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Montana trout suffer mysterious disease, with Wade Fellin

Description: This week my guest is guide and lodge owner Wade Fellin [45:48] of Big Hole River Lodge. Wade is on the vanguard of trout health in Montana, particularly in the Big Hole Valley, and they have been seeing trout die at the time of year when water temperatures and flows are optimum, which is concerning. Wade shares with us how they are obtaining samples of trout to send to a lab, and some possible reasons for this problem, and what might be done to address the issue. He also makes it clear that trout fishing in Montana is still awesome and that people should not cancel a trip or not plan a trip. Fishing is still great but we need to perhaps take even more care in releasing fish—and in deciding how many fish to catch in any given day.
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Podcast Transcript:

Tom: Hi and welcome to "The Orvis Fly Fishing Podcast." This is your host, Tom Rosenbauer. And my guest this week is my friend guide and lodge owner, Wade Fellin on the Big Hole River in Montana. And Wade is quite concerned as are a number of people in Montana about a mysterious disease that appears to be killing trout and it's not water temperature related. That's kind of the head-scratching part of it. It's happening in June and in October when the water temperature should be good, but the trout are...occasional trout are dying and Wade's concerned about it as he should be. Wade has been a guardian of rivers in his area for many years, and he pays attention to these things.
And as Wade points out in the podcast, it's not a reason not to go to Montana, it's a reason to maybe take a little more care when you're releasing fish. But the fishing is still good, there's plenty of fish around. Southwest Montana is still one of the best places in the world to go trout fishing this time of year, but it's something that we should all be aware of. And hopefully, they will find out what's killing the trout, and if there's a way to mitigate it. And another point that Wade makes is that trout populations can bounce back very quickly. If the water temperatures are good and the flows are good and the habitat is good, trout populations can bounce back. So, they're probably more bigger fish around and maybe fewer fish, but I would not cancel your trip to Montana and I wouldn't hesitate about taking a trip to Montana. I'm going out there myself this year. So, it's just is something that we should all be aware of when we're fishing in southwest Montana.
And I just wanted to thank everyone that sent me an email or a text or whatever asking if I was okay and people at Orvis were okay after the recent catastrophic floods in Vermont. And actually, we were lucky in this part of the state. Our rivers, as I record this, are still pretty high and almost unfishable, but we didn't have any catastrophic floods in our area in southwestern Vermont. We had high water that was probably not even as high as a good runoff year in April, but it's unusual to have a flood this time of year. But parts of Vermont were devastated by this flood.
And, you know, if you want to help out, if you go online and look for the Vermont Flood Response and Recovery Fund, there is a place where you can donate to help people get back on their feet, particularly the farmers in Vermont, which a lot of them have lost part of their crops for the year because of this disastrous flood. So, thank you all. And also, thank you all for sending me some voice files this week. I didn't have any voice files for a couple of weeks that I could use on the air, but I got lots of good ones this week. So, thank you. And keep your questions coming.
This is your podcast and it wouldn't be the podcast it is without you. And I want to thank all of you...I don't do this enough, I want to thank all of you for your support and for your great questions. So, without further ado, let's do the Fly Box. Fly Box is where you send in questions and I try to answer them. You can send me your questions via email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. You can either just attach your question in text in your email or you can attach a voice file if you want. So, the first one is an email from John from Indiana.
"A couple of things I'd like to share. First, I want to thank you for your response to my question on the April 7th episode. I was having issues with bass flies hitting the water in my backcast when I'm fishing in waist-deep water. As per your recommendation, I took a bit of video footage to examine the problem. I started with the full setup, then subtracted the fly, then the leader, then my sink tip taking note of how my cast looks at each shape. I took my sink tip down from 12 feet to 4 feet, which really helped. The major factor, though, was definitely the leader. I dropped my leader length from 9 foot to 6 foot and increased the strength from 15 pound 8 pound taper to 25 to 12 pound taper. No more backcast issue. I mistakenly thought leaders had to be long and thin as possible. So, thank you for helping me dispel my ignorance about leaders.
