Rivers in All Their Forms

If you’re catching fish, just call it fun

Rivers come in a variety of forms. There’s the usual form of course, a ribbon of water cutting a line through the low ground in a basin.

Falling snow is also a river, just in its embryonic state. Even as it drifts to the ground in solid form, it’s becoming a river. When it settles as snowpack, it’s a river in storage.

We’re generally fond of these early river phases, so long as the falling isn’t on concrete we’re responsible for shoveling.

The rivers of Montana have settled into one of the conditions that isn’t as popular: high water, the evil twin of those lovely accumulating flakes of January.

That’s the form of river we have now, the form likely to continue for another month or so. We don’t like this form because there’s not much you can do with a torrent of coffee and cream snowmelt. Well, serious whitewater types have some use for it, but for the rest of us who lack extreme-sport aspirations, high water is best enjoyed from afar.

That doesn’t mean high water is without benefit. More than once I’ve heard advocates for water users lament all that springtime high water just going to waste as it flows downstream. I can appreciate the sentiment, to a degree. Water stored behind a dam (another form of river) allows us to grow food, drink and — in instances where that storage is released in August to augment late-season flows — recreate.

But the “waste” framing we sometimes hear from dam advocates couldn’t be more wrong. Nothing goes to waste in a river, not even those muddy spring flows racing to the ocean. High flows scour and clean the riverbed, lifting silt off trout spawning gravel where it suffocates eggs and fry.

There are even places where fish have evolved to exploit those high flows. Before dams tamed the Colorado River, the Grand Canyon hosted the greatest high flows on the continent. The river once dropped to just a few thousand cubic feet per second in winter, then grew to more than 100,000 cfs at the height of spring runoff.

That seems to be the design behind the rather grotesque Hunchback of the Canyon, the humpback chub. The chub has a large hump just behind its head, which is thought to act as a kind of rudder, generating pressure that helps the fish hold its position on the river bottom while most of the runoff of the Southwest rushes over it to the Gulf of California.

Waste isn’t the right word; trade-off is more accurate. Dams change river systems, dramatically, and often to the detriment of native fish. The humpback chub has struggled since Glen Canyon Dam was built in the 1960s and the fish is now endangered.

But if you’ve ever opened a head gate to release irrigation water on a parched field in August or netted a tailwater trout in the dead of winter, you know some of those trade-offs aren’t without benefit.

In the meantime, still water rules. I got a clue a few years ago, on Rogers Lake, as I tooled around in my float tube. It was one of those springs when high-water bled into summer, and I watched a dude with guide tags on his drift boat back up to shore, put in, and back row a couple sports across the lake.

Being a bright boy, I realized I could do that too. I’ve been fishing small lakes out of my river dory ever since.

Even lakes that lack an outlet like Rogers may claim a type of “river” status. Some of Rogers surely seeps into the ground to emerge in Ashley Creek, flowing eventually to the Flathead River.

I’m not sure it matters what you call the form of water anyway. If you’re catching fish, just call it fun.

Rob Breeding is the editor of www.mthookandbullet.com.