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.

Pheasants in the North Dakota Oil Patch

Flicka bringing in a pheasant that didn’t get away.

“Those are industrial strength pheasants,” I told Flicka, as a rooster pheasant flushed from the edge of the shelterbelt—the wrong side of the shelterbelt—well screened from my view except for a fleeting glance as it flew off to safety. Another pheasant had given us the slip.

Flicka, my Labrador retriever and always-enthusiastic hunting partner, and I were hunting pheasants on Wildlife Management Areas along the shores of Lakes Sakakawea, the big Missouri River impoundment in western North Dakota. I’ve hunted that area off and on around 30 years, and we’ve been making trips there regularly in recent years so that Kevin, our son who lives in Minot, and I can hunt together.

The area has been undergoing rapid change in the last few years. Some of those changes are natural and others are industrial.

The area is smack dab in the middle of the Bakken Formation oil patch of western North Dakota and eastern Montana, and the pace of development is almost mind-boggling. Almost everywhere you look you can see derricks, indicating where new wells are being drilled, site preparation where wells are going to be drilled, oil wells that are pumping, and occasional flames indicating where natural gas is being flared off. The number of natural gas flares is less than a year or so ago, as the oil companies have built natural gas pipelines to capture the gas and send it to market.

Another indicator of change is the volume of heavy truck traffic, with tanker trucks, heavy equipment movers and gravel hauling trucks fanning out across the countryside. While farming operations continue next to the oil wells it’s easy to see that energy is the driving force in western North Dakota.

Energy creates other impacts. Schools in a couple communities have put up apartments and houses specifically to provide their teachers with subsidized housing. With the influx of oil workers, housing in many small towns is at a premium.

For better or worse, Mother Nature has drastically changed the lakeshore hunting areas. The drought cycle of a few years ago resulted in low lake levels. While that hurt fisheries and boating it also created vast expanses of wildlife habitat as weeds, brush patches and groves of trees took hold, creating a paradise full of white-tailed deer, pheasants and waterfowl.

After just a couple years with heavy runoff the big impoundment is virtually full, as is the Ft. Peck impoundment in Montana, and some pheasant hotspots of a few years ago are now under 40 feet of water. In fact, lake levels increased 13 feet over the course of this past summer, going from 1837 feet above sea level in March to 1850 feet in July. Right now, the Corps of Engineers is dumping water from the reservoir at the rate of 30,000 cubic feet per second to lower lake levels to make room for next year’s runoff. Water is still coming in at the rate of 20,000 cfs, so it takes awhile to reduce the lake level, which stood at 1845 feet on October 31.

On October 31, while other people were getting ready for Halloween, Kevin and I were out walking along the lakeshore into a bitterly cold south wind, watching the surf roll in. Lines of driftwood above the current shoreline mark this year’s high water mark, while offshore, drowned trees are still standing in deep water. On this Halloween, the pheasants played all the tricks and, except for the sandwiches we’d packed for the day, we got none of the treats.

A couple days earlier I’d hunted by myself and collected a three-bird limit in relatively short order. The pheasants seemed to be bunched up in sheltered areas following an early snowstorm that roared through a couple days earlier.

After a couple days of warm sunshine the pheasants, especially those big gaudy roosters, seemed to have scattered and were hard to find. Who knows, maybe some of them strolled over to that new oilrig operating just a few hundred yards from the wildlife management area and hired on as roughnecks.

The Not So Silent Prairie

When we think of prairies we usually think in terms of open vistas of rolling plains and grasslands. We don’t often dwell on the sounds of the prairie.

We took a springtime trip across Montana to Minot, North Dakota this past week to see our son, Kevin, and his family. While there, we went fishing, of course. It’s a good reason to go there in the spring.

Fishing, of course, doesn’t come with guarantees. All you can do is wet a line and hope for the best. Sometimes, spring trips produce a lot of fishing action but this wasn’t one of them. The end of April and beginning of May seemed unseasonably cold here in western Montana, and that was also the case in North Dakota. One of the things TV weathermen keep tabs on in North Dakota is soil temperature, and while we were there soil temperatures were dropping—which is bad news for farmers putting in their crops.

While fishing was slow, there was lots of activity going on all around us.

We spent one day fishing at Devils Lake, the massive eastern North Dakota lake complex that has, in the last 20 years, tripled in size. Kevin pointed out that a few years back he’d go there and marvel at fishing spots we went to back in the 1970s and 1980s that were no longer accessible, as they’re all under water. Now it seems to be a yearly thing. You look for a spot where you fished the year before, and now it’s gone. Farms are continually going under water—and it has nothing to do with the mortgage bust.

But birds are everywhere. There are incredible populations of waterfowl, with ducks of all kinds, giant Canada geese, and shorebirds everywhere. The Devils Lake area is a magnet for birdwatchers that come there just for the myriad shorebirds.

On another day I went to Lake Sakakawea, the big Missouri impoundment downstream from Montana. I fished along a shallow bay, hoping the sheltered waters would be warming a bit. It was a good plan, even if the fish didn’t go along with it. In recent years I’ve spent a lot more time hunting pheasants along the lakeshore than fishing, and it was hard not to think of pheasants on this pleasant spring day.

As the saying goes, in springtime a young man’s fancy turns to love, and that’s certainly the case with pheasants. Cock pheasants in springtime are a vocal group, presumably advertising to hen pheasants their availability for a good time, as well as letting other roosters know that the territory is already staked out.

A discordant note comes from an oil-drilling tower at the head of the bay I was fishing. Western North Dakota is a beehive of oil drilling, exploration and pumping, along with heavy truck traffic. In fact, it’s downright mind-boggling. A few weeks ago, the New York Times did a feature story on the difficulties oil patch workers have finding housing in Williston, the informal capitol of the western North Dakota oil fields. There are lots of jobs, but finding a place to live after work is tricky.

On another outing, this time to a small lake away from oil country, at the public access point I was greeted by a chorus of birds, including the usual ducks, geese and shorebirds, but also song birds of various kinds concentrated in a patch of trees and shrubs. There were dozens of bird songs happening all at once, with birds trying to out-do each other in making themselves heard above the crowds. And, again, pheasants were calling from their hangouts on the prairie hillsides.

While the prairie was full of sounds, tiny prairie wildflowers were in bloom, adding bits of color to the green shoots of grass and last year’s dried grasses.

At the end of the day, birds settle down, but there are new sounds. Stepping outside Kevin’s house one evening, frogs were talking from a nearby wetland and open field. “Those are western chorus frogs,” Kevin explained, as we enjoyed the sounds of the chilly evening.

The photo above is Kevin and our Labs in the Devils Lake area. A year ago, farmers were driving tractors and farm trucks down this road.