Montana’s rivers are running high, wide and muddy right now, and things typically won’t improve much for maybe two months.
That all depends on rainfall and snowmelt. A cool, wet spring will prolong runoff into mid-June; a hot, dry period will clear up rivers and streams faster but not bode well for fisheries later in the summer.
So what’s an angler to do to catch fish? Better yet, what’s a fish to do to find food?
We might give up dry flies and switch to worms. Fish will stick with their vision, smell and taste.
Fish are amazing creatures. They swim better than a gold medal Olympian and breathe underwater. Of course, they have fins for swimming and gills for breathing, but it works for them. They are certainly better underwater than our arms, legs and lungs.
Fish do have the same five senses we do, but they have adapted to a life beneath the surface.
Take vision, for example. You can tell a lot about how well a fish sees by the size of its eyes. Members of the salmonid family — salmon, trout, grayling — all have big eyes for their body size. That means they can see well. Walleye, northern pike and bass fall into this big-eye category, too.
While they may not be able to tell the difference between a curveball and a fastball, they can distinguish the outline or shape of an insect or small fish. That’s one reason why a fishing lure that resembles a bug or baitfish will work.
Then there are fish with small eyes for their body size and probably poor vision. This category includes pallid and shovelnose sturgeon, and paddlefish.
Those species swim in the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers of central and eastern Montana. In the case of the sturgeon, they are right on the bottom, where it is dark, muddy and things go bump even in the day. So they find their food using their senses of smell and taste.
Our sense of smell is OK. Not great like a bear or dog, but it works for us. Fish, however, can pick up scents underwater.
Odors are simply chemicals that float through air or water. Fish have olfactory senses like we do. What they don’t have is a nose. Their smell sensors are in their skin, face and, in some cases, fins.
They have a similar setup with their taste buds. We taste things when they land on our tongue. Depending on the species, fish have taste buds — nerve endings really — on their lips, skin, or even their barbels (whiskers), if they have any. Burbot, catfish and sturgeon also have electroreceptors that are able to detect electric cellular signals from other animals.
Which brings us back to finding food in muddy water. Some fish species will locate food by taste and smell alone.
Others, like trout, will either find a bit of clearer water, such as at the mouth of a tributary, or they won’t eat. For a long time, they may not eat, going without food for months.
That’s because they are cold blooded and do not need food to warm themselves up in cold water like we do. But that’s a topic for another day.
For now, take your sandwich and candy bar, go sit on a bank, toss out a worm and bobber and think of a life underwater.