Swollen Opportunities: Fishing In A Flood - The Fisherman

Swollen Opportunities: Fishing In A Flood

flooded
A flooded expanse of woods may look like a place no fish would be found, but if you adjust your approach, the results may surprise you.

Flooded waters may look unfishable, but they can provide unique and fruitful fishing opportunities.

New England has seen a lot of rain over the last few years, with summer flooding in 2023 being compared to the inland effects of Hurricane Irene.

The Connecticut River reached flood stage repeatedly in both the summer of 2023 and spring of 2024. Flash flooding has impacted many smaller rivers and even brought up the levels of some lakes and ponds. This obviously has very significant impacts on the fishing, and how and when it may be safe to even go out. With the debris from these floods pushing out well beyond the mouths of the rivers, docks and boats breaking free, and property being damaged, it can be hard to see how any quality fishing could arise from such extreme conditions. Meanwhile, as many bemoaned the conditions, a handful of weirdoes were out catching fish on lawns, in cornfields, and right in the woods.

Flooding can result in some surprisingly good fishing, it just takes getting a bit creative and thinking outside the box to find it.

Find Your Species

One key to fishing flood conditions is targeting high-biomass species that like shallow water. The more water there is, the more inclined fish are to spread out. That’s pretty obvious- there are literally more places to be and food options that weren‘t available before in the form of terrestrial insects, worms, amphibians and other things struggling to find high ground. When a watershed floods, oftentimes the lower density species (those with the smallest percentage of the biomass) will become harder to target. It’s the very populous species that typically remain viable targets.

The shallow water aspect may seem counterintuitive in a flood, but fish that enjoy feeding in shallow water will push to the edges of the floodplain and look for a buffet of terrestrial food targets made available by the rising water. This includes brown trout, carp, bowfin, and largemouth bass, depending on the watershed. If the areas you fish have one or some of these species in abundance there is a good chance flooding will create a unique and productive situation in which to target them.

carp
High-biomass species, such as carp, thrive during floods, here’s Brian Mawdsley with a butterball he landed on a trip guided by the author.

Grazing Browns

Earlier this year, I took a trip with fellow Connecticut fly fishing guide Mike Carl to Central Pennsylvania for a function and a bit of trout fishing on some spring creeks with very high fish densities. Our trip was timed during some significant rains and all the rivers were quite blown out and flooded. The water looked like coffee with heavy cream, the visibility must have been less than 4 inches. What would normally be gentle riffles were hard rapids. These conditions seemed pretty dire and we both figured we weren’t in for particularly good fishing.

Then, something caught my eye where the swelled creek breached a grassy bank. There was a dark form there, wavering in just inches of murky water over grass. It was a wild brown trout. Soon we were noticing these fish up on the grass all over the place. They were feeding on worms and often tailing just like bonefish on a flat. With a careful approach and a delicate cast sinking flies in front of them, we caught plenty. This unique feeding behavior not only saved our butts in otherwise almost impossible conditions, but it may actually have been cooler than catching the same trout in normal flows would have been.

This isn’t a phenomena specific to Pennsylvania either. In fact, Mike had seen the very same thing back home on the Farmington River. “It was during sulfur time, but that year it had rained almost every day of June. So the MDC had to release. Some of the fish just slipped up into the grass and out of the flows. Steve Hogan and I could pick up a few of San Juans.” recalls Mike of that particular occasion. The common thread between Pennsylvania and Connecticut there was the sort of terrain the fish pushed onto. When a flooding river breaches a gently sloping grassy bank, it provides not only refuge out of the heavy current but washes out loads of potential food in the form of terrestrial worms and insects. Trout not only take to the calm water but seek out these little morsels. Look for such areas to hold fish when a flood happens on any river with a fairly high density of trout.

Trout are not the only fish to exhibit the same exact behavior on flooded grass banks. On a handful of occasions, when spring flooding and warming water coincided with warming water temperatures that get largemouth bass fired up, grassy areas on the periphery of the Connecticut River have become a hunting ground for hungry largemouth bass. There were lots of parallels to the way the trout acted each time this happened. The spots that the bass chose were shallow with short grass and without any sort of hard current. The bass were feeding on worms coming out of the freshly flooded soil, and sometimes minnows and killifish that had pushed into the same areas.

Though I’ve yet to find particularly big bass taking part in this sort of feeding, it is a hysterically counterintuitive fishing scenario… dozens of foot-long largemouth cruising around in just inches of water in what amounts to a mowed lawn. This isn’t just confined to the Connecticut River either, as I observed the same behavior during a high water event on the Blackstone River with smallmouth bass and panfish mixed in as well.

bass
Once-private lawns become feeding grounds for shallow water species like this largemouth bass, caught grazing in the grass.

