Out of Bounds

Nerding Out with Maps

As spring approaches another kind of map draws my attention: the U.S. Department of Agriculture Snow Water Equivalent maps of Montana river basins

By Rob Breeding

My name is Rob and I’m a mapaholic.

You probably are as well, assuming you like playing in the outdoors. Next to hunting brand new spots, one of my favorite things to do is scan maps for prospective brand-new spots to hunt.

As spring approaches another kind of map draws my attention: the U.S. Department of Agriculture Snow Water Equivalent maps of Montana river basins, and other states I might fish this year. These ought to be renamed primordial trout stream maps as far as I’m concerned.

But I’m not a skier.

When it’s painted in blues and greens, as it is this year, SNOTEL maps are about as pleasing a map as you’ll find. Montana’s current map is easy on the eye, though not as blue as I’d prefer. Even so, other than a strip of yellow along the border with Idaho (the Bitterroot, Lower Clark Fork and the Kootenai basins), everything appears close to normal. 

Normal is an interesting word. I first started reporting on Montana snowpack data in the 1990s, and I recall debating whether “normal” or “average” was the correct word to describe the data collected at SNOTEL sites (SNOTEL is short for snow telemetry). Average was distinct from normal, I argued, and normal wasn’t 100%. 

Normal was anything between 90-110%, or maybe 80-120%.

It seems the USDA has succumbed to the prevailing tides of usage and settled on normal as a synonym for 100%, so I play along even if it grates to write. I had the same problem when the Associated Press gave in to the peer pressure of common usage and allowed reporters to type “over” in place of “more than.” I’ve stuck with more than, but I’m no longer allowed to ding my students when they use over to describe a numeric relationship rather than one of position.

Some reporters and editors will never get over this.

A range, rather than the specific 100% is a fair standard to keep in mind. Any basin at or above 90% of normal is in good shape right now. The Flathead is at 98% as I write this, with a bit of snow in the immediate forecast, so it may be more than 100% next week. A little under normal or a little over, either is fine, though I’d love to see the Flathead climb above 110% which will turn its present green a lovely shade of baby blue.

In Montana all is good, even that yellow western edge, so long as the region gets near-normal precipitation through the spring and summer. Once or twice, I’ve seen dismal early spring snowpack turn into pleasant fishing seasons that lasted into August after a cooler-than-normal spring.

Of course, I’ve also seen the opposite happen: great primordial river reports evaporating in the blazing summer sun.

If you want to see a lot of dark blue, check out the snowpack maps for California. Many basins across the Sierra Nevada are checking in at 200% or more, with some more than 300%. Also, as I write this, another atmospheric river over the Pacific Ocean had drawn a bead on Northern California. The Sierra foothills may have washed into San Francisco Bay by the time you read this.

I’m already counting the quail all the moisture in the southwest will grow into healthy coveys by fall. I’m also looking forward to Lake Shasta at or near full this summer. That reservoir on the Sacramento River is such an iconic destination, and though I haven’t played there in decades, it makes me sad every time I see footage of the brown, exposed lakebed that rings Shasta these days.

I’m hopeful Montana will enjoy a wet spring. I’m a map nerd, so I’ll be refreshing my computer often to see how it is going. If the weather cooperates, all that primordial river should be actual river come July.

Rob Breeding’s website is www.mthookandbullet.com.