Western Montana Trout Waters an Oasis

Kevin Vang casting to the trout in the cold waters of the Big Hole River. Note: I wasn’t aware of the bird flying by until I downloaded the photo to my computer.

The summer is going quickly, and perhaps oddly.

As I started writing this column last week, I’d just spent several days on the Big Hole River, enjoying some modest, really modest, success trying to catch fish. On the upper part of the river, flows had settled enough to make wade fishing feasible, as long as I was careful about it.

Our son, Kevin, and his wife, and daughter, Madison, were visiting so Kevin and I made sure we took a couple days to celebrate a renewal of the deep ties we have to the outdoors, especially the outdoors having to do with fishing and hunting.

On our last day of fishing, we moved downstream a ways, and we quickly found that there’s still a lot of water in that section of river. We were able to wade and fish, but our mobility was limited to what we could wade safely. We also noted that the water is still running icy cold. 

All that water, especially cold water, is great news for the fish of the Big Hole River, and it’s great news for those of us who cast flies on the river. In more typical years, the water is lower and by mid-July I’m usually wet-wading, without the encumbrance of waders. On warm days, it’s downright refreshing. Last week, however, I was still wearing waders and was happy to have them.

In contrast, last week Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks issued a bulletin notifying the public that the lower Madison River was going on Hoot Owl restrictions from July 15 through August 15. The notice points out that this is now a permanent rule change and will be in effect every year.

The Hoot Owl rule means that fishing will be prohibited from 2 p.m. to midnight. It applies from the Warm Springs BLM boat launch area to the Madison’s confluence with the Jefferson River.

These restrictions are to help the river’s fish survive the stress of low water flows and warm temperatures. The Fish and Wildlife Commission approved this permanent restriction last fall and it’s now part of the fishing regulations.

Hopefully, our extended period of relatively high water levels and cold water-temperatures are a good sign that the Big Hole will make it through the summer without having similar Hoot Owl closures.

If the Big Hole River trout are enjoying a season of chilly water, it’s something of an aberration when we look at some of the country’s major waters, specifically the Great Lakes.

Except for deep and stormy Lake Superior, the Great Lakes are having heat problems. As reported in the Washington Post, most of the lakes are the warmest on record for so early in the summer, and on lakes Erie and Ontario, the lake water is the warmest since records have been kept and are likely to get warmer in coming weeks. Lake Erie is now near 80 degrees, more typical of Florida beaches.

Our daughter lived in Evanston, Illinois for several years after going to graduate school at Northwestern University. She lived in an old apartment building near Lake Michigan. My wife once visited her in mid-summer during a Chicago heat wave. One night they couldn’t take it any longer so they walked down to the lake and waded in the icy waters. The water was so cold that they felt chilled for hours afterward. 

This month, Lake Michigan’s average water temperatures were 75.1 degrees on July 8, 11 degrees above normal and the warmest on record so early in the year. 

If Lake Superior isn’t having seriously high water temperatures, the Lake’s average water temperature on July 8 was still 55.8 degrees, 6 degrees above normal.

Scientists expect that Great Lakes fish will have problems. Richard Stumpf, an oceanographer with NOAA, writes, “Many fish do not do well in water that is too warm, so they get ‘squeezed’ into a smaller and smaller area between surface water that is too warm, and bottom water that doesn’t have enough oxygen.

On the bright side, Great Lakes beachgoers think they are having a great summer.

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