Fish Rising On Clark Fork River

2020 Summer and Fall Fishing Forecast

We’ve been hearing the rumblings, the jungle drums. Do you have Hoot Owl hours in place? The snowpack has been below average for much of the year, is it worth coming to Missoula to fish this summer? Well, we don’t have a crystal ball, but the answer to that question is a huge Absolutely!

We tell customers all the time- if you want to know the weather in August, ask us in September. We’ll have a much better idea. That snideness aside, a lot of people, the Missoulian Angler included, watch the snow pack like hawks in the winter. It’s what you do, mostly because you’re bored! It looks like work, and it keeps you connected to the water- “Hey, I’m looking up the snowpack!”, but in reality, it’s just something to do instead of dust the fly boxes or fill in PDF forms at work. In January, the fishing is as good as the skiing is now. We’re all looking for ways to pass the time until we can really fish again.

So we look at snow pack throughout the winter- rejoice when it’s high, despair when it’s low. But snowpack isn’t the whole story, not by a long shot. It’s how the snowpack comes down from the mountains that will tell the tale, and that’s a fact. We’ve seen 75 degree days in February that have changed the snowpack from high to low in 36 hours. This year (2020) the mountain peaks got 4” of snow in early June. Snowpack is measured by height, using metered sticks to check depth and interpret how much water is in the mountains. Some years the snow is light and fluffy, and it looks like there’s a lot of water in the hills. Some years, it’s low and dense, and while the “snowpack” is low, the water is there. Bob Powell, guide extraordinaire, shed hunts in the early spring. He told us the snow was low and dense, and the fishing would be good. A lifetime on the river and in the woods does that.

So much depends on the Spring. Does the heat come early and hard? Or is it slow, with gradual rising temperatures that leaves the snowpack in place. Was the Spring wet or dry? Was June, as is traditional, a rainy month, or did the golfers and hikers celebrate the beautiful clear days of early summer? This year, June was wet and cool. The snow stayed in the mountains, for a long time.  Right now, Flint Creek at Drummond is 400% above median flow. The Bitterroot River at Bell Crossing is 300% above median. We have waders complaining they can’t get to their favorite spots, and novice rowers are having a time on our rivers right now. Can 20 days of 90+ heat change that? Darn tooting! But right now, Missoula is shaping up to have a great summer of fishing, with cold water and good flows forecast through the summer. Fire danger is always present, but it looks like we’re not going to burn this summer, and that makes a lot of people very happy.

Time to rant. Twice. Two for the price of one. We’ll see if this slides past the editor! This blog writer happens to love hoot owl hours, and if there’s a bit of smoke in the air, all the better. As a small stream fisherman, I’m a wader by proclivity- it’s how I learned and how I enjoy fly fishing. Two times a season I get in a boat, and that’s to chuck streamers. Because, let’s face it, the best way to fish streamers is from a boat! New fish every 50 feet, easy to bang the banks and the chance of moving the big one you simply can’t get to in waders. Streamer fishing is where it’s at in a boat. But I digress . . .

When hoot owl hours are in place, the water is low and clear. The fish are exactly where they should be. The competition for food and space is fierce underwater, and the trout can be reckless in their feeding. I have a hoot owl rule- three fish from a hole and then move on. The trout are stacked up like cordwood in the good spots, so unless they’re actively rising to a hatch, it’s three and done. Trust me, there’s lots more good spots. The fish are under stress, and I don’t want to add too much. I fight them hard, and stay where I am. How many times, wet wading in the heat of August, have you entered the river in slow, slimy, tepid water. You know the edge of the river is at least 80 degrees in the dead spots. Good for pike, bad for trout. So hold your ground, and land the fish in the colder water. Bring them in green- let ‘em splash you with their tail as you release them. Sure, you lose a few fish and maybe a fly or two, but the water is low, clear and hot. Give the trout a fighting chance.

