The river giveth . . .

Posted by Al Agnew on September 27th, 2011
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And the river taketh away.

Last fall, and this spring before the snowmelt started, I had some great fishing on the Yellowstone in front of the house. But the record flood this year really changed the river. There is a big island, probably five acres in size, right in front of the house, with a mostly dry channel cutting off the main river toward the near bank which divided that island from another one of about the same size downstream. There is an always flowing side channel between the island and the house, which is narrow and fast alongside the island right in front of the house, but widens downstream. Up until the floods, maybe 10% or less of the river’s flow when through the side channel at normal levels, and at the downstream end of the lower island, about a third of the flow came off the main channel to divide that lower island from another island downstream. There were two nice little pools in the side channel right under the house which held some good trout, and then two more bigger pools below that were full of trout, and a gently swirling backwater where the side channel met that 1/3 of the river’s flow at the downstream end of the second island which was always full of trout. So I had what amounted to my own private little stream about a half mile or more long, with four nice pools plus the backwater where it met part of the main river.

In addition, on the main river there was a big gravel bar starting alongside the upstream end of the island, with a split riffle at the top of the gravel bar that came into an absolutely perfect riffle corner that was a trout factory. Below the riffle corner, there was a long, deep run with gentle current on the near side and gradually faster current as you got out into the middle of the river where I caught some big trout. Past the dry channel between the islands was a long stretch of bank on the lower island with gentle flow where is seemed like the trout were always rising. They also seemed to always be rising in the slow, deep pool above the upper island, and I could wade across the riffle up there at low water and fish the big, deep flat above.

And where the 1/3 of the river met my little “private” side channel at the downstream end of all this, there was a really nice drop-off where the riffle met slower water that was also great fishing and easily wadeable, and then I could even wade along either bank downstream. And then there was that isolated pool farther downstream that I could easily get to and which produced the big browns this spring.

Sounds like heaven, doesn’t it?

Well, the river is now finally getting down close to normal after the floods, and the changes are extensive.

My little side channel is still there. It looks like it will probably flow a bit more water than before, which could be a good thing. The two pools under the house are still going to be there, although they are still very fast right now. But downstream alongside the second island where there were two more pools, it is now a lot wider and much deeper, with so far no delineation of pools and riffles. Below a riffle right where the dry channel that divided the islands comes in there is a riffle, and from there on it is nothing but a long, gently flowing, run, too deep to wade easily except along the island bank, and too wide to reach the other side with a normal cast.

And out on the main river channel, the changes are even more pronounced. Where there was a gravel bar alongside the island before, there is now a deep, fast channel carrying close to half the river’s flow. The big flat upstream is a lot faster and totally unfishable by wading. My riffle corner is gone, replaced by a gravel island that I probably won’t be able to reach because it’s on the other side of half the river flow. The gravel island extends all the way down what was that long deep run before. The half of the flow that goes along the island now cuts through the lower part of that gravel island in what will now be riffle corner at the downstream end, but it’s not a good one to fish, because the “corner” is a pronounced back eddy with a very sharp seam where the two meet. You want a softer seam, with the fast water on one side and just slower water moving the same direction on the other side of the seam.

The long gently flowing run along the bank of the downstream island is also mostly gone. It’s either dead water below the big eddy at the riffle above, or it’s faster water where the main current swings in close in preparation for going down the riffle at the downstream end of the second island. And almost the whole river now goes down that chute at the downstream end where 1/3 or it went before, with a very sharp, deep seam where my side channel backwater meets it. There appears to be no way to fish anywhere in that area now by wading. And the whole river going along below makes the bank downstream hard to get to and wade, and it has also totally washed out and covered what was the isolated pool on a little side channel where I caught the big browns.

I’d say my fishing prospects wading from the house are going to be about 20% of what they were before. I went out yesterday afternoon and thoroughly explored most of what I could reach to fish, and caught a few nice rainbows on nymphs. But I came back into the house and told Mary I was really bummed because of all the changes. She just looked at me and said, “But you’re still right on the river, with 50 miles of river within a half-hour’s drive, instead of being 1500 miles away.”

That kinda cuts right to the heart of the matter.

On a related note of the river giving and taking away…on the day before we flipped the raft and I lost a rod, I’d been sliding the canoe down a very steep bank into the river right below the house when it got away from me and went sliding off into the river, half-filling with water and floating some gear out, including, of all things, the butt end of my four piece St. Croix Legend Ultra 5 wt, with Lamson reel attached. It sank in fairly fast and very murky water and I lost it.

I’ve been watching that area as the river went down. There was a little fast, chute there, divided from the rest of my little side channel by a shallow bar that is now out of water. At the downstream end of the little chute was a much slower, deep eddy below the bar. I thought there was a chance that the rod butt had settled into that deep eddy.

The other day I went down and spent a good hour groping around in the now chest deep, very slow water, and happy days! Found the rod butt. I’d called St. Croix, but they’d said they couldn’t do anything about it because, although their rods have a lifetime guarantee, you have to send them the butt end because that’s where they get the info needed for replacement parts! The best they could do for me was to send me a new rod for a small percentage off retail, which would have been about the same price I could have bought one from Cabelas.

The cork handle had gotten surprisingly chewed up in the relatively little time it had been underwater. Don’t know exactly how that could have happened, since it had only gone down about 30 feet of fast water before settling into the slow water eddy. And the whole reel and rod butt were really gunked up with silt, sand, and algae. But fortunately fly reels are very simple mechanical affairs, and I was able to take the reel apart, give it a good cleaning, replace the fly line, and it’s as good as it was. And the rod is still very serviceable, just with a little uglier handle than before.

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