A slushy spring can bring a superb summer
By Miles Nolte
T.S. Elliot famously described April as “the cruelest month” in The Waste Land, but those of us living above the 40th parallel tend to add May in as well. Where we stay, April and May are mud season, a fickle transition time that can sandwich a late blizzard between freezing rain and day-long sliver of flip flop glory. A low, clear, cold flow one day can turn into a chocolate torrent the next.
This year has been wilder than most out here, weather-wise, with steady drizzle, snow flurries, and just the occasional glimmer of warmth to come. That pattern drives some who live in northern climes toward a nosedive of lament. It’s spring, right? Where’s the warmth? I’m sick of puffy coats and boots.
Others, like us, revel in a wet, dreary spring like this one. Where some see dark clouds dumping sad snow on closed ski hills, we celebrate all that moisture—dance in slushy puddles. We see a down payment toward summer stream flows. Fish like water.
Last winter was depressingly dry across much of the Rockies, and we skidded into spring with snow packs barely scratching 70% of the historic average in many of our ranges. Spring is a nerve-wracking time for trout anglers who pay attention. Scant snowpack in spring means low flows in summer, which often means higher than average water temperatures and can lead to river closures and fish kills come August. This year, we may just dodge that bullet. What was shaping up to be an almost certainly dire summer for trout fishing now glimmers with a hope of normalcy, at least for some parts of the West. As of this writing, most of our basins in Western Montana are above 100% of historic average. Same goes for much of Wyoming. Idaho, and Washington. Oregon is mixed, with the northern half of the state sitting pretty while the south looks a bit bleaker. Unfortunately, Colorado and Utah did not benefit from late season wet weather, and poor California remains bone dry. If you’re planning to trout fish later in the summer, keep those levels in mind.
Fly fishing the Madison River
Whatever you do, don’t wait for summer to go fishing. Who cares if it’s cold and wet? Throw on a few layers, pack some gloves, and get yourself a good pair of waders and a well-designed jacket. (We can help.) May trout fishing can be marvelous, with a few skwalas still skittering around select rivers, BWOs sheeting the slicks under overcast skies, and, of course, the first marquee hatch of the season: Mother’s Day caddis. May marks the official start of dry fly season. The heavy cloud ceiling that causes some people seasonal depression gets us downright giddy. Low light means more bugs and happier fish. This is some of the best fishing of the year ,and on most rivers (though not all), the crowds haven’t shown up yet. Gear up properly to enjoy the splendid fishing, and consider the added snow in the mountains a welcome bonus for later.
Do keep in mind, however, that normal snowpack in May does not necessarily translate to healthy flows in August. If we switch from 45 and rainy to 85 and scorching in the next few weeks, all those glorious water deposits will get cashed in quick, blowing out every freestone and leaving us broke and sweaty for the dog days. That happens some years, but we’re eyeing all the recent chill and precip with hope. Maybe we’ll get a hopper season.
About the Author
Miles Nolte probably burned your favorite spot in some fishing publication or another over the past couple decades. He also made a living pimping out the rivers of Southwest Montana and parts of Bristol Bay, Alaska for much of his adult life. He was the cohost of the fishing podcast, Bent, which pissed off fly anglers and bait fishermen alike. In his twenties, he waited tables at a country club, which is why he hates golf and golfers.