It had been a weird summer, which should have been predictable, seeing as how it followed a long and brutal winter and a short spring that seemed to last just a couple of weeks. It’s not all that uncommon in Idaho — this winter-turns-into-summer thing. One day, it’s 26 degrees and snowing sideways, and then, a week later, it’s tickly 80 and the lawn needs mowing. Badly.
As anglers, it kind of threw us on our ears. Spring runoff is always a thing in the Rockies. Even during low-water years, we get a good, dependable few weeks where we deal with high water before things settle out. With all the snow we had over the winter, we figured we were in for a long spring of turbid rivers and heavy snowmelt. Mud season, as the old-timers used to call it, before the weather started to change and defining “normal” became something of a crapshoot.
But we persevered. There may be no subset of outdoor recreators who can better attest to the oddities of the current climate than anglers, whose pastime rests on important factors that start and end with one simple data point: water temperature. Too cold, and the fish are sluggish and loathe to move around. Too warm, and even catch-and-release angling can prove deadly to trout.
So we watch the weather. Relentlessly. If it’s 95 in the valley, that likely means it’s 85 up high, and that means water temperatures are creeping up into the not-so-hospitable digits where trout fishing becomes an exercise in patience. Of course, we can consider a few other things, like night-time temperatures, rain, cloud cover, etc.
I think every trout angler these days has a favorite weather app they can pop upon their phones to roughly gauge the weather where their favorite trout swim. It’s today’s equivalent of sticking your finger in your mouth and then holding the digit into the air to determine which way the wind is blowing.
So, when we picked a week to load up the camper and head up to our favorite little trout-fishing destination, the week was chosen deliberately. I started watching the weather weeks earlier. I looked at 10-day forecasts, nighttime temps, precipitation predictions, wind speed and frequency. I factored it all in. The week we chose, given the oddities of the season (much hotter than “normal,” and hotter later into the summer), was damn near perfect. Nighttime lows in the upper 40s and low 50s, and daytime highs in the 70s.
“Fishing should be really good,” I told my buddy, Lorin. “I think we’re timing this just right.”
So, there we were, covered in cockleburs after a bushwhack through the bottoms to a spot on that I was fairly confident would hold some of the creek’s larger cutthroats. We’d done OK on the bottom section of the stream — we each picked up a few fish, but nothing I was terribly impressed with, honestly. This stream gets an annual run of lake-dwelling fish that move up into the high country under the cover of high water. Most years, the big “lake fish” hang out all summer, enjoying the stream’s plentiful insect life and, later in the year, and an obnoxious few weeks when a fat, foam grasshopper pattern is likely the fly you both start and finish with.
But this year, things were different. As we fished our way up the canyon below our chosen campsite, we noticed that the fish seemed to top out at about 10 inches. Definitely not migratory trout. But here, as we plucked the pesky burs from our fishing pants, a little spring-fed creek that comes out of the ground at a hand-numbing chill, feeds the larger stream. When the creek’s water temperatures rise in July and into early August, this is where an enterprising angler might be able to pluck a few migratory fish from the stream.
And, while the water temperature on this day was a perfectly hospitable 60 degrees, I figured the bigger fish would still be nosed up into the colder current, especially during the hottest stretch of the day.
No dice. More 8-inch dinks.
Had the migrants gone back to the lake? It was certainly possible.
“I know a couple of other spots where we might see some bigger fish,” I told Lorin hopefully. After a tough morning of hard-won fishing for small-ish cutties, I wasn’t optimistic. But Lorin’s one of those guys who’s fairly casual about things. He’s not an avid angler, but he’s an interested one. When he’s fishing, he’s into it. And he’s appreciative when any fish deems his fly worth a look.
I appreciated the pressure valve — I spent the week before talking up the little creek as a great place to go and perhaps catch a few nice fish in small water, well away from the crowds in a stunning setting. So far, the creek hadn’t lived up to its hype, and I was trying like hell to figure out why.
We had plenty of water. Temperatures were good. The weather was ideal. Bugs everywhere. But no big fish.
And, when we got to my dependable little run where, in years past, a big cutty or two would kind of ghost out from under the cutbank and grab my Fat Albert, nothing much happened. We each managed a few 10-inch trout — gorgeous and sleek and peppered with spots, but tiny nonetheless.
I was downright apoplectic. The fish picked this summer to leave early? This summer, with just the right water temperatures and meadows so full of grasshoppers that they’re a nuisance?
So we kept walking upstream, farther from camp and, in my estimation, farther from the possibility that we’d actually catch a lake fish or two. I led the way, a bit despondent. Lorin followed along happily, pointing out the beauty of the setting and, more than once, uttering something perfectly delightful.
“I don’t think we could have asked for a more perfect day, Christopher,” he would say. Then he’d stop over a gravel bar and pocket an interesting rock or two for his tumbler back home. “I sure am glad you let me tag along today.”
I nodded and smiled at the optimism. Over the years, Lorin has become something of a mentor to me — a friend I can count on for advice as I’ve ventured into the world of entrepreneurship.
“I believe in you,” he says, all the time. “I know you’re going to be successful.”
What I would have paid to hear him say, “I believe there’s a big God-damned cutthroat around the next bend. I know we’re going to catch it.”
It’s tough to let the world get you down if you have somebody like Lorin walking along with you.
We rounded a bend and stared up at some water that, over the years, has been fairly disappointing to me. Parts of it look good, but, for some reason, I’ve never done very well fishing it. As we walked past a little scoured-out pool of deep, green water just slightly bigger than the average bathtub, I flipped a quick backhand cast against the bank.
The Stimulator bobbed in the current for a second or two, and then it disappeared into the mouth of the biggest fish we’d seen all day. Not one of the monsters that this creek is known for giving up now and then, but a solid 15 inches of lake-run Snake River fine-spotted cutthroat trout.
“Whoa!” Lorin exclaimed. “That’s a nice one!”
The fish pulsed into the current and, after a quick fight, I released it back into the creek. Then, I looked at the bathtub-sized hole and then looked at Lorin.
“Flip your hopper into that pool,” I told him. “There might be another one in there.”
He did as instructed and, sure enough, another migratory fish grabbed the dry fly, and the dance was on. Lorin’s laughter echoed off the bluffs around the meadow, and, for a quick instant, everything seemed normal again. Good water. Good temperatures. Good God-damned fish.
“I knew we’d get into them, Christopher,” he said as we walked back through the woods to camp. “I just knew it.”
“Me, too,” I said, trying to figure out if I was just saying it to make Lorin feel good, or if I was trying to convince myself of it. For a few minutes, “normal” returned to the creek, and it was greeted with such optimism and such enthusiasm.
And, while I glare into an uncertain future for trout and trout fishing thanks to a warming world where “normal” is fleeting anymore, I was just happy to have a taste of it again.
Perhaps more importantly, I was optimistic that “normal” might last a bit longer. From Lorin’s lips to God’s ears, I sure hope it does.