Second, just wanted to point out something I've been seeing a lot lately in tying tutorials on YouTube, the disturbingly gratuitous use of UV Resin as a head cement. I get it. It looks super cool when you hit it with the light and the little poof of smoke sizzles up. Maybe it gets some ASMR clicks. But I can't keep silent any longer. So, many people are using it as a head cement on every fly they tie. I've been trying for six years, and I definitely went hog wild with the stuff in my first year but quickly realized how lacking it is at locking down the thread. One rowdy fish can chew it right off and start the unraveling. I have been quite stuck at just how many YouTube tiers out there, even a few with some serious clout, have been teaching the masses to finish flies with resin. I'm actually starting to see more and more people asking why other folks aren't using it.
Sorry if you've covered this topic before, but even if you have, I think everyone really needs to understand the difference between resin and head cement and super glue, lest they suffer flimsy flies that fail. Can you please shed a little light on the appropriate applications for resin? By the way, I have absolutely nothing against UV resin. I use the heck out of this stuff appropriately, though. Lastly, a quick question. One of my favorite products is the flexible deep penetrating head cement called Softex. I hate buying it, though, because it comes in a big wide-mouth jar and it dries out long before I can ever use it all. I've been told it can be reconstituted or thin with toluene, but I can't find this stuff anywhere. Do you have any storage success suggestions?"
All right, well, first of all, thank you, John, for sharing your experience of videoing yourself with casting. That is a really great tool, and boy, you really attacked it properly. You eliminated each variable one at a time and you corrected the problem. And so, thank you for sharing that. That's something that probably we should all do. Regarding UV cement, yeah, I don't know if I've mentioned this on the podcast, but I have mentioned in my live fly-tying sessions frequently, is that it's not a panacea and I don't think it's a substitute for head cement. You are exactly right, the UV cure resin does not soak very well into the thread.
And so, all you're doing is coating the thread with a hard substance and if that cracks off or peels off, which it will do, then your fly is going to fall apart. So, yeah, I absolutely agree with you. And the places I use UV cure head cement are things where I want to put a coating on something and I want it to cure quickly. So, where I use it are sometimes bodies, quill bodies or other bodies like on a Perdigon, where I want the body to be hard and shiny and thin, and I don't want to wait for head cement to dry and I don't want to be rotating my vise so that the cement that I put on doesn't droop in one spot or another.
When cases on things like Copper Johns, it's really helpful. Sometimes on big streamer heads where you want a big glossy head, we used to use five-minute epoxy on those which I think is a little bit stronger than the UV cure epoxy actually, but you'd have to rotate the fly as it dried because it took five minutes to set. And so, the UV cure makes that a lot quicker. So, yeah, just be careful where you use it. It's not going to be as strong as head cement or super glue. And, you know, head cement is also great for any time when you want the glue or the adhesive to penetrate the fly and make it more durable.
When you put UV cure glue on something, it's a surface coating and it doesn't really soak in well, and it doesn't really cure well underneath the surface. Now, I've found that, you know, you can sometimes take your flies that are coated with UV and put them in the sunlight for a day or so to really, really cure it. But yeah, it's not a panacea, and just be careful where you use it and places where you really need it to soak in and have something durable, use regular head cement or super glue. Super glue is great, but it does leave kind of a whitish residue, which, you know, a lot of times we like a little shiny head on our flies and not that whitish residue, but it works well.
Regarding the Softex, I didn't know about that. I didn't know what kind of thinner to use. I use Softex as well. So, I went to an expert, Marcos at Hairline. Hairline is one of the biggest distributors of fly-tying materials. You can't buy from them directly as a consumer, but you've seen their great materials on store shelves. And Marcos said, "Yes, that's correct, Softex used to be thin with toluene." Toluene, It's a restricted substance, I know for sure in California, but I think in other places, it's toxic and it's not good stuff to have around, it's not good stuff to be breathing, which is probably why you couldn't find it.