The moment the smoke appears in Missoula, many people stay indoors and bemoan the situation. In no way am I sermonizing to those with asthma, COPD or any other respiritatory illness- they are indoors for a damn good reason and I wish they weren’t in those circumstances. But with fires, the air can get a bit smoky, and many are used to the crisp, clear air that defines Montana. When it’s not clear and magnificent, they do a bit of a pout and turtle up, waiting for the September rains to clear the skies.

Meanwhile, unlike the skies, the rivers are very clear of anglers due to the smoke. The haze, if it’s deep enough, will mask the sun, and give the angler an edge. It acts like a cloud day, only it’s here for a while. The fish are stacked up, the sun is dissipated, and the fishing is spectacular from dawn to noon. That’s enough for me. I know, blasphemy, but this is an angler who loves the heat and doesn’t mind the fires. Hoot owl hours are not the end of the world- in fact, they open up whole new vistas to the wading angler.

You’ve survived Rant One.

Let’s talk about Absolutely, you should fish Missoula this summer. I spent an interesting afternoon on DePuys Spring Creek in August about 10 years ago talking to Betty DePuy’s son-in-law. It was hot as blazes, it was mid afternoon with slower fishing, and what the heck, I love to talk! He said in his 30 year tenure at DePuys, the nature of fly fishing had changed completely. DePuys is a pay to fish Spring Creek in Livingston- last I checked it was $150 a day per rod, and they now take 16 rods a day on a 3 mile stretch. He said when a hatch is on, he has every rod filled. But the moment there’s no hatch, very few people fish there. He contrasted that with 30 years ago, when the rod limit was 8 a day, and from June through October there were always a few rods to spare, but an average of 4-5 rods a day. People came and fished when they could come and fish. They enjoyed the river, they enjoyed the scenery, they enjoyed Montana when they were here.

Now, people are results oriented. They want SOMETHING. If there’s not a blanket hatch, well, it’s just not worth being on the water. As we philosophised, and solved the problems of the world on that hot August afternoon, we came to the conclusion that the nature of fly fishing had changed, and not for the better. Now people want to post to Instabook, or Facegram, and tell everyone how they were on the river when the hatch was there. It’s not enough to be on the water anymore- just to be in Montana when the day is hot, the sky is so big and blue that you marvel at the intensity of the color. The diaphanous clouds that seem to form from nothing and then disappear. It’s a fascinating dance, and I could watch it for hours.  And when one of those clouds crosses the sun, and you feel the cool respite from the heat, you’re sure that’s why you were put on this earth- to see the Big Sky, and feel the blessed shade, humble and enchanted as your fly enters the unknown, for success or failure. Ask yourself, in the shade of that tiny cloud, is it really about the result?

There were 4 anglers on the water that day- I was with two of them. The fourth was gone by noon. My two friends went to the “Honey Hole” and stayed there. I had 2.8 miles of river to myself. I caught a lot of fish, all on dries, because that’s the way I roll. Beetles on the bank, hoppers in the middle, and a Purple Haze because I was there and I could! I had a conversation I couldn’t have had anywhere else, with someone who has seen it all in fly fishing in Montana, gaining a new perspective and wisdom. I was lucky, I was privileged, I was happy to be there when “nothing” was happening. This is fly fishing. It doesn’t come with a guarantee. It’s not always about the fish. You’re on the water because you wouldn’t be anywhere else.

Should you come to Missoula and go fishing? Absolutely! Why wouldn’t you?! Blackfoot, Bitterroot, Clark Fork, Rock Creek, with so many tributaries and trout it should be illegal. You could see an osprey plummet to the river. Does it come up empty taloned, or is a 19 inch fish struggling for its life. You watch the mighty bird struggle from the water, a pure moment in time. Your mind flashes . . . maybe I should see if a helicopter will take me over the river . . . and you relax, on the big river under the Big Sky, so blue and clear you can see for miles, as you wait for that magic cloud to cross the sun for you. Or you might touch down in Missoula to find hoot owl hours, with low water and hazy skies. The fish are still there. You still cast your fly into the unknown, lucky, privileged and happy.  It’s fly fishing. Would you have it any other way? The story is just as powerful. I was there. My fly was in the water. Ask yourself, do you really need more?