High Water – For Better or Worse

The high water on area rivers is getting a little old, isn’t it? As we reached the summer solstice last week, a big question was how much more high water will we get once get warm weather starts melting the high mountain snowpack.

Another question is how fish are doing during the sustained high water.

According to an extensive report recently posted to the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks website, the fish are doing just fine, thank you. FWP’s Fisheries Bureau chief, Bruce Rich notes, “Fish are well adapted to survive flooding, though they can sometimes be stranded when high water recedes, depending on where they took refuge.”

Mark Lere, a Future Fisheries program coordinator adds, “In high water like we’re seeing this year, fish generally move to the margins of the river for refuge—to backwater areas, or warmer, less turbid side channels or tributaries.” As rivers go over their banks, some fish may move out into the floodplain, and then return to the backwaters and side channels when waters finally recede.

The high waters also give rivers and stream a good cleaning, leaving clean gravels for future fish spawning periods. As waters recede, and we have to have confidence that they will, someday, go down, some fish may get stranded in some backwater channels, though overall, the high waters will benefit fish in the long run.

The prairie streams of eastern Montana have also been having high waters and there are interesting things happening, especially with an endangered fish, the pallid sturgeon.

Biologists have been tracking radio-tagged pallid sturgeon and have found several sturgeon have moved up from the Fort Peck Reservoir and up the Milk River, including one male pallid sturgeon that has traveled upstream 36 river miles, the farthest they have documented the species. They have also located a mature female pallid sturgeon in the Milk River, which means there’s a possibility of the fish spawning in the Milk River, something that hasn’t happened for many years.

2010 was another high water year and FWP documented the best production of paddlefish in the Milk River and shovelnose sturgeon in the Missouri River in the last 11 years.

The high waters will have other effects, including some that we may not appreciate. A week ago we made trips to Missoula and to Miles City, and on the Clark Fork River, plus crossing the three forks of the Missouri, along with the Yellowstone, Bighorn and Tongue Rivers, we could see floodwaters spread out across riparian areas. When the waters eventually recede there will be pools of stagnant water virtually everywhere along the floodplains, and pools of stagnant water combined with warm summer temperatures translate to mosquitoes. There will be so many mosquitoes in the flooded areas we’ll have to come up with new terminology to describe the record swarms of those bugs we love to hate.

We might also note that the prairie pothole areas of northern Montana and North Dakota are likely to have fantastic waterfowl production this summer. We’re going to have a lot of ducks this fall. Those ducks, incidentally, will eat a lot of mosquito larvae, so go ducks!

We’re also closely following the flood in Minot, North Dakota, where our son, Kevin, and his family live.

I reported earlier on heavy rains and flooding when we were there during the Memorial Day weekend. At that time, the floodwaters on the Souris (Mouse) River crested at levels just below the flood of 1969. Levees held and residents began to breathe a little easier, even though they expected rural areas to stay under water into July.

On June 19, there were torrential rainstorms in southern Saskatchewan and suddenly new flood projections came out. In 1969 the river reached a level of 1554.5 feet above sea level. The record flood level happened in 1881 when the river reached 1558 feet. Hydrologists predicted a new record flood level of 1563 feet.

Kevin’s home is on high ground, thankfully. Nevertheless, we can’t avoid worrying about the 10,000 people who left their homes when water went over the dikes last Wednesday.

Wind and Water on the North Dakota Prairies

Flyfishing for northern pike is fun – and tasty.

Wind and water.

That sums up some our travel of the last couple weeks.

Last week I wrote about impending flooding on southwestern Montana streams. The cold weather around Memorial Day pretty much put the local flooding on hold, though flooding in other parts of Montana, particularly in Hardin and Roundup, made national news.

We took a road trip out of Montana, though that didn’t get us out of flooding areas. In fact, it put us right in the middle of flooding. We went to Minot, North Dakota for Memorial Day weekend to take in the festivities of a granddaughter’s graduation from high school. While we were there, it also seemed like a good idea to do some fishing on area lakes with our son, Kevin.

There are a lot of lakes in north central North Dakota, though there is always the question of whether the wind will let you put a boat on the water. Our first day of fishing was breezy, though there wasn’t any problem with boating, at least not on the smaller lake we fished. In an afternoon of fishing we caught a number of pike and invited a couple of them home for a fish dinner.

The next day was one of those windy prairie days. It didn’t keep us from fishing, though we elected to leave the boat at home. We’ve fished this lake a number of times over the years and there’s a concrete pier at the public access point on the lake where we’ve tied up Kevin’s boat in the past. With a couple winters of heavy snows, the lake level is up and the pier is under a foot of water. This actually made for a good fishing spot, as there was deep water easily accessible for casting streamers for pike.

Flyfishing for northern pike still seems like kind of a novelty in Midwestern states, even if it’s a trendy thing to do among a lot of fly anglers. In any event, flyfishing seemed the most effective way to catch pike on this trip, with a purple Wooly Bugger, which resembles a leech in the water, the hot fly.

While we spent several days fishing, the weather continued to be a hot topic. This past winter was a hard one, with heavy snows all across central North Dakota and on into Canada. Back in 1969, Minot had a major flood that dominated the national news. Since then, Minot built a system of dikes along the Souris River, which flows through the city, and flooding in the city seemed to become a thing of the past.

This spring there has been a long flooding season in rural areas both above and downstream from the city. Driving out of town, looking at flooded areas downstream from the city, Kevin remarked, “It’s been like this for a couple months already, and there’s no end in sight.” That week, City crews feverishly hauled dirt to build up the level of the dikes in town.

Over that weekend rain dominated the weather. Heavy rain fell the night before Memorial Day, though it stopped by midday. Kevin and I took another fishing trip, fishing through what the Irish might call a “soft rain.” We hit the road to go back to Minot when Kevin’s wife phoned, concerned about our being caught in the storm. “What storm?” he asked. A thunderstorm had rolled through Minot that afternoon, with heavy rain.

Coming back into town, we could see rivers of water pouring down road ditches and hilly draws. That evening another rainstorm pounded the area and the next day large areas of the city were evacuated in fears that the dikes would fail, following reports of 4 inches of rain in areas northwest of Minot.

Other areas of North Dakota were bracing for a deluge of water coming from Montana’s Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers, and the night before we visited friends in Fargo, they had winds estimated at almost 100 mph.

Yes, this is the season for wind and water and Montana and the Dakotas are at the center of it all.