2020 has come and gone, and won’t be a year any of us easily forget. In our quiet corner of the world, the pandemic made for a bipolar sort of season, with cancelations landing on the heels of new bookings and vice versa. Ultimately we were busy enough to keep afloat, and we are looking forward to what the coming season may bring. Chiefly, lots of healthy outdoor fun in these wild waters with friends, old and new.
The 2020 fishing season on the Kootenai River began with a wet, cool spring and late snows in the high country that were slow to melt. We had amazing pre-runoff fishing all of April and into May. Dry-fly fishing was phenomenal during hatches, and at other times nymphing produced studly pre-spawn rainbows with blazing red stripes. The whole state was in lockdown at that time, and we were the only ones on the river, sheltering in our drift boat and feeling grateful to be there.
The river kicked up mid-May for the annual sturgeon flows, and combined with the heaviest snowmelt period to make for a freeway ride on the big river. At the Idaho state line it hit 30,000 cfs and stayed there for quite some time. And we were out guiding in it! Fish could be found wherever there was holding water, and once we’d found those spots, it was necessary to park awhile. Both to rest those burning rowing arms and because fish were stacked on top of one another there. In the unlikely event the angler was feeling left out of the upper body workout, these spring fish had lots of arm-throttling spunk. No wet socks, these.
Summer conditions on the big river were slow to come, but the upside was tributary magic. Thanks to all the late snowmelt, we were gifted a longer and later floating season on the smaller streams than we typically receive. These riverine gems that only fish from a boat for one or two weeks a year, are among our favorite places on the planet to wet a line, or really, just be. Some hold large fish and some small, some brown trout and some cutthroat, some brookies and bows. But all are pristine and wild and we won’t so much as type their names.
The Kootenai started to fall into shape towards the end of July with flows hitting the 10,000 cfs mark. From then on out it was a go for big bugs on top, and great fishing overall, with just a few of the requisite head-scratching days we’ve come to expect from such a large and dynamic wild fishery. This river keeps us on our toes, and we are that much better for it.
Summer weather was largely high and dry and that trend continued on into October. We touched a hundred degrees several times and were getting highs in the 80’s the last week in September. It was a nice time to be out on the water, well into the autumn months.
From the river’s start at the dam on down to Bonner’s Ferry, this year we’ve seen some incredible hatches. March through June, we had fun with hydrapsyche caddis, March brown mayflies, nemoura stoneflies, blue-winged olives. Mid-June-September brought grannom & tan caddis, pale morning duns, nocturnal stoneflies, craneflies, hecubas/little yellow drakes (there is some debate among our resident experts as to which). A lot of the summer bugs stayed into fall, (September-November) and transitioned into October caddis, bwo’s and mahogany duns. Pseudocleon mayflies, aka ‘the Tiny Olive’ were big on the late season menu as well.
Terrestrials were very much on the menu this year, and every year. The ants, oh the ants. Fish this hatch on the Kootenai when the trout are up and you won’t fast forget it. We had plenty of opportunities this season, with multiple pulses up and down the river from mid August through October. It’s a maddening spectacle, to say the least. Stinkbugs, grasshoppers, beetles, the odd cicada sighting. Pretty much all the creepy crawlies had a good year.
One trend of note is that 2020 was the year of the Westslope Cutthroat in the Kootenai River. River-wide, from Libby Dam down to Bonner’s Ferry, (a stretch of over seventy miles spanning two states) we caught cutthroat more consistently and in higher numbers relative to rainbows than any year in recent memory. The majority of those, cookie cutter footballs in the 12-14 inch range. We have a few theories about why this may be, (both ID and MT currently manage the Kootenai as a wild fishery and do not stock trout) but all agree it is a good trend regardless. We love our hungry cutties.
We’re looking good so far. At last check the Kootenai River Basin was at 105% of normal snowpack for this time of year, and water temps are still up in the forties, which is excellent for overwintering trout. It’s been a mild winter in the lower elevations to date, but plenty of precipitation holding up high where it’s needed. All in all, we’re off to a good start! Hope to see you out on the water,
Rita & Johnny