It’s early July in 2021. After a winter of average snow pack, and a long, steady run-off that brought snow down from April 20th on, the freestone rivers of Missoula are feeling the effects.
Hoot Owl restrictions are in place on the Clark Fork River from the confluence of Rock Creek and going east to Warm Springs. The term Hoot Owl is derived from the early 1900’s logging industry, and when in place, there is no fishing on the affected waters from 2:00 PM to Midnight. Hoot Owl hours are put into effect when the water temps rise above 73 degrees for three consecutive days, or the water levels drop below the 5th percentile based on historical data.
Water temperature has a huge effect on cold water fish like trout. Warmer water holds less oxygen, (Trout Biology) which has immediate and obvious effects on trout. It defines where they are, how and when they move, and how they feed. When the water hits 73 degrees, trout are having difficulty finding areas in the river that keep them alive.
The flow levels for the Blackfoot River, Bitterroot River, Rock Creek and the Clark Fork River are running anywhere from 50-65% of what they should be at this time of year, and dropping daily in the heat. This pushes trout into fewer and fewer available holding lies. Crowding is extremely stressful to trout. They’re free roaming, and don’t like sharing space with competitors for food and prime lies. Lack of water pushes trout together, adding to the severe conditions brought about by warm water.
With no end of the heat in sight, we expect this situation to continue and intensify in the coming weeks. Paints a rather gloomy yet accurate picture. But it’s not all over, far from it.
The fishing is actually pretty darn good in the morning. At 5:45 am, the air temps are in the low 60’s, and if the wind is blowing, you need a light jacket. A far cry from 5:45 pm! The water has dropped in temps all night, and trout are active in the cool morning. All four Missoula trout rivers are fishing well at that time of day, so you have your pick. The water is staying within acceptable fishing temperatures until about 12:30 -2:00. The water is still warm especially in the upper Clark Fork, lower Clark Fork and lower Bitterroot, however, and there are things anglers can do to help alleviate the rigors brought about by the heat.
As an angler, There are things you can do to help alleviate the stress of high temps and low flows. To start, fishing isn’t so much a matter of where you go, but when you go. Make the effort to rise with the birds. Be on the water early, like 5:30-6:00 am early. Put your 6 hours in and then give the trout a break in the heat.
When you hook a fish, put the screws to it. Fight that fish to the limits of your tackle. Yes, you may lose a few, but the faster you get the fish to hand, the faster it recovers from its exercise. Trout recover faster from a shorter fight. Don’t lengthen the process.
The rivers are warmer near the surface and shore. If you pull a fish from the middle, or the middle and deep, you’re taking that fish from cool water into warmer (less oxygenated) water, while making it fight. A bad combo. If you can avoid that scenario, you should. If you do find yourself bringing a fish from cooler water to warmer water, fight hard. Make sure the fish is capable of swimming away powerfully. If it’s too stressed to swim upright, you’ll need to resuscitate the trout.
The best way to resuscitate is to hold the trout by the “wrist” (juncture of tail and body) and under the belly. Move to the deepest water you can comfortably get to. Face the trout into the current, and get the trout as deep as you can. Gently move the trout forward and backwards, moving it only enough to flare the gills. Depending on the fatigue factor, the trout may give a feeble attempt to flee. Keep resuscitating through the first attempt. Trust us, you’ll know when the fish is well and truly ready to leave! This process can take anywhere from 30 seconds to 5 minutes, depending on the fatigue and fish.
When prospecting for trout, whether wading or floating, self-impose a three fish limit from each hole. The river has crowded the fish together. The trout are easy to find, and once you’ve located one you’ve usually found a few. But the fighting and crowding is very stressful. Limit your time at each hole to give the trout a break. If you come across a pod of risers, go for it. The three fish rule really only applies when you’re fishing the water looking for fish.
Now we go a little deeper. What are the ethics of fishing later into the day when no hoot owl hours are in place, but the water is getting up to 70 degrees. Where do you draw the line? The Missoulian Angler is opening at 6:00 am, to facilitate getting anglers on the water early. Our guides stop fishing when the water temps on their stretch hits 68-69 degrees. They run a dry only for the last hour or so.
Yesterday, we had two anglers in the shop just before closing. They’d just gotten off the water, and said they’d had a great afternoon of wade fishing on the Blackfoot with droppers. One guy said, “We were killing them!” in an excited voice.
All we could think about was how correct that statement was. Bringing a trout up from the cold bottom to the hot surface and then to shore…….. yes, they were killing them all right. We tried a bit of gentle reprimand, a bit of advice for fishing in the hot weather, but unfortunately it fell on deaf ears.
This is not about right now, this is not about being a downer, this is not to deter you from going fishing. What it’s about is how fishing will look in three years. Carrying capacity is a biological term used to describe how many fish a river can support at its worst time. Many fish won’t survive this summer, whether they are fished for or not. When carrying capacity falls, that affects spawning numbers for years to come. In three years, the recruiting class will be lesser than in good water years.
We write this blog to make sure anglers are aware of the ramifications of angling in the heat. What it does to the trout, how it will affect fishing for the next 2-6 years. As a shop, the Missoulian Angler takes the long view of the resources. The rivers are our lifeblood, the trout our business partners. More importantly, river and stream health are a Montana legacy, a legacy worth protecting now for the future generations who live in and travel to Missoula. We get it, it’s a wrench right now. It’s not how you envisioned your fishing day. But a little trout TLC when needed will pay big dividends for the rivers that provide us so much joy, peace and pleasure..