Floodplain Carp

Perhaps the most reliable and versatile flood fish are carp. Prone to populating to very high densities, inclined to feed in shallow water, and very eager to feed on the sorts of things that come out of flooded soil, they’re the perfect target. They’re fairly universally spread in large watersheds in the Northeast as well; the Hudson, Housatonic, Connecticut, Thames, Blackstone, Merrimack and others all have common carp. Often, they’re viewed as bottom feeders that must be targeted on corn, bread, and other baits, but I’ve discussed targeting carp on artificial offerings in this very publication.

Carp break their own stereotypes in numerous ways, and perhaps none as jarring as their behavior during floods. Seemingly keen to stay at the very upper extent of the floodwater as it spills out onto a river’s floodplain, carp will push up into woods, fields, parks, and even folks yards to feed. This makes for some incredible fishing; targeting the northeast’s largest viable freshwater target species in very shallow water in these unique and challenging settings.

In the summer of 2023, with the Connecticut River swollen from deluge after deluge, friends and I sought out the clear water plumes where cleaner tributaries dumped into the floodplain. Some spots had such bad mosquitoes that they were nearly punishable, but once clear water and a lack of biting insects were located we were treated to some incredible fishing. Poling a canoe through the forest, with a vibrant world of ferns, ivy, grass, and nettles beneath us and a lush canopy above, we angled for 10- to 20-pound carp with fly rods. Many of these fish took to feeding in clumps of floating detritus, likely full of terrestrial insects and worms.

At times, these fish were easier to find by ear than by sight, at least from a distance. The slurping sounds they made as they gulped down mouthfuls of floating gunk and filtered out the good bits could sometimes be heard from over 100 feet away. Other fish did laps around the waterlines of trees, presumably feeding on the frantic ants and other insects that were trying desperately to avoid drowning. Many of the fish found up in the woods were very eager to eat a slow sinking fly.

flood
Displaced fish may push up into inches of water during floods to feed on drowning worms and insects.

Bare-Knuckle Brawls

Sight fishing is the name of the game for carp in the flooded woods, regardless of your tackle of choice. Flies are great and wildly effective, as are small slow sinking soft plastics and hair jigs on spinning gear. “Free lining”- using a baited hook with no added weight – with corn, bread, or a single worm is about as productive as it gets. Spot a carp, sink your offering in front of it, and hold on!

The fight with a carp in amongst the trees is more like a bare-knuckle brawl than anything else. Give that fish an inch and it will take a mile. With snags all around, letting the fish do what it wants is just not an option. When I put friends on these carp I tell them all the same thing: fight it really hard, don’t let it run. Use the rod to steer the fish around and between trees, brush, and other obstacles. Get the fish’s head up as early as possible. A hard-fought carp may be a pain to deal with once it’s in the net or boat, but it’s the only way to land them in such a snag-filled environment.

Where the flood water fills open territory like fields, more traditional tactics are viable. This spring, more typical but prolonged early season flooding allowed targeting carp up in fields and meadows. Though the fly rod remained my weapon of choice. The battles out in the open are much less tooth and nail and these fish had space to run. The same location characteristics allow for more traditional baiting and targeting methods as well. If the water level remains fairly stable, it is possible to bait such spots a day in advance before returning to cash in on the plethora of big carp that are likely to come in on it. Common area baiting choices include panko, corn, oatmeal, and broken up boilies. The key with fishing such meadows and fields is assuring that you are either accessing public land or procuring permission to access private property, as many such areas that aren’t always under water are private property. This is especially true of flooded farm fields.

Simple Logic

FURTHER READING
As mentioned above, Rowan wrote an awesome and informative article on targeting carp using artificial lures back in March of 2022. If you would like to learn more about this fishery, thumb through your archives for issue #3 in 2022.

The common thread with all the species discussed and their behavior during floods is that many are trying to take refuge from hard current and dirty, turbid water. That’s exactly what an angler must do to. Look for areas where a raised landmass prevents river current from reaching out onto the flood plain, or places where a river is wide and slow anyway.

Clear, clean water can often be a harder resource to find, but often comes in the form of smaller tributaries. Smaller rivers typically drop and clear out faster, and the water they spill out into the floodplain has a huge influence on the areas near their mouth. At times, visibility in a main river may be just inches while the area around a tributary mouth is crystal clear. Not only are these aspects amenable to the fish, they make for safer fishing as well and that cannot be understated. Fishing a flood can be dangerous. Rivers are full of debris, current is fast, and charts kind of go out the window. Stay away from that, fish the calm, clearer spots, and cash in on what could be hundreds of fish feeding in some of the most unique scenarios any angler is likely to encounter.

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