But Marcos says that odorless mineral spirits should work to thin that Softex, so I would try some odorless mineral spirits. And then he would suggest also, as it gets used up, place some stainless steel ball bearings or glass marbles in a jar to raise the level in the jar so less air is trapped with cement once the lid is placed on the top. Also, a good habit is to clean the jar rim and cap threads prior to screwing on the lid. It prevents the lid from permanently bonding with the jar. Also, another trick that I've learned from...someone was listening to one of my fly-tying podcasts or watching one of my fly-tying podcast, is to put a little dubbing wax on the threads and the lid of your head cement jars or Softex jars. That'll help seal it up and it won't dry and make it hard to get the head cement or Softex lid loose.
Ross: Hey, Tom, it's Ross in Colorado. I have a tip for you and a question for you this week. You had a listener on your podcast a few weeks ago that was asking about what to do with his rod when he was landing a fish and I think you covered that really well, "I just throw my rod on the bank," or in the water or tuck it under my arm or whatever like you do. But I didn't hear you mention one of the big things that I do, which is using a long-handled net. I've found that tucking that long-handled net between your hamstring and your calf when you kneel down to deal with the fish lets you have sort of a hands-free live well where the fish can be wet and happy and catching his breath. You can mess with your gear or catch your breath or pop the hook out of his mouth or take a picture or do whatever you need to do and have your hands almost completely free.
On top of the fact that having that long-handled net lets you really reach out and scoop those fish so that you don't wind up high-sticking one and potentially breaking your rod tip. So, that's worked really well for me. I was hoping it might help somebody else out there. As far as the question goes, I have been dry fly fishing for quite a while. I love it, it's my favorite form of fly fishing. But I recently started doing it on a glass rod for the first time, and I love casting that thing, I love fishing with it, I love the way that it feels. But I have noticed that I have a much lower hookup ratio on the glass rod than I do on my graphite rods.
The fish still come up and eat the fly when I set the hook, but I find that I either missed the set entirely often or I get a really tenuous set that's sort of in there for a second or two before the fish shakes it. I suspect that's because the rod is just so soft and so flexi, it just doesn't have the same backbone or the same force as a graphite rod. But it has become enough of a pattern that it's a little frustrating. And so, I thought I would ask if there's a special trick to setting with a glass rod? Do you have to, like, double-hand that thing into orbit to make sure you set the hook? Are you setting at a certain angle? Is there some other trick that I don't know about? I sure love to keep fishing it but I also would really hate to be losing, you know, a dozen fish a day to a sketchy hook set. So, appreciate your time. Thanks for everything you do and thanks for the answers.
Tom: Well, Ross, that's a great tip, using a long-handled net. Yes, I use the long-handle wide-mouth Orvis net and I'll never go back to standard net because I have the same problem. I have short arms and I can't reach out as well. And I think Jesse Heller mentioned this on a podcast I did with him a few months ago about holding the net between your thighs when you're playing a fish or something, gives you kind of a third hand. So, great tip and great to be reminded of that. Regarding your hook sets on glass rods, yeah, you do have to pay a little bit more attention to your hook sets.
And it's interesting because those of us who fished before graphite, when we use just fiberglass and bamboo rods, when we went to graphite, you know, the graphite rods were lighter, they were great for a longer cast, they were great for line speed. But we pop off a lot of fish because we were used to setting the hook quicker and harder with our glass and bamboo rods. And with graphite, the energy was transmitted so much more quickly without as much vibration that we would pop fish off. So, what I suggest with your fiberglass rod is, yeah, you don't want to refund the thing like a tournament bass angler.
But you do want to set the hook just a little bit harder and a little bit firmer and a little bit quicker because fiberglass and bamboo are slower rods, softer rods. And to get a good hook set, you're going to have to put a little bit more pressure on the fish at first. Also, fiberglass and bamboo will bounce a little bit more. They don't have this quicker recovery rate as graphite. And so, you know, that bouncing sometimes gives you a not-so-good hookset. So, just be a little firmer a little quicker with your hookset.
