Hot Water, Hatch Charts, and Whodunits

by Quinn Grover on July 11, 2012

in Water on the Brain

Josh Bergen wrote about the slightly alarming rise of water temperatures on some of our Western rivers over at his blog Troutbugs. I had been thinking about this same topic on July 4 when I drove up to the lower Henry’s Fork at 8 a.m. hoping for a PMD hatch and didn’t see a fish rise. The lower HF is a system that is really affected by water temperatures. Ever year you can count on the majority of sections shutting down during the heat of the summer. On a good year, that doesn’t happen until mid July or later. On a bad year it happens in late June. This year seems to be somewhere in between and perhaps getting worse. We had a mild winter but the snowpack was good. Spring was wet then dry. June was then hot and dry all over. The story of this summer might end up that it could have been very, very good, but it just got too hot and too dry too quickly. The country as a whole is drying out like a box of tinder.

All this reminds me of the relatively fickle nature of fly fishing for trout and river systems in general. I like to plan fishing trips. Every year I spend some inordinate amount of winter planning where I’ll spend each summer weekend. Those plans are routinely shot to dust by a variety of factors—some related to weather and others related to life’s unpredictability. The longer I have lived in this trout-laden place we call The West, the more I have come to realize that you are often better off not planning that far in advance. We all want to plan a big trip, but doing so might require us to take a guess in January about where to go fishing in July. That, my friends, can be a dangerous proposition. High water, low water, bugs or no bugs—these things and half a dozen more are really hard to predict.

Which makes me think of hatch charts. I like hatch charts. They are great to look at, horizontal lines filled with hope and possibility. I love to study them in guidebooks and on websites. They seem to distill so much of what is mysterious down to a measurable truth. They seem to, even if they don’t. Sometimes the bugs don’t emerge. Or if they do, sometimes the fish won’t rise. Sometimes the bugs come a month early and last only three days and the fish go insane for those three days and then hunker down for two weeks. Try capturing that in a hatch chart. This all seems terribly inconvenient, and goes somewhat against the narrative we would like to believe about fly fishing for trout in the West—a narrative built using a thousand Fly Fisherman magazine articles, six dozen where-to-fish books, and several hundred finely manicured hatch charts. We want to think that the fish will rise at 10 a.m. on Wednesday the 12th when the PMDs emerge, and will keep rising all day long to a variety of hatches, finishing up with the evening caddis. This does happen. But it doesn’t always happen, even when you expect it to. Such mystery is part of what makes fly fishing for trout in the West so great. You head out the door and you never know what you might get. You might get nothing.

The important thing, it seems to me, is that you head out the door.