Al Campbell, Field Editor

August 2nd, 2004

Saving Water, Part 3

Al Campbell

Last week I mentioned I would show you more about how crowded the Bighorn can get during low water. I would also like to mention that maybe 9 out of 10 of the favorite spots were too dry this year, so crowding was far worse than it is during a normal year. I remember looking into a place where I caught a lot of trout years ago, but it is at least 10 feet above the water level right now. So, what happens to the trout during low water years?

At first, the trout just move into areas already holding other trout. They do that every year, so it isn't a big thing to do it for a bit longer, as long as it is just a bit longer. Rivers like the Bighorn usually suffer through two to four feet of fluctuation in the course of a normal year anyway, so the trout adapt fairly well as long as it isn't more than a year or two. In fact, with normal hatches, the trout tend to do very well with a bit of water fluctuation. They spread out and offer a lot of chances to fishermen.

However, after a few years of drought, things change. Spawning water is diminished for trout and insects. If the water is allowed to stay low, sometimes a whole hatch may disappear, or at least get real small. The same holds true for the trout. They spawn on gravel beds that are now out of the water, so they have to compete with other fish for a place to spawn. Sometimes the competition is just too much for older trout and they die. Just a few facts of life that hold true anywhere there is a drought.

Right now, the Bighorn River is low in trout from two or three years in the past seven. If you add this year, you'll get the idea. Low water flows equal lower than normal spawning results, which in turn equal lower than normal fish counts in the river. Now, fluctuate in lower than normal hatches to feed the fish and those small fish become prey to bigger fish. The fish numbers drop again. Unless the small fish can find some reasonable sanctuary, they might not survive at all.

That was the case this year. Small fish were stacked into a reasonable stretch of stream where they had a chance to eat and grow. There were some larger fish around, but not nearly as many as it would take to thin the small fish too much. So, the small fish were eating well, and they were mostly ignored by fishermen because of their location in the stream. Next year, or the year following, those fish will be the targets of most fishermen in the stream. They will have grown to the point that they will be forced to relocate to other waters. And the balance of nature just goes on that way. It may be a six-year slump before the river gets back to "normal," but it will eventually get back to normal.

All that said though, the Bighorn is still one of the better rivers I have fished. The fish count may have dropped by more than 2/3 in some areas, but that is still four to five times the counts on other waters. Maybe I just enjoy it because so much of the water in my state is either real low or not flowing at all, but I don't think that is the case. I think that any river that can put a dozen or more fish in my hand each day of a drought year is doing just fine. The fishing might be tougher in some areas, but not nearly as tough as it is in some other areas that brag big fish. Just something to think about next time you are planning a trip somewhere.

While you are thinking about that, give the folks at the Bighorn Trout Shop a call and ask them about it. They are a Sponsor here, so it shouldn't be too much to ask should it? Here's what I think they will tell you. The water is low, so there are fewer places for fish to hide, but that can be good. There are fewer fish than before, but still plenty to catch. You might catch fewer fish than normal years, but they will likely be larger than they would have been four years ago. And, since so many people have backed out due to small hatches and drought fears, you have a better chance than you might have had during a high water year. The guides are putting people onto fish, and you could be one of those people. ~ AC

Previous Al Campell Columns

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