Images: David McKenzie
Late summer and fall presents many areas with low water conditions. It can still be an outstanding time to fish, but very low and very clear water can also offer a unique set of challenges. Because fish can become less active and more skittish due to warm temps, better visibility, and less water over their heads to act as cover, anglers often have to change tactics to catch fish consistently in these trickier conditions.
The following is a list of some basic things you can keep in mind the next time you're faced with similar conditions. Keep in mind these tactics can be applied successfully on any species!
Leader Setup- Switching your leader setup is a simple change you can make that can have great results. These three aspects of a leader—length, line diameter, and line type can all be altered to suit the conditions at hand.
Using a longer overall leader puts more distance between your fly and the fly line which never hurts when fly fishing in low, clear water. The change doesn't always have to be drastic, but an extra foot or two can help. I often add much or all of the extra length to just the tippet portion since this is the thinnest and stealthiest part of the leader. Doing so may also slightly improve the fly's action, sink rate, and drift quality.
Going to a thinner diameter line is another great option. Remember, line diameter varies between line types and manufacturers, so you may not have to go to a lighter pound test to achieve a slightly thinner diameter. Thinner line has not just less visibility, but also less water resistance so (like mentioned above) it can also improve action, sink rate, and drift. Try using the thinnest tippet you can get away with!
In touchy conditions, I often like to use fluorocarbon at least for the tippet section. The fluorocarbon vs. monofilament debate will likely never end, but just the mere fact that fluorocarbon has a refractive index that's closer to water is enough to give me a bit more confidence in very clear water.
Fly Size/Color- Most noticeably with streamers, switching to a smaller one that's very naturally-colored or lighter in color can help give it a more subtle, attractive appearance. Another trick when trying to imitate certain baitfish like shad, minnows, and smelt is to use streamers that are slightly more translucent. This can be achieved by tying streamers more sparsely and/or using synthetic materials that are more translucent to begin with. You can also try patterns with little to no flash, too.
Less Aggressive Strips- When the water is very low and clear, fish can not only get touchier, but if the water is particularly warm (as can be common in late summer/fall) both the fish and their prey can become much less active. Try slowing your streamer retrieve down and taking longer pauses.
Don't Ignore the Riffles- Riffles are often a great place to find trout, and that doesn't change when the water drops. Good riffle water isn't too fast/turbulent and has some depth to it; say at least a foot for starters. Riffles are solid places to find trout because they offer increased oxygen levels, have lots of bug life and food constantly moving through, and the choppy surface water helps to conceal trout from predators.
Indicator or Not?- Fishing a bare leader with no indicator is one way to offer an ultra low-key presentation and outsmart sensitive trout. To help pick up on the strike here, you'll need to watch your line for any abnormal movement/hesitation or watch the fish (if possible) for any signs of a take. If you want to use an indicator try a small, subtle one such as a yarn indicator in a muted color. Not only is it less visible, but it lands on the water very softly. Finally, don't forget you can also run a dry fly/dropper combo where the dry fly doubles as your indicator!
Be a Hunter- In the past, I've sent more than one trout bolting off to parts unknown due to not blending in well enough or even walking too heavy-footed along a bank. Simply put, fish are more susceptible to spotting you or feeling your presence when the water is low. To help conceal yourself, try wearing colors that blend with your surroundings, crouching down while approaching fish, and using objects like brush or rocks to hide behind. Move slowly. When casting, false cast at a bare minimum and try using slightly longer presentations when possible. Finally, if you have to wade, do so carefully. If on shore, be careful not to thump along, especially if walking above an undercut bank where the fish might be holding very close by.
Shade and Wind- Often a great thing to look for, shade is increasingly important in low water. Even a small piece of shade can provide valuable camouflage to fish of all species. Fishing early and late obviously offers longer shadows and often more active fish. I especially like fishing late afternoon into evening because A) I hate to wake up early and B) an afternoon wind is common in many areas. This can help riffle the surface and blow terrestrials like hoppers and beetles into the water.
Low, clear water can make things difficult, but there's also some positives. Wading can be easier, you might be able to leave the sinking line at home, you'll have better chances at spotting fish holding in certain areas, fish are more confined, and you can also see underwater objects and depth changes more clearly which is good to know even when the water comes back up again. See, it's not all bad!