Prepare for rainy day fishing

by Gord Ellis | February 23, 2021
Gord Ellis with a big brookie caught fly fishing in a downpour G Ellis photo

For nearly as long as I can recall, people have been saying fishing is better in the rain. After many decades of being caught out in the wet stuff for all manner of species, I tend to agree. Something about the disturbed surface of the water, and the change in barometric pressure, can be a trigger.

However, good fishing in the rain often comes with a chilly trade-off. Unless it is unusually warm out, the soaking rain can soon become a torture test, and may even lead to hypothermia. So you really need good rain gear to make fishing in the rain work regularly. It’s worth the investment.

Rainy rainbows

My first experiences with good fishing in the rain occurred early in my steelhead career. My father and a couple other friends were regulars on the river east of Nipigon, and much of the time we tried to avoid the rainy days, as it can be cold in April and early May.

One day, however, a gloomy afternoon on the river started to turn into a rainy one. Fishing had been slow, and it was tempting to leave, but we decided to stick it out. As the rain picked up, it was getting a bit trickier to see the float as it drifted down stream. Water was dripping off my hood and into my eyes. At one point, the float seemed to vanish in the raindrops. Could it be? The line tightened, the rod bent, and the solid pulse of a steelhead was felt. Fish on!

I gingerly worked my way down the river, chasing the big chrome fish, just in from Lake Superior. Everything was extra slippery from the rain, but after some careful stick handling, the fish was beached and I knelt to take the hook out. It was a perfect specimen, glistening like a nickel in a fountain. The hook was loosed, and the fish turned back to the river. For the next two hours, all anglers on the river enjoyed a fresh run of Lake Superior steelies — apparently drawn in and energized by the rain and subsequent freshet.

Topwater storm

When tournament angling was a larger part of my life, dealing with rain — and bad weather in general — became a reality that could not be avoided. There are very few rain delays in tournament fishing, unless lightning or high winds are mixed in. One time, at the Bassin’ For Bucks tournament on Lake of the Woods, my partner and OOD colleague James Smedley and I had a game plan that involved tossing topwaters as much as possible. Our focus was smallmouth, although we were fine if a largemouth came calling.

Then the cold September rain started, and we went with the accepted understanding that you can’t fish the surface properly in the rain. So we threw on our rainsuits, switched to jerkbaits, and caught every northern pike in the time zone. The rain had turned the pike into finned zombies, and they bit through our lines and took our lures with no regard for feelings. My memory is not clear on who switched back to topwaters first, but when that chug bug hit the rain-rippled water, a fat brown bass almost immediately inhaled it.

The smallies had apparently not seen the memo about avoiding topwater in rainstorms. They chased and swiped and leapt on our chug bugs with gusto. This all happened as the skies emptied every drop of precipitation possible. The bilge in the boat rarely stopped. It would be a perfect ending to say that experience helped us cash a cheque. It didn’t, but did provide us a lot of fun on a rather inhospitable day.

Inclement brook trout

The last memory of great fishing in the rain is more recent, and happened two seasons ago on the Nipigon River. I was guiding a couple of fly anglers from Colorado, both young men and very adept with the gear. It was late May, the water was cold, and the bite for brookies had been tough. To top it off, a rainstorm — ironically, a “Colorado low” — had parked over the region. It was a wet and windy low-pressure system and the conditions looked very bad for Salvelinus fontinalis.

“I don’t expect we will get a lot of bites today,” I said, trying to soften potential disappointment. “But the bites we get will be good.”

If my anglers were concerned, they didn’t show it. One of them hadn’t even bothered to bring rain pants on the trip. Luckily, it was a bit warmer than normal.

I pulled up to a set of rapids, placed the boat along the edge of a long run, and told my anglers to drift their nymphs as slowly and as deep as possible. The wind was howling and the rain was going nearly sideways. I was anticipating a long day ahead.

“Fish on!” said the angler at the front of the boat. And sure enough, his fly rod was pumping and bouncing as a big brookie tore it up. I pushed down my rain-drenched sunglasses and grabbed the net. Just seeing, period, was a chore; spotting a fish in the rain-dappled water was a whole other thing. Luckily, the deep red of a brook trout belly and the white leading-edge fin made it a little easier to get the bearings needed to net the fish. The brookie was scooped up and high fives were had. It was a perfect 22-inch male, and I breathed a bit of a sigh.

headshot of Senior Editor Gord Ellis
Senior Editor Gord Ellis is a journalist, radio broadcaster, photographer, and professional angler based in Thunder Bay. Reach Gord at: mail@oodmag.com, Twitter: @GordEllis

A fish like that caught in tough conditions usually makes the trip. After a few quick pics in the rain, that trout went back, and we rolled back up. The middle angler hadn’t had his fly in the water about 30 seconds and he was bit. Another paddle-sized speck. This went on for the better part of two hours. The brookies were on fire, and, when the smoke cleared, 13 trout had been landed (and released). The majority were 20 to 22 inches.

Sure, some rainy days on the water will be wet and fishless. The conditions that go with rain can also make fishing a challenge. However, if you’ve avoided rainy days for you own comfort, you are missing out. Invest in some rain gear, buy some good rubber boots, and give the nasty days a shot. You may never look at a rain day the same again.

Originally published in Ontario OUT of DOORS’ 2020 Fishing Annual.

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