Glacier Park went up in smoke last week. Well, that’s something of an exaggeration. There was one major fire in the park last week — the Reynolds Creek fire. Hopefully there won’t be more by the time you read this, but the odds are in the other direction. In this summer of heat and drought we can expect fire.
While the Reynolds fire was blowing up over on Glacier’s east flank, I was at the park’s far western edge floating the North Fork from Big Creek to Glacier Rim. The USGS river gauge measured the flow at about 1,300 cubic feet per second that day, less than half the average for this time of year. The river was pretty boney but we only heard the dull thud of rock hitting drift boat bottom a time or two. By the time you read this, however, the North Fork will be inflatables-only water in my book.
I float my hard boat through this stretch of river all the time. Only occasionally does it get so low that I feel I have to go with the raft. Generally, this happens in late August.
We weren’t just floating of course, we were also fishing. Catch-and-release fishing has become the norm in these parts; I don’t remember the last time I saw someone killing a fish on a Montana river. I do remember the last time I killed one, but that was on the South Fork of the Snake River in Idaho and that dead fish was a rainbow in a reach where wildlife officials were encouraging anglers to kill all rainbows caught to protect threatened Snake River cutthroats from hybridization.
That trout went into the smoker. It was delicious.
Usually we’re putting fish back for the intended purpose of keeping them alive to be caught again by another angler. In good conditions trout can survive being caught and released multiple times. Most anglers have caught trout bearing the telltale scars of previous engagements with fish hooks. And there are some waters I’ve fished often enough that my buddies and I have begun to believe we recognize the trout we catch-and-release throughout the summer.
Catch-and-release keeps catch rates high and ensures they’ll be plenty of breeding age fish to restock the water via natural spawning. This is the only way trout are “stocked” in rivers in Montana.
But in a summer like this, releasing fish does not ensure those trout will survive to fight and breed another day. Hot, dry conditions, the sort you see when rivers drop to barely floatable levels months early, and when fires blow up on windy afternoons, usually means water temperatures near lethal ranges for trout, a species adapted to live in cold, clear steams and rivers.
One of the many nice things about the rivers flowing on the border of Glacier is that, at least for now, those rivers are being fed my melting snow and ice, the type of stuff that’s sometimes referred to as glaciers. So even in a year like this the water stays cold enough that released fish do just fine. But in other parts of the state — and eventually also on the forks of the Flathead as the Park’s glaciers melt away for good — that’s not the case. When water temperatures begin to approach 70 degrees they can become lethal for native trout such as bull and cutthroat.
If water temps are in the low 70s you may do everything right, playing the fish quickly and releasing it carefully, and it may swim off looking just fine. But the stress of the fight may push it beyond its limits and it will turn belly up hours later anyway.
Smoking is a good way to treat a trout that’s headed for the dinner table. But be mindful of conditions as summer wears on, or you may be smoking more fish than you intend.
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