By Patrick Straub EBS Fishing Columnist
During runoff it feels like high summer will never come. These days, love it or hate it, it feels like it will never end. Whether we love fishing in shorts and sandals, or are counting the days until fleece and waders are necessary, low water angling is here.
Gone is the chance for a Mother’s Day caddis hatch and the excitement of fish eating 3-inch-long salmonflies. Now is the time for drakes, spinner falls – or recently mated mayflies falling dead to the water’s surface – and smaller caddis in the riffles. But before we hit the rivers, here’s a reality check:
Like death and taxes, low water is a certainty, but it doesn’t always result in poor fishing. Combined with increased stream temperatures, however, low water requires an adjustment in angling practices.
The following are helpful and important low-water angling tips and information from our friends at Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Fishing Outfitters Association of Montana.
Trout prefer cold water. Ideal temperatures range from 54-63 F. Dissolved oxygen can be reduced when water temperatures rise, and depending on temperatures, ideal dissolved oxygen concentrations for active fish is approximately 10 parts per million or higher. When levels of dissolved oxygen drop below 6 ppm, trout become stressed, and feeding, predator avoidance, and sustained swimming become difficult. Below 4 ppm trout can die.
Once temperatures rise above the mid–60s F, trout can start feeling the adverse effects of high temperatures. The ability to compete with other species for food sources is reduced once temperatures approach 70 F. Lethal temperatures, depending on species, range from 74-79 F.
Early on, early off. The most important adjustment you can make is to get on the water earlier in the day and avoid fishing in the afternoon. Early to bed, early to rise, fish until 2 or 3 p.m. and the trout are happy. There’s a reason you won’t see the best guides in the bars after 7 p.m.: they’re at home prepping for an early wake up.
Similar to fishing earlier in the day, consider cooler stretches of water to fish. Canyon sections of rivers tend to stay cooler because the sun is penetrating the water less. Try fishing mountain streams or higher elevations to find cooler water.
Less is more. We all want to catch fish and some anglers feel like the need to be catching fish all the time. However, strive for enlightenment and accept that it’s OK to catch fewer fish – or only target big trout – if it means the resource is protected.
Land and release fish quickly. Use slightly heavier gear and tackle to get fish to the net quicker, and keep them in the water at all times. If you must take a photo do it fast – fish photos always look better the closer the subject is to the water anyway.
Take the long view on fishing. Our rivers and streams are wild-trout fisheries. We rely on nature to restock our fish, not government entities. Understand that the little things you can do today will benefit the long-term health of the ecosystem. Waking up at 5 a.m. might be challenging, but it’s better than having a lousy fishery.
In my early years of guiding, I looked forward to the second half of July: A full calendar was a certainty with easy fishing days in shorts and flip-flops. Twenty years later, late July has changed – not for better or worse, it’s just different.
Fortunately, we still have some of the fishiest waters in the world. Please enjoy your summer angling, but do so with the future of the resource and fellow anglers in mind.
Pat Straub is the author of six books, including “The Frugal Fly Fisher,” “Montana On The Fly,” and “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Fly Fishing.” He and his wife own Gallatin River Guides in Big Sky and he co-owns a guide service on the Missouri River.