank, this can be an effective way to go about it. Having fly patterns for dirtier, bigger, and deeper water and appropriately weighted flies is imperative. 

Often, we will fish flashy, heavier, and bigger flies throughout the dirty water period. A big part of the battle is showing up to the river and make not of what is happening around you. This is because every situation is different. Just because the water is dirty and high does not mean that the fish aren’t going to come up to find something to eat. Nevertheless, getting your fly to the depth of where the fish are holding and are willing to move or eat is vital.

Another very effective pattern is to use streamers that are dark in color and will have a big shadow and profile in conditions of high water.

Large Slump Buster Streamer

How to Fly Fish in Fast-Moving Water

Now that you have a good understanding of some of the different things you can do when it comes to fly fishing fast-moving water, let’s take a more in-depth look at the subject:

Why do trout love fast-moving water?

Fast-moving water provides an excellent habitat for trout to set up residence around. A lot of them are going to give everything that a trout could possibly need to survive. As a consequence, fly fishers should make an effort to fish fast water. Because of the amount of food that is being brought into the system from drainage and bait fish being forced out of hiding. 

But even in fast water, you should look for the typically holding and feeding lanes for trout. By fishing in these areas, you will get an overhead cover that trout can use quickly by swimming into cover whenever they feel like they are being threatened. Moreover, the feeding lanes are typically next to well-defined current that acts as a conveyor belt of food, ensuring that the trout get to enjoy a continual trickle of food.

The reasons for this being a great place for trout do not end there. Holding grounds next too fast turbulent waters boost the oxygen present in the waters surrounding them. This is an added benefit and motive for trouts to establish themselves around seems in rivers and streams.

Furthermore, seems tend to provide feeding lanes on each side that trout can make the most of to feed effortlessly. These are the current edges, where the slow and fast water come together and meet. Trout tend to gravitate toward the edges because less energy is required to hold it there. It is extremely close to their faster water for overhead cover, and it is also very close to the conveyor belt of food. Once you have fished the edges, you should work your flies via the primary current of the chute.

Large Brown Caught in Fast Moving Water

Should beginners fish fast currents?

Yes! A lot of beginners are intimidated by fast currents. It is understandable. However, avoiding them is a mistake. While there may be a bit of a learning curve when it comes to casting the line and managing it, it can be very rewarding in the end. This is because you are going to find plenty of trout action when the current is a high-speed one.

What are some tips on fishing nymphs in a fast current?

We have taken you through the process involved in fishing in the high currents, and now we have got some tips for you too! So, let's take a look at some of the things that can make your life easier when it comes to fishing in high currents.

Multiple Nymph Rigs

1. Lengthen your leader

The first tip that we have for you when it comes to fishing in fast-moving waters is to lengthen your leader. Of course, this is under the assumption that you are utilizing a floating fly line to fish nymphs. If this is the case, the further your flies are going to be away from the line, the better it is going to be for you. Therefore, if you are using a typical nine-foot leader to fish and you are not getting deep enough, adding a few feet of butt material or tippet can be incredibly valuable. Leaders of 15-feet or greater will typically need to help those flies sink on occasion with less pull from the buoyant fly line.

Using Current to your advantage

2. Use the current to your advantage 

Going with the flow is essential when fishing in fast water. It is all about using the current to your advantage. You may want to consider using the likes of soft plastic worms, as they will have a lot of wiggle to get bit. Aside from this, adding some weights to your presentation so you can get to the bottom at a fast pace is recommended. This is something we will discuss in more depth in the next section. You want there to be enough to get to the bottom quickly, but not too much to the extent whereby the current is not going to be able to move your hook. Ideally, you want it to bounce along the bottom just enough while it carries through the current.

Man Holding Split Shot

3. Add more weight 

In addition to lengthening your leader, another tip that we have for you is to add some more weight. You will probably need to add a much greater amount of weight to your leader than imagined. If you are utilizing split-shot, begin with a few BB-sized shot, and then make a few casts. You should continue adding split shot until the bottom is bumped. If you get snagged, don't get too upset. Use one less split shot, and you can fish with confidence, knowing that your flies are on the bottom.

Feeding Lane

4. Make sure that there is plenty of runaway for your flies

If you are going to target a specific structure piece, you cannot simply cast straight at it. Instead, you must cast upstream far enough so that the flies get down to the correct level by the time they get to your target. When the water is fast-moving, your flies will require a longer runway to sink, so cast them higher upstream.

Large Trout

5. Rather than using standard tapered leaders, you should utilize longer lengths of level tippet 

When you are nymphing, it is highly advantageous to create your own leaders. Not only does this give you the ability to adapt to the conditions of the river with greater ease, but level tippet tends to slice through the water at a much quicker pace than a tapered leader does.

