I was twenty-two years old when I put the chapel spires of the USAF Academy in my rear-view mirror for the last time, pointed my burgundy Volvo North, fly rod sticking out the window, and set out for the Rocky Mountains with my best friend in trail formation.
In sixty days, we would start down the Air Force pilot training “pipeline”. Two years learning to fly jets followed by ten years of continual training for and deploying to combat. None of that was on my mind when I reached over to turn up the volume on the CD in the car stereo. George Strait sang to me, and I believed him. ‘I ain’t rich but Lord I’m free’. I laughed through wet eyes. I was free for now, happy to be heading for Montana, and chasing trout on a fly rod.
Graduation was the end of May. When we arrived in the land of the big sky, run off from the mountains was crushing the water levels. Rivers were high. They were very high. We fished through it where we could. Drank some beer. Laughed a lot.
Twenty years later, I am better at planning for and fishing when the rivers are high. Here is what I have learned.
Every Year is Different.
Throughout the winter months snow falls in the mountains piles up and packs down. Inevitably, the weather shifts and the big thaws come. These changes can be slight or drastic depending on the intensity and duration of the winter and how fast or slow things warm up. It could happen all at once or melt more gradually over time. These differences affect water levels and temperatures, and subsequently determine the time and duration of many of the hatches throughout the summer dependent upon those variables.
Ask a guide when the Salmon Fly hatch happens on the Madison River and you will invariable get an uncomfortable pause, and a comfortable answer. “It depends.”
The hatches generally occur around the same time of year so long as the weather changes around the same time. Draught, long winters, or heavy rains can make it all highly unpredictable.
Snow melt flowing down mountain brooks and creeks, builds steam as it reaches our American trout streams. These high waters can make fishing challenging at best and downright dangerous at the extreme.
Know What You Are Up Against
The obvious step to avoid the spring run-off is to avoid going when you risk high water. It sounds simple but there are two problems with this.
First, there is some great late spring and early summer fly fishing that you are missing out on if you totally decide to skip May and June for Late July and August. It is shortly after the big thaw and high waters, that temperatures change, and many big hatches begin. The stonefly, and salmon fly hatches are prime examples. Trout are hungry from winter and ready to feast on big bugs after dealing with raging rivers. This makes for great dry fly fishing and is a time of year targeted by many fly fishermen. Words like “epic”, “unbelievable”, and “legendary” are used to describe these days on the river.
Second, it is unpredictable. The high flows could come earlier or later, or last into July depending on the duration and severity of the winter.
My good friend Todd lives in Bozeman Montana. He will tell you he has seen snow in his garden twelve months of the year, and brother, he ain’t lying.
Heavy rain can bring the water up as well. You can never tell for sure what Mother Nature will bring. It can be a damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario.
The best thing to do is prioritize, delay if possible, and be flexible.
Do you need to fish the summer in the mountains or will something else work for your fly fishing trip? Deciding what you are trying to accomplish on the trip can help you prioritize where and when to go. There are months when high river flows will definitely not be a factor, but the temperatures can start to drop in some places. Also, there are excellent fly fishing destinations where the snow from the mountains is much less of a problem. The streams of North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Missouri and Arkansas are great examples. Many of these streams are spring fed, so high water is less of a problem. The effects of winter snowfall can be less extreme. These too make outstanding fly fishing trip destinations.
Delay If Possible
If you can wait to make a final decision on exactly when or where to go, you can better pinpoint when the water will be good, and the hatches will be on. For example, if you decide on June 14th, 2019 to fish the Salmon Fly hatch on the Madison the week of June 15th, 2020, the water might still be high. The longer you wait, the more you can observe how the winter is shaping up and the better idea what the run-off situation will be.
Formalizing your fly fishing trip on the calendar is still an excellent way to ensure a fly fishing adventure that can leave lasting memories.
Instead of setting a firm date for your summer fly fishing Rendezvous try to set a month aside on the calendar. Make your final plans when you know more information.
Get a hotel. A last minute hotel can provide more options that putting a deposit down on an Air B n B or fishing lodge. Locking in lodging reservations too far in advance could spell trouble. Keep in mind that some locations have limited lodging opportunities, so make sure you know what is available.
Drive. Buying airline tickets is tricky when you are trying to balance flexibility, price, and availability. If you plan on driving, you automatically build in flexibility. Even if it is a long drive, consider road tripping to help hit the river at the best time.
Tailwater fishing. A tailwater is a river that is immediately downstream from a damn. Often planning to fish a tailwater helps mitigate the risk of high rivers as the flows are regulated by the hydraulic structure and requirements. The Bighorn River in Montana or the Green River in Utah are examples of amazing tailwater fisheries. It is not a guarantee, but it helps.
Ask the experts. Look at guide shops online fishing reports or blogs for clues to how the Summer fishing is shaping up. I recommend calling a guide shop several months out to get a general idea. I also call the week before my trip and follow up with a visit upon arrival to pick up some flies and advice.
We did catch some fish in Montana that summer. The Gallatin and Madison rivers were raging and unfishable, but I landed the biggest cutthroat of my life on the Snake river, and we had some good luck in Yellowstone Park. The water was still high, but we managed.
I cover the tactics and techniques that I use to catch fish when the river is running high in my follow on blog post:
For now, I hope Part 1 helps you plan your next fly fishing trip to avoid high rivers washing you out and helping you to Wadeoutthere.