Two weeks ago, the column remembered the “200-year flood” of June 2005, when monsoon-struck Central Alberta rivers and streams were running harder and higher than longtime residents could ever remember, and noted that aquatic life, including fish, of those waters finally seemed to have recovered.
Suddenly the exact opposite weather condition and threat is prevailing and those same old-timers are uttering the dreaded D-word and solemnly declaring they have never seen this or that Central Alberta watercourse lower, slower or thinner. It remains to be seen whether the current, on-and-off again mini-monsoon will alleviate the long-term damage a drought does do to the life in rivers and streams.
Fortunately, my experience of fishing during droughts comes down to twice. My first Atlantic salmon fishing trip, more than 40 years ago, coincided with a severe drought in southwest Newfoundland. The Grand Codroy River was emaciated, showing its “bones” of chalky boulders. You could see pods of salmon, mostly grilse (salmon on their first run back from the sea to the river that spawned them), somnolent on the bottom of the deepest pools. These fish had come in from the sea on earlier, higher water, and were in ugly moods because there was not enough water for them to move to their upstream spawning grounds.
“We needs rain bye,” every local angler was saying. The salmon were not taking, but I did manage two grilse of close to six pounds in three 12-hour days of hard casting into a hot, dry wind. On the last day, at a pool named “Behint the Island,” I cast hundreds of times over a 20-pound salmon that seemed awake.
For the hell of it, I tied on one of my No. 6 pink-bodied Le Tort Hoppers. On the first cast, the big hen shot straight up and out like a Polaris missile with my fly on her neb, like a seal balancing a ball, but kept her mouth shut. We had to leave to catch a plane, but my guide assured me that salmon would have taken the fly in who knows how many hundred more casts.
A decade or so ago, son John took me on a nostalgic fishing trip back to Montana after my 20-year absence. The mountain west was deep in drought. The smoke from wildfires raging in Idaho, Wyoming and Colorado turned Montana into a black and white scene. Legal fishing, which ended at 2 p.m. to avoid stress to the trout, was terrible and also overcrowded, because guides were bringing their clients from the fire states where any fishing was prohibited.
On our way home, we fished a small headwaters tributary to the Gallatin River, to the cooler waters of which, brown, rainbow and brook trout had fled from the main river. It made our trip, including one very large brown trout, which, time after time, would charge our flies from his shady cave under a big boulder, but never opened his mouth.
Many trout in West Country waters have been opening their mouths and getting caught in one of the shortest, sharpest and strangest spring-summer seasons I can recall, as the rivers and creeks get lower, clearer and warmer. The aquatic insect hatches are all early and overlapping, as if the bugs know they better proceed with procreation while they can, and the trout are gorging on the mixed menu.
Even over on the usually daunting North Raven River, with its assured spring source, skilled fly fishermen were reporting 50-to-100-fish days to mixed mayfly hatches. On the freestone streams, the trout are concentrating in the occasional huge, deep holes as their habitual holding water becomes too shallow to provide the safety of concealment.
The best fishing is becoming nocturnal, as it usually does in late August and September after a hot, dry summer; my Night Hole on Prairie Creek is named for that fishing, but this year it is at least six weeks early. Ten days ago, a friend was watching and besetting the Night Hole late in the day when it suddenly came alive around 7:30 p.m., with several large brown trout feeding voraciously on an aquatic insect mishmash of salmon flies, golden stoneflies, and March brown and brown drake mayflies.
Usually, in the late summer and early fall, these dusk-night feeders are limited to caddis flies for aquatic insects and feed mainly on terrestrial insects: grasshoppers, beetles, ants, even dragon flies. Those fall browns are fattening up for their spawning run and semi-hibernation during the long winter “drought” of low flows under the ice. The first going-out of the ice in the spring wakes the trout up, and they generally celebrate the sudden sunshine with a pig-out on anything going by that looks edible.
Anglers are unanimous in reporting the trout they have been catching and releasing this dry spring are in prime shape and show no signs of stress. That is encouraging and leads to hope, but “we needs rain, bye.”
Bob Scammell is an award-winning columnist who lives in Red Deer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.