Here's an email from Michael from Eugene, Oregon. "First off, I want to say I've been listening to your podcast for a couple of months now and just can't get enough. Being a novice fly fisherman myself, the podcast has been a huge source of information that has proven very helpful. Also, a lovely distraction for my studies here at the University of Oregon. Now, for my question. The waders I've had for a few years now, some hundred-dollar Frog Toggs have just now decided to leak on me. About 10 minutes after first getting in the water, both legs and feet are soaked. Since we are in peak summer conditions here in Oregon, this is not a huge deal, but I'm now in the market for some new waders.
Here's my issue, however. I'm a broke college student, plain and simple. Anyway, if I have to drop $100 or $200 on something, it's a big deal. So, whenever I can get used gear, I do, but I have a feeling I may not be able to do that in this scenario. So, with what's being said, what do you suggest? Should I look for used waders? If so, where do you suggest I do? Is this something I shouldn't skimp out on and just bite the bullet and purchasing new waders? I would love to hear what you look for in waders and which you'd recommend for someone like me. If it's any help, I usually fish for trout and steelhead and do a fair bit of hiking to get to a spot. Any tips on how to make fly fishing more affordable for those out here in the same situation as me would be much appreciated."
Oh, Michael, first of all, I would urge you not to buy a pair of used waders because you don't know where they've been, even if they've only been worn by a little old lady on weekends. So, there's a couple of considerations here. One is if you buy a pair of waders for less than $100, you're gonna get what you pay for and they're probably going to leak pretty quickly anyway. What I would recommend is that you patch them. There is a product called Aquaseal, which is my go-to for patching waders. There's all kinds of things out there you can use, silicone tub and tile sealer and ply bond and all kinds of things, but there's nothing better than Aquaseal.
You can use it on nylon, you can use it on polyester, you can use it on neoprene, and it just plain works and it holds up, it'll be stronger than the wader itself. So, find those leaks. My go-to for finding leaks is to take a small bright flashlight, run it up inside the waders, and where you see the light shining through and it'll sparkle pretty good, mark that with a marker, and then cover that spot with AquaSeal. If you can't find the leaks that way, another alternative is to find a Shop-Vac where you can reverse the hose, constrict the wader leg around the Shop-Vac and blow air into the waders gently until they blow up like a sausage.
Then dip them in soapy water and wherever there's a leak, it'll blow bubbles and it'll be pretty apparent. So, I think you can probably get a couple more seasons out of those waders unless they've just...unless they're totally self-destructing. You know, spend a few bucks on a tube of Aquaseal and try to patch them first and see if that helps. Orvis does have a wader repair service, which does a terrific job of repairing waders, but they only repair Orvis waders, so that's not going to work for you in this situation.
Ben: Hi, Tom. This is Been from Chicago. Huge fan of the show, I never miss an episode. I'm calling today because I'm looking for tips on how to involve my family more in fly fishing so I can get out more on the water. I have a 14-month-old son and I'm married to a partner who...she loves the outdoors, she loves to forage, she loves to camp and backpack, but isn't into fly fishing. And so, I found it tough over the last, you know, year and a half of being a new father to just get out and fish much at all. And I'm wondering if you or anyone you know in the industry has any tips on how to make fishing more of a family outing and a fun activity for everybody. Love to hear your thoughts and maybe the answer is I just have to wait for my son to get a little older and that's okay too. Appreciate it and thanks for everything you do.
Tom: So, Ben, that's a difficult situation and you're going to have to're probably going to have to give up a little bit on the kind of fishing that you did before you had a young kid. You might think about a backpack. I have a number of friends with young kids know, infants, who do take them in backpacks. Now, you have to be...obviously, you have to be careful and you don't want to be wading in deep water or anything. But if you're just wading in water ankle-deep, put your kid in a backpack and they may enjoy it. A lot of kids love that, love being behind dad or mom in a backpack and they love being out in the environment and they love seeing the fish splash and they love just looking at the water.
So, you could try that, a lot of people do it. And then, you know, you said your partner's a forager and there's no reason why...if you listen to last week's podcast, you'll realize that there's a lot of foraging to be done along trout streams. In fact, it's one of the best places...trout streams of steelhead rivers and bