The snowfall of the 2007-2008 winter was the heaviest in Montana since 1997. This resulted in the first High Water Year that has been experienced by the younger guides and the fly fishers who have taken up the sport in the last decade. In this piece, I will talk about the different seasons that occur in Low Water Years and in High Water Years.
The Madison River has dropped now that the flushing flows are over with. The warmer water temperatures that will come with the warmer weather, will cause increased bug activity–right on into the time the salmonflies and golden stones get started. That’s when the fish really get their feedbags on. There will be some March Browns and some caddis activity—especially the big caddis: size 8, with a very dark brown body and a dark brown spotted wing. The big caddis will be all over the place. They always precede the salmonfly hatch and golden stone hatch and continue through the salmonfly hatch. The smaller caddis—size 14 and 16–will pop all the way through the salmonfly hatch too, and even some small caddis.
These hatches will come off even if the water rises and gets dirty from the runoff, because we’re going to experience still pretty big doses of snowmelt through June and into July. But the bug hatches–they kind of overcede everything–and the fish start to eat hard and they start to look for all sorts of different fly patterns–including streamers.
This early season stuff is going to be huge—just monstrous—all these hatches. What’s going to happen with the multiple days of temperatures into the seventies and eighties in the valley is that the hatches will start to come off as the water warms and then the warmer temperatures will start the snow melting and the cold water coming into the river will lower the water temperature again and slow down the hatches. So the hatches in this High Water Year won’t be as prolific and won’t last as long during the day as they do in the Low Water Years. There’s going to be a sprinkling of hatches throughout this season. It’s not going to be one huge emergence, because the water temperature won’t allow it.
There’s going to be a smattering of bugs every day, which is every fly fisher’s dream. It’s going to be like somebody is chummin’ the fish up for you, but they’re not feedin’ them. They’re just getting them interested. But the fish are not going to be able to gorge themselves. The water temperature and the smaller number of bugs that are hatching just won’t allow it. They’re just getting the fish interested, but there aren’t enough insects for the fish to gorge themselves.
Fish are like dogs. A dog will eat until he’s gorged—sometimes until he throws up. Well, fish are no different. If they can eat and gorge, they will. But because of mother nature, what’s going to happen with the snowmelt and the insects, it’s going to be a smattering of a whole bunch of different flies throughout the early season that will last throughout the summer. That’s gonna be the thing that’s gonna bring the fish to the surface a lot. They’ll eat and be very opportunistic from the stuff that’s first emerging out of the rocks and the vegetation to stuff that’s caught in the film to stuff that’s layin’ eggs. This will result in them hitting all the patterns. That’s what goes on in a typical High Water Year.
In a Low Water Year, the water temperatures reach critical mass extremely quick and they don’t drop. All the hatches come off and then there’s no hatches left when we get to the end of July or the first part of August. But when you get colder water temperatures, that doesn’t happen. So a High Water Year is so much better for the insects, so much better for the fish, I think.