Angling and Ethics in the summer of 2021

It’s early July in 2021. After a winter of average snow pack, and a
long, steady run-off that brought snow down from April 20th
on, the freestone rivers of Missoula are feeling the effects.

Hoot Owl
restrictions are in place on the Clark Fork River from the confluence
of Rock Creek and going east to Warm Springs. The term Hoot Owl is
derived from the early 1900’s logging industry, and when in place,
there is no fishing on the affected waters from 2:00 PM to Midnight.
Hoot Owl hours are put into effect when the water temps rise above 73
degrees for three consecutive days, or the water levels drop below
the 5th percentile based on historical data.

Water temperature has a huge effect on cold water fish like trout. Warmer water holds less oxygen, (Trout Biology) which has immediate and obvious effects on trout. It defines where they are, how and when they move, and how they feed. When the water hits 73 degrees, trout are having difficulty finding areas in the river that keep them alive.

The flow levels
for the Blackfoot River, Bitterroot River, Rock Creek and the Clark
Fork River are running anywhere from 50-65% of what they should be at
this time of year, and dropping daily in the heat. This pushes trout
into fewer and fewer available holding lies. Crowding is extremely
stressful to trout. They’re free roaming, and don’t like sharing
space with competitors for food and prime lies. Lack of water pushes
trout together, adding to the severe conditions brought about by warm

With no end of
the heat in sight, we expect this situation to continue and intensify
in the coming weeks. Paints a rather gloomy yet accurate picture. But
it’s not all over, far from it.

The fishing is actually pretty darn good in the morning. At 5:45 am, the air temps are in the low 60’s, and if the wind is blowing, you need a light jacket. A far cry from 5:45 pm! The water has dropped in temps all night, and trout are active in the cool morning. All four Missoula trout rivers are fishing well at that time of day, so you have your pick. The water is staying within acceptable fishing temperatures until about 12:30 -2:00. The water is still warm especially in the upper Clark Fork, lower Clark Fork and lower Bitterroot, however, and there are things anglers can do to help alleviate the rigors brought about by the heat.

As an angler, There are things you can do to help alleviate the stress of high temps and low flows. To start, fishing isn’t so much a matter of where you go, but when you go. Make the effort to rise with the birds. Be on the water early, like 5:30-6:00 am early. Put your 6 hours in and then give the trout a break in the heat.

When you hook a
fish, put the screws to it. Fight that fish to the limits of your
tackle. Yes, you may lose a few, but the faster you get the fish to
hand, the faster it recovers from its exercise. Trout recover faster
from a shorter fight. Don’t lengthen the process.

The rivers are
warmer near the surface and shore. If you pull a fish from the
middle, or the middle and deep, you’re taking that fish from cool
water into warmer (less oxygenated) water, while making it fight. A
bad combo. If you can avoid that scenario, you should. If you do find
yourself bringing a fish from cooler water to warmer water, fight
hard. Make sure the fish is capable of swimming away powerfully. If
it’s too stressed to swim upright, you’ll need to resuscitate the

The best way to
resuscitate is to hold the trout by the “wrist” (juncture of tail
and body) and under the belly. Move to the deepest water you can
comfortably get to. Face the trout into the current, and get the
trout as deep as you can. Gently move the trout forward and
backwards, moving it only enough to flare the gills. Depending on the
fatigue factor, the trout may give a feeble attempt to flee. Keep
resuscitating through the first attempt. Trust us, you’ll know when
the fish is well and truly ready to leave! This process can take
anywhere from 30 seconds to 5 minutes, depending on the fatigue and

When prospecting
for trout, whether wading or floating, self-impose a three fish limit
from each hole. The river has crowded the fish together. The trout
are easy to find, and once you’ve located one you’ve usually
found a few. But the fighting and crowding is very stressful. Limit
your time at each hole to give the trout a break. If you come across
a pod of risers, go for it. The three fish rule really only applies
when you’re fishing the water looking for fish.

Now we go a
little deeper. What are the ethics of fishing later into the day when
no hoot owl hours are in place, but the water is getting up to 70
degrees. Where do you draw the line? The Missoulian Angler is opening
at 6:00 am, to facilitate getting anglers on the water early. Our
guides stop fishing when the water temps on their stretch hits 68-69
degrees. They run a dry only for the last hour or so.

Yesterday, we had
two anglers in the shop just before closing. They’d just gotten off
the water, and said they’d had a great afternoon of wade fishing on
the Blackfoot with droppers. One guy said, “We were killing them!”
in an excited voice.

All we could
think about was how correct that statement was. Bringing a trout up
from the cold bottom to the hot surface and then to shore……..
yes, they were killing them all right. We tried a bit of gentle
reprimand, a bit of advice for fishing in the hot weather, but
unfortunately it fell on deaf ears.

This is not about
right now, this is not about being a downer, this is not to deter you
from going fishing. What it’s about is how fishing will look in
three years. Carrying capacity is a biological term used to describe
how many fish a river can support at its worst time. Many fish won’t
survive this summer, whether they are fished for or not. When
carrying capacity falls, that affects spawning numbers for years to
come. In three years, the recruiting class will be lesser than in
good water years.

We write this
blog to make sure anglers are aware of the ramifications of angling
in the heat. What it does to the trout, how it will affect fishing
for the next 2-6 years. As a shop, the Missoulian Angler takes the
long view of the resources. The rivers are our lifeblood, the trout
our business partners. More importantly, river and stream health are
a Montana legacy, a legacy worth protecting now for the future
generations who live in and travel to Missoula. We get it, it’s a
wrench right now. It’s not how you envisioned your fishing day. But
a little trout TLC when needed will pay big dividends for the rivers
that provide us so much joy, peace and pleasure..