With this Covid-19 stay at home order going on, I’m not fishing nearly as much as I had been for the previous several months. Not even close. That’s due in part to parks and beaches being closed, which leaves me with precious few places to fish, even if I wanted to. There are, however, some nearby public canals that are un-closeable except in the case of a statewide fishing closure, which has not been declared. I know the canals are there, and I often spook fish as I walk along them. I’m pretty sure they’re snook. I’ve fished the canals a few times at night and done alright. But I had only ever tried fishing them once during the day. The fish are very hard to approach, and you can see their wakes as they spook out of very shallow water before you get within thirty feet. For that reason I had kind of written these canals off, until a few days ago.
A few days ago there was a heavy rain. It rained at night, sometimes with tropical storm intensity, and into the morning, and then stopped. By mid morning the margins of our street had turned into small creeks, with fifty foot long puddles forming in places. I had a hunch that those canals, usually mere trickles, might have turned into something interesting. Why did I have that feeling? Because I have witnessed the transformative power of rain many times in my fishing career.
When I was guiding in Alaska, some of the most exciting trout and dolley varden fishing occurred in small side channels of the main river. These channels provided relatively slow water and perfect gravel for salmon spawning. In our part of the river, chum salmon were the main biomass, and it was the chum salmon eggs that the rainbows and dolleys moved into the channels to eat. Often it was like an aquarium with trout, dolleys, grayling, and one to four species of salmon darting this way and that. The chum used their tails like brooms to clear away the gravel and make nests, and the other fish would swoop in upon hearing the sound of moving gravel. My philosophy on these channels was to wait until they got really good, fish them hard, and then leave them alone for the rest of the season as the fish got spookier and spookier. In 2012 it was about halfway through the season when it started raining. It rained steadily through the night. When I woke up the main river was high, but not blown. Bingo. It was time to check out my favorite channel. The channel would be a little higher, and the chums would hopefully be triggered into spawning by the sweet taste of fresh water. Well, that is exactly what happened. I went up into that channel and found the chum in full-on spawning mode, dropping eggs all over the place. The rainbows were absolutely ravenous, reckless in chasing anything that looked remotely like an egg. It was some of the best fishing I saw that year, and that was not the first time that happened. That was probably the clearest demonstration of the magic of rain, and it is something I have never forgotten.
Coming from a trout, salmon and steelhead background, I have long known that the best time to fish is after a rain, when the river is coming down. Fish feel the increased flow and take advantage of the high water to reach upstream spawning grounds. Often the decreased visibility of high water gives them cover, allowing them to swim shallower and thus more efficiently. While it’s no secret that salmon fishing after a rain is often the best time, I have also witnessed that fishing during a heavy rain can produce some incredible fishing. In 2009 my brother came to fish for a week at the lodge at which I was guiding. A storm moved in at the end of the fishing day. My brother had not had enough fishing for the day and decided to head out after dinner on foot, just a little ways upstream. Some really intense rain fell, accompanied by some gale-force wind. My brother was gone for about an hour and a half. When he came in, he was raving. “Oh man, you should have been there, it was incredible!” He estimated that he had hooked over thirty coho salmon in that time. He said they were trucking through, rolling, and biting anything in sight. It was unlike anything he had ever seen, even on a normal good day in Alaska.
Another time, I was on the BC coast with my Dad, working on a video project while staying on his boat. My ulterior motive on this video project was fishing small streams for fresh, and hopefully large, coastal Pacific steelhead. It had rained moderately to hard to extremely hard for every second of the day. After stumbling around and getting disoriented for over an hour, basically lost, I found the stream. The creek was very high, overflowing its banks. Millions of little pieces of debris and sticks floated downstream. But the water was clear, just a bit tea-colored as normal for many coastal streams. The creek was not blown; it was handling the amount of water pumping through it. At that point I was wet literally from socks to eyebrows, and I seriously considered not even fishing. But I regained my composure, strung up my rod and tied on a fly. I flipped out a roll cast. On my second cast I got a deep pull. I set the hook and saw a perfect chrome steelhead in the range of fifteen pounds roll on the surface. I tailed the fish. It was beautiful, such a wonderful end to an extremely wet morning. That was incredible, and surely would have satisfied me for weeks. But, I had expended the effort to get there, so I felt that I might as well keep fishing. I threw my fly back into the same run. Not five casts later I hooked another steelhead, and fought it to within touching distance before it rolled off the hook. Twice in the span of less than twenty minutes I had experienced something that people go many seasons without seeing once. What was going on? I think it was the rain. Guess what happened when I came back the next day? The creek was in beautiful shape, the water clearer and with less debris than the day before. The trees were literally sparkling in the sunshine. I fished the same run, and several other spots. No fish. After a while I decided to hike way upstream, through the brush, and finally found a steelhead way upstream. I think that the steelhead had been waiting at the mouth of the creek for a rain, and when it came, they shot through the lower section very quickly. Timing is everything, and rain is magic.
