Guest Blogger: Mike Cline, Bozeman, Montana

There is a common saying in the angling world: “You Should Have Been Here Yesterday”. The implication is that had you been fishing here yesterday, the catching would have been good, but not so much today. Well SW Montana has been unexpectedly a bit like that in 2021. The Western drought has received a lot of attention in the media and deservedly so. It is turning out to be an exceptionally dry year. And that has had both positive and will have negative impacts on angling here in SW Montana. From my perspective as a local angler here in Bozeman, Montana March through June 2021 has actually been a period of exceptional fishing on several counts. Spring warmed up a bit early in March awakening rivers from their winter slumber. April and May remained relatively mild and the rivers showed off excellent midge, caddis and streamer fishing well into early May. For the most part flows were normal for spring time.  More importantly, springtime is usually uncrowded as not too many visiting anglers are around.

Things started to get a bit different as the end of May rolled around. Runoff got off to a slow start and although the big rivers indeed got bigger and dirtier it didn’t really last long nor did they generate anywhere near their normal volume. Some rivers like the Beaverhead and Ruby, buffered by reservoirs never really experienced any high, dirty water. The Yellowstone, Madison and Big Hole provided seasonably excellent conditions for the annual Salmon Fly hatch with lower water that wasn’t pushing into the bankside willows. Small headwater streams like the Upper Ruby came into shape by mid-June, where typically it was the July 4th weekend before they would be fishable. Insect hatches that typically occurred when flow and clarity conditions were marginal were now occurring in lower, crystal clear waters. The other positive in June was nighttime air temperatures. March through June, night time air temperatures in the high plains can fall below freezing, but typically are in the 40s and low 50s. These temperatures bode well for trout streams as they cool considerably overnight.

I am lucky that I can pretty much fish whenever I want to and live in a place where deciding where to fish is actually a complex decision because of the bounty of waters we have in SW Montana. In June, a month where we typically lament the lack of fishable water because of runoff, 2021 proved to be a time of unlimited opportunity and success followed me just about everywhere I fished from high mountain headwaters to the big valley rivers—hungry aggressive fish in uncrowded, lonely conditions. But, there’s a price for all that opportunity as nature’s cistern run dry this summer.

Two converging conditions are going to make the summer of 2021 in SW Montana an angling nightmare, especially for visiting anglers. There have been high expectations all year about the crowds of visiting anglers that will flood SW Montana in July-September. Coming off the COVID year of 2020, visiting anglers are expected to hit record numbers in the summer of 2021. Anecdotally, outfitters and fly shops are reporting full bookings throughout the summer, campsites, hotels, etc. are fully booked. And those anglers are coming to SW Montana with the expectation of big trout and beautiful water. Unfortunately, the water (metaphorically) just won’t be there. Look at USGS flow status for just about any river in SW Montana and you’ll see flows 60-80% below long term medians for this time of year. Drift boats may not be practical on many waters because of extremely low flows. With low flows and nighttime temperatures venturing into the 60s, daytime temperature peaks can venture into the low 70s putting a lot of stress on the fish. Enter the likelihood that many (many already are) waters will be closed to fishing with “Hoot Owl” or complete closures which may extend well into September.

A complete closure doesn’t need much explanation. The lower Ruby River has been closed to all fishing since mid-June. “Hoot Owl” however is a bit different. Waters remain open to fishing, but are closed from 2PM until midnight, the period of the day where water temperatures are the highest. These are not capricious, arbitrary decisions by Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, but rather mandated decisions based on objective stream data. When flow rates and peak stream temperatures fall within certain parameters, “Hoot Owl” or full closures become automatic. A full closure makes for a simple angler decision. It’s like the river doesn’t exist. But “Hoot Owls” are different in that water can be fished in the morning, but not the afternoons and evenings. A full day float trip is an expensive proposition when you can’t fish for the last 3-4 miles of river. Late risers can get frustrated at the lack of legal time to fish. Early (I mean really early starts) are essential to get the most out of the water you are fishing. Trespassing to reach less crowded water becomes more common. Typically the effect of these closures is to push anglers into more crowded conditions on waters that aren’t closed.

We are already hearing of testy conditions at access points, boat collisions and generally poor angler behavior on some of the major rivers. It will get nothing but worse as we move into July and August. It is June 29th as I write this.  Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has already implemented “Hoot Owl” or full closures on many SW Montana waters—Beaverhead, Smith, Shields, lower Big Hole, upper Big Hole, Jefferson, Sun, Ruby, lower Madison. There will be more. You shoulda been here in June.

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