Thursday, April 21, 2016

Montana mountain-lake ice-out schedules

May 14, 2010 at Hebgen Lake.
Of the insights gained from doing research on mountain-lake fisheries, the ice-out and ice-up times are among the most valuable. No angler wants to to hike miles uphill, possibly through snow, to an iced-over lake. The risk makes hitting a mountain lake at the lustful ice-out days a task that many won't try.

Ice-out depends on a number of factors; it's not quite as simple as ice peeling off uniformly as you go up. The factors include recent weather, the prior winter's weather and snowpack, exposure to the sun, the amount of water flowing through via inlets and outlets, and of course the lake's elevation. For example, note in the list below how Hebgen Lake at about 6,500 feet actually tends to ice-out two or three weeks before nearby Cliff and Wade Lakes, which are at about 6,250 feet. My guess is that this is due to the fact that Hebgen has a good push of water flowing through via the Madison River, while Cliff and Wade have small insignificant tributaries and outflows (both get adequate sunlight and would have had similar weather).

One way to get a rough idea if the mountain lake you have in mind might have iced-out is to drive to a lake like Hebgen Lake or Hyalite Reservoir. It will at least give you an idea about other lakes at that elevation, and you can estimate uphill from there. Very approximately, ice out ascends about 5,000 feet every couple of weeks.

May 20, 2008 at Hyalite Reservoir.
Expect earlier ice-outs and later ice-ups as climate change continues, but the following is what I have learned.

From earliest to latest: 
  • Hebgen Lake (about 6,500 feet): End of April-Early May
  • Cliff and Wade Lakes (about 6,250 feet): Mid-May*
  • Hyalite Reservoir (about 6,700 feet): Mid-late May
  • Yellowstone Lake (about 7,800 feet): May 20-ish.
  • Pioneer Mountains at 7,500 feet: June 1
  • Pioneer Mountains at 8,000 feet: June 10
  • Bell Lake (about 8,750 feet, Tobacco Roots): Mid-June
  • Pioneer Mountains at 8,500: June 20
  • Gneiss Lake (9,554 feet, Tobacco Roots): July 1
  • Pioneer Mountains at 9,000 feet: July 1
  • Twin Lakes (about 8,200 feet, North Meadow Creek in the Tobacco Roots): Early-mid July, though this might be an anomaly
  • Pioneer Mountains at 9,200 feet: July 10
Of course this schedule is about as predictable as the annual salmonfly hatches, but it's something. Hike with slightly more confidence!

*Heard a report this year of Wade Lake being ice-free on May 3.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Socializing with skwalas at Stevensville

We've had some pretty pleasant days on the Bitterroot River during skwala season, the best coming with an outfitter who was helping me write an article for Northwest Fly Fishing magazine. That Tuesday in late March of 2013 was a total romp, complete with long, sparkling westslopes and dry flies.

A male specimen, as Bitterroot legend John Foust explained to Liz while waiting at the takeout. 
But I, like many, look forward to seeing the crowd of trailers at the put-in about as much as I look forward to watching the Yankees trounce the Twins. I'll be over it as soon as we catch a trout, but until then, I'll need to stew a bit.

This year, we decided to avoid the rush, but somehow at 10am on Saturday April 2nd, 2016 under sunny skies and a 70-degree forecast, we were the first boat at Darby Bridge. Second, it turned out - one boat was below our view in the water and had already shuttled their trailer. As we wadered up, a third arrived. But we quickly learned that it isn't the sheer numbers that cause the grief.

Our trip was planned around visiting an old friend who is renting an cabin on gorgeous Kootenai Creek, a Bitterroot tributary in Stevensville. She grew up an outdoorswoman in Butte, but is just now getting adept with flies. And she gets it.

Of course the three boats launched roughly simultaneously, so we hustled to try to get separated. But as soon as we stopped to let a boat get ahead, that boat would stop behind us. And as soon as we decided to row down to get ahead, a boat would push off in front of us. Three boats on a seven-mile stretch, all within two bends (later deemed the "two-girl-one-guy-green-raft-with-a-dog-who-chases-waterfowl float" or the 372 float). Eventually we stopped for a long lunch and lost them, but other boats had showed up by then. The Bitterroot's "social" anglers.

Fly-shop advice was to use low-profile, skinny skwala patterns, or something the trout hadn't already seen. We thought we'd do the latter by fishing Brindle 'Chutes, a local pattern that matches March browns. But there was nary a March brown on our stretch, so we thought "terrestrial X skwala hybrid", and fished a Turk's Tarantula. We didn't catch tons, but we caught some good ones, all on dries.

Bitterroot bass. 
I usually chuckle when my buddies rant about the "jack-offs" who've beaten us to the river, or the "clowns" who dare share our five-mile stretch of river. But Saturday, I was ranting. Bunch of oblivious, clingy, communal-fishing rubes. It does not take a village ...

But all of this said, we'll be back to visit Mary and the Bitterroot socialites soon.

The Outcast PAC 1300 - a perfect boat for the Bitterroot.