Large Brown Trout

    Checking the flows and getting familiar with weather patterns

    Runoff flows are cyclical. Peak flows tend to be a consequence of snowmelt coming down once the snowpack cocks in the blazing afternoon sun. Peak flows can also happen as a consequence of significant rainfall occasions.

    These rainfall events can increase flows in two different manners. The first is by rainwater making it to the river. Another reason that these rainfall events happen is that snow melts quickly once the rain hits it.

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    Consequently, if there are very high temperatures in the afternoon in the high country or a rainstorm has been moving throughout the day before, rising flows will likely impact the river over the coming day or two. This may not be the most advisable time to go.

    However, if flows are dropping or holding, visibility will be better, and fish will be more comfortable, meaning fishing is going to be a lot better.

    Brown Trout

    How deep should you go when fishing in high waters?

    As a general rule, it is better off to be fishing heavy, big flies with weight during runoff. There are going to be much more current to fight if you are fishing throughout runoff and fish are attempting to locate the slowest water with the greatest abundance of food. 

    Will you need to be patient when you are fishing in fast-moving waters?

    We recommend that you stick around for a while when you are fishing in fast-moving waters. Fish that are in high currents are not as prone to being scared or spooked out of their habitat, so it makes sense to work a piece of water in a thorough and complete manner. The water’s turbulence will ensure that the fish are distracted from your presence, and you will be able to fish with more efficiency, ensuring that your targets are not scared upstream. Cast in an area that is filled with current many times, as trout that are in fast-moving waters need reminding that you are there prior to deciding to take a ride on your line.

    Best Water to Fly Fish When Flows are High

    Finding the best water!

    It is also important to find the right type of water when it comes to fishing in high currents. Water type is the most critical ingredient to success. In fact, it is more critical than fly choice, presentation, and rigging. There are a couple of parallels, being fishing winter and fishing high water.

    Firstly, finding slower water. Secondly, once you find a fish, there is probably going to be much more where that came from. With thousands and thousands of fish per mile, fish are going to stack up in cushions or pockets of slow water along banks, eddies, tailors, soft inside seams, behind rocks, and inside bends.


    A smooth inside seam where soft water moves slowly downstream is a good choice when looking for the right water type. This enables a relatively short cast, i.e., between 10 and 20 feet, with a straightforward and shift drift. Complex currents end up being much more challenging to fish when you are fishing in high water.

    Where are some of the best locations for fishing in fast-moving waters?

    A lot like fish moving to structure in waters that are fast-moving, they are also going to hug the banks. Trout in heavy currents will act a lot like humans would in a heavy current. So, think about floating, tubing, or rafting, for example!


    If you end up picking up a tiny bit more current than what you are comfortable with, you will look to the shore straight away. So, you end up trying to find something that you can latch onto, right? Fish would do the same thing themselves.

    They will end up lurking in the seams up against the bank, waiting for snacks to float by them. This is why we advise you to cast as close to the bank as you can, whereby the trout in the fast-moving waters are waiting for their snacks to fall in.

    Another tip is to find structure. Trout that are in heavy current are not always going to be on the move. There are times whereby you will find the fish holding against structure below the water like laydowns or boulders.


    If you can locate a branch in the midst of a current, locate any structure, for example, some boulders beneath the surface, and try to fish around this. You can sink a large nymph, add a san juan worms to a couple of split shots, or strip a Streamer

    You don't even need to get wet when you are fishing in fast-moving waters.

    With all of the fish stacked up near the banks, chances are you will barely require any waders. The possibility of you wading at a level deeper than your ankles is very slim! However, this does not mean that you should ditch your waders altogether. Waders are beneficial in terms of lowering the sting of the very cold water, as the runoff tends to be made up of snowmelt that is extra cold. We are simply saying that there is not any requirement for you to start trudging straight into the river.

    Catch More Trout with Best Fly Fishing Flies for Fast Water

    So there you have it: everything that you need to know about fly fishing in fast-moving water. We hope that this guide helps you to get a better understanding of how moving water changes your approach and what you need to do about it. Hopefully, this will help you to have a much more successful fishing experience during the coming months.

     Matthew Bernhardt - Founder Drifthook Fly Fishing

    About the Author

    Matthew Bernhardt, a third-generation Coloradan, grew up at the forefront of the state’s fly-fishing revolution, enjoying time on the water, side by side with experienced guides and lifelong anglers.

    By combining his passion for fly-fishing with input from other experienced fly-fishers and guides and his fine arts degree from Colorado State University, Matthew spent five years carefully developing the Drifthook Fly Fishing System, built to help every angler catch more trout.

    When he’s not spending time with his wonderful family, you’ll find him out on the water catching MONSTER trout, and he anxiously looks forward to the day when his kids are old enough to join him there.

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