Often, during high water, salmon and steelhead will swim much shallower than they would during normal or clear water conditions. One time in British Columbia I hooked at least a twelve pound steelhead in water that literally looked like chocolate milk. All kinds of sticks and leaves and dirt were floating and suspended in the water. We weren’t even going to fish but my friend had already bought a license for that day and he had just finished the long drive up. I believed that my only hope of hooking a fish would be in extremely shallow water, and that is what happened. While fish do hold in very shallow water in other rivers, I was fishing in much much shallower water than is normal for that river. Either the fish was bold enough to swim in such shallow water because of the turbidity, or it was forced there because it wanted to see the bottom.
So about that rainy day I just had. I decided I was sick of sitting inside, so I got my 6-weight rod, a box of flies and my fishing pack, put on Crocs and made the short drive to the canal. Although it had stopped raining, I brought a light rain jacket just in case. I drove along a little feeder canal, usually a trickle, and saw that it was flowing with the intensity of a small Puget Sound creek, with current flowing maybe two feet per second. It was raging, in relative terms. I parked by the side of the larger canal and walked over to the culvert where the smaller canal fed in. Water lettuce and other freshwater vegetation was spilling in and stacking up, forming a nice little current line in the main channel. The water, usually vague and difficult to fish, now became extremely readable. It was pretty obvious that I should cast my fly towards the far end of the little tongue of current and let it swing across, giving it the occasional strip. I tied on my friend Richard’s minnow fly, made a few casts, and promptly hooked into a little snook about 15 inches. A few casts later I hooked something much larger, probably a fish in the high twenty to thirty inch range. It got off. A few minutes later I hooked another nice snook about the same size. It got off as well. The mouth of a snook is pretty hard and I don’t have a great landing ratio on them. I ended up having four more bites and landing two more fish. Since I’m in a heavily populated area, I try not to take more than my fair share. Plus, I want to save fish for myself. I decided to call it a morning. That idea had definitely paid off.
So why was the fishing so good that morning? I have heard it’s because all the saltwater minnows push way up into the canals and ponds during normal conditions, when the water is usually very salty. But when a heavy rain occurs, they are suddenly surrounded by overwhelmingly fresh water, and it stuns or even kills them. They go drifting down these smaller canals into the bigger canals, channels and bays where predators like snook stack up and just wait for them to drift down. In this case, the rain really transforms a borderline worthwhile fishery into a bonanza.
Oncoming rain means two things: light levels will decrease, lowering visibility from above, and fresh water levels will increase, with or without rising water levels. No matter what fishery you’re interested in, these factors will change the game. Fish are often bolder, sometimes much bolder, and they may swim much shallower under the cover of rain than they would otherwise. Fish may be excited, activated, stimulated, either to spawn, travel, or feed. And fish might have access to new food sources, as in the case of my snook, and new parts of a water body, thanks to high water levels. It pays to think in advance, “what would this place look like during, or after a heavy rain?” Since we can see rain coming for days or weeks in advance, instead of letting rain ruin your fishing trip, consider altering or totally changing your plan to take advantage of the rain. If you were fishing outer flats or reefs, maybe you should fish high up into the mangroves. If you’re fishing a river that’s going to blow out, maybe try fishing a smaller feeder creek, if legal. Or try fishing a long gravel bar and fish the shallow inside to try to intercept traveling fish. If you were going to fish deep in a lake, consider trying some shallower flats. No body of water, save maybe the open ocean, fishes the same regardless of rain conditions. What a fishery is like in the high sunshine may tell you very little about what it’s like during or after a heavy rain. For fish, rain can be a free pass to do whatever they want. I’m telling you, I’ve seen the proof: rain is magic.