Out of Bounds

Peak of the Summer Curve

At least on the Flathead, until maybe this year, the one thing you didn’t have to worry about was water temps

By Rob Breeding

Someone just told me they felt a little fall in the air. 

Unless you live in Phoenix, I replied, there’s always a little fall in the air.

If fall tries to move in on the action in Phoenix this time of year it’s incinerated,  immediately. The closest Phoenix gets to fall is in the dead of winter, when the weather is roughly equivalent to the most pleasant spring ever in Montana.

The last week of July and first of August kind of feels like the high point of the summer bell curve. Everything is tapped out to its max and we’re about to learn how the season will come to be defined. 

Will it be a summer of blazing temperatures or fires or tepid trout streams closed to afternoon fishing or high-and-dry docks on Flathead Lake, or all of the above?

This has long been a moment to pause for me. When I was floating and/or guiding a lot, my guiding pals and I knew the start of August was when things changed. The Middle and North forks, where I liked to spend summer afternoons and evenings, began to fall precipitously low. Mike, a guide who forgot more about the Middle Fork than I’ll ever know, would say the river lost definition this time of year. 

In other words, the current seams that usually harbored cutthroat trout were gone. Guiding in the barren August month felt like we needed to cover the water from bank to bank because there was no obvious river structure to gather fish.

At least on the Flathead, until maybe this year, the one thing you didn’t have to worry about was water temps. The river might be low, flat and structureless, but it always had a recently frozen vibe that kept trout feisty even in August.

The latest non-shocker in Montana’s battle to remain a state of great trout rivers is the discovery of smallmouth bass in the Bitterroot River. It’s the lower Bitterroot, where frankly, no one seriously fishes for trout, but it’s another warning. Discovered as it was in the middle of a heatwave blast furnacing most of the country, it landed as just another sign of the apocalypse.

It isn’t. Pike are the apocalypse. They change everything. 

Still, smallmouth are aggressive predators and can make things tough on native fish. Just ask native humpback chub in the Colorado River how they feel about marauding smallies who like to hang near the mouth of the Little Colorado River where it joins the big one.

The smallmouth in the Flathead system offer another foil to native fish recovery. There may not be enough food in the relatively barren upper Flathead system to keep bass happy in huge numbers, however.

I’m rather fond of smallies. In the subjective world of fish preferences, they reside just a notch below trout in my ranking system. The trout they’re most likely to pinch in the lower Bitterroot are brown trout, and if I was given a choice of fishing for smallmouth or  browns, I’d need a coin flip to decide. And if I was fishing for filets, bass are the easy winner.

Anyway, while smallmouth aren’t native to western Montana, they are at least American fish. Browns are snooty Europeans.

As for this touch of fall in the air, I can imagine it. It’s not the random summer storm that drops a few flakes — on any day of the year Montanans like to remind outsiders — that brings it on. It’s a barely perceptible stillness that hits you, unexpectedly. You get a trace of it for a moment before the coolness recedes back into summer. It’s a welcome taste. Fall is, after all, the greatest of seasons, and falls in Montana are better than anywhere else I’ve spent one.

No matter what happens between now and then, fall erases the worst of it.

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