A Mid-Winter's Delight

By Anthony Quirini

These past few weeks in the northern Rockies have been outright warm for January. In fact it is one of the only years I recall the highs being in the 50's for days on end. For we fly-fishers, this warm trend has broken up a lot of the ice and has provided us with fall-type fishing.

Typically, winter fishing in Montana means your rod and line are covered in ice, and after hiking back to the truck you have to use a rock to bust off the ice from your boots before thawing them under the heater so you can unlace them. But this winter I was on the Shoshone in Wyoming and the Yellowstone and Madison rivers in Montana enjoying the sun and warmth.

There's a price, though. Montana has been in a seven-year drought, and this year's snow pack is averaging 61 percent of its average--levels not seen since 1977. Unusually warm nights have been melting snow in the high country; if the state doesn't see significant amounts of snowfall before April, this summer could be very dry. That will mean stream closures, national forest lockouts because of fire, low water levels, and higher water temps that stress and kill fish. So far this winter is comparable to those of 1988 and 2001, both of which were followed by summers of rampant wildfires and dried up rivers.

I remember fishing numerous rivers those summers and seeing the effects. On the Gallatin one day in 2001, I was walking along the rock bar and there was only a small little stream and pools full of fish, trapped because of the drought. Those fish most likely died. If they didn't get caught by animals or humans, they probably froze solid in the winter. I remember the Gallatin when it was a meandering stream with plenty of fish. But this summer it will probably be dry. The Impact these droughts have on our rivers does damage for years, and it takes time for nature to restore itself.

This year's mild winter is providing excellent fishing, and Rocky Mountain anglers are enjoying the opportunities. Well, it surely won't last. Winter will come back someday. Enjoy it while you can.

Anthony Quirini, is a former reporter for The Madisonian, in Ennis, Montana, and is now a freelance writer and photographer based in Bozeman, Montana. He has been fly fishing for over 25 years.