Montana Fly Fishing and Climate Change

Montana is the iconic face of fly fishing.

Trips to its famous rivers are the on the bucket list of many, if not most, fly fishers. What exists in preconception – to those who dream of fly fishing in the state – is more than matched by the reality of vistas of distant mountains, wildlife, and superb fishing for species such as cutthroat trout, rainbow trout, and brown trout. I’ve been a number of times and can’t wait to go back.

And yet, Montana more than other states may now be seeing adverse impacts of climate change that will threaten, if not destroy, the storied fisheries. For example, Montana’s average temperature in 2016 was 3.5 degrees F above its 20th century average – that’s double the planetary average for the same year.

Montana, and nearby states, have recently seen winter temperatures rise rapidly in early Spring to those more common in summer – resulting in rapid snow melt. For those not aware, in the West the slow melt of mountain snowpack is what provides the late summer stream flows of colder water needed to keep water temperatures at a tolerable level for fish.

Those who work the rivers daily, fly-fishing guides, observe the snow melt (called runoff), changes in water temperatures, and the timing of insect hatches and see the effects of climate change.

Yet, as is true of most Montanans, most of them are hare-core Republicans and Trump supporters who do not acknowledge the impacts of humans on that change. At the same time, there a few – though of similar politics – who have listened to scientists and have come away with an understanding that climate change is being caused by human activity, specifically the burning of fossil fuels.

But one wonders: what causes people, whose livelihood depends on cold-water fisheries that are at risk from climate change, to refuse to acknowledge even the possibility that human activity is a causal factor?

I believe it’s due to one of the most destructive trends I’ve seen over the last thirty years. That is the embrace of political ideology as self-identity. Ideological values are internalized and substituted for critical analysis. News organizations and other mass media reinforce one’s prejudices to the exclusion and the demeaning of other points of view.

It is the embrace of a death cult.

Some studies indicate that almost half of trout fisheries in the interior West, including Montana, will be gone in the next 60 years. Many fish species will go extinct.

And it will not only be fish and the wildlife that depend on them. Montana is also iconic as the land of the Big Sky, the land of ranches and cattle. Climate change may cause that way of life to go extinct also.

High Country News has republished an article from InsideClimate News that interviews a number of guides and fisheries biologists on the state of fisheries and climate change.

Montanans refer to their state as the Last Best Place. I wonder if that slogan may ultimately become ironic.

You can read the article here.

Proposed Rules to Limit Guided Trips on Madison River

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) has released a draft plan for the Madison River that would limit the number of guided trips outfitters can run each day as well as cap the number of outfitters licensed for the Madison.

The proposed plan runs from Quake Lake to the Madison’s confluence with the Jefferson River, which includes many of the most storied locations on the Madison.

The intent is to improve the recreational experience by reducing fishing pressure that has grown dramatically. FWP reported there were 179,000 angler days on the Madison in 2017; in addition, commercial outfitter use has grown by 72 percent since 2008.

Anyone who has visited Montana and traveled along the Madison in summer can’t help but notice the crowds that exist around certain areas of the river. Combine that with the pressure of large numbers of guided boats floating past and Montana doesn’t feel as wild as imagined – which is one of the draws of Montana fishing.

At this point, this is still a proposal. A meeting will be held in the next week to determine whether the proposed plan will be open for public comment as part of the review and approval process.

You can read more here.

Don’t Tread on the Redd

Fishond Don't Tredd on Me

Headhunters Fly Shop in Craig Montana has an excellent post today related to recognizing and protecting trout redds.

A redd is a spawning nest cleared in gravel by the female salmonid (salmon, steelhead, trout). The female forms several depressions in the gravel forming egg pockets into which she deposits her eggs – with the size of a redd dependent on the size of the fish making the nest. While they photograph well from above, they can be difficult for a wading angler to see. Caution and care are the watchwords during spawning seaon.

You can read the post here.

Bozeman Road Trip – And R. L. Winston Rod Company Tour


My son David, and his wife Jamie and daughter Bridget moved to Bozeman Montana last Spring.

Two weeks ago I made a driving trip over to see them and their new house. A flight would have been quicker but I prefer driving and seeing the country whenever possible. And this was my first solo road trip since I got married.

Coming into Montana was a treat. It’s been about a decade since I’d been there; way too long. As I crested the Continental Divide east of Butte, I recalled it’d been 40 years that month since my first visit to Montana and Yellowstone.

I was living in Idaho Falls at the time while training at the Naval Reactors training site 40 miles west of Idaho Falls. Long, long days and not much sleep was the norm; good practice as it turned out for life later in the submarine service.

But the rotating shift schedule we worked did offer 5 consecutive days off once per month. And that gave me the time to make my first visit to Yellowstone; saw a moose in the park. Coming out on a late snowy Sunday afternoon I saw a man wading in the Madison river. That was my first time seeing someone fly fishing.

Back to the current trip.

The time in Bozeman was fun. Got to see the Simms building – the source for so much gear for so many fly fishers. Sampled the local beer and had a great meal at the Montana Ale Works. Did a quick day trip to Big Sky and West Yellowstone. And just had a wonderful time. Driving out of town I was figuring ways to stay.

Rather than heading back on the interstate, I headed southwest to drive through Ennis and Virginia City on the way to Twin Bridges. Ennis may be among the most storied fly fishing towns around and Virginia City is a historic gold mining town.

The final part of the trip was along the Ruby River, a tributary of the Beayerhead River, which joins the Big Hole River near Twin Bridges to become the Jefferson – one of the tributaries of the Missouri River.

Winston Fly Rods

I got to Winston Fly Rods about 20 minutes early for the daily 11AM tour. Winston Fly Rods sits at the southern end of Twin Bridges, Montana, which has a population of 375 per the last census (the entire county has less than 7,000 people). It was quiet except for the wind. With the rivers and mountains, I thought if you were going to choose a place to build fly rods this would be it.

I was greeted by Adam who asked if I wanted to cast any of the rods while waiting. The office was lined with all the rods in the Winston inventory. I chose the Boron III Plus in a six-weight saltwater version and took it out to the casting lawn in front. It was smooth and easy to cast both against and with the wind. Quite a change from the rod it’s replacing – the Boron III SX.

The tour started near the front of the rod building area and gave me an overview of the rod building process – stopping to indicate a door behind me where the green paint is applied that makes Winston rods so beautiful. He said he couldn’t say much about it except that it’s all proprietary and closely guarded. And later in the tour he said the green thread used for trying on the guides was also proprietary to Winston.

He showed me a rod blank after it comes out of the rolling and heating steps – it looked like the natural finish of a Scott rod. He explained why Winston believes the sanding process is required, by saying they find very small numbers of errors that can only be detected by the operator of the sanding machine. Any blank section that fails at this point is destroyed.

We walked through the various stations in the rod building process. Along the way I met a number of the Winston staff who without exception were friendly and extremely proud of the work they did. I talked to the guy who does all the repair work, the woman tying on a guide on a returned bamboo rod (she said can do all guides on a typical rod in about one hour). While she wasn’t there (it was lunch hour) Adam mentioned they have one woman who has been doing all the script work on the rod (model, weight, and serial number) for over 15 years.

We wound up in the room where final inspections are done. Adam showed me a couple of the rods that were marked for minor rework. He looked at one of the rods and saw the problem. Handing me the rod he indicated where the problem was but I couldn’t see it.

Winston has 30 employees working at the facility; in addition, they have 12 contractors in the local community who do the tying of the guides. It was clear to me everyone of those people build every Winston rod with pride and attention to detail.

I had thought going in the tour would be a quick walk through. But I spent almost 50 minutes on the tour and likely could have stayed longer if I had more questions. As I left the tour Adam invited me to come back anytime I was in the area.

I have appreciated Winston rods for some time. But this tour gave me a peek at what truly makes them exceptional – and that’s the people who put so much of themselves into building them.

And I’m going to have take another look at the Boron III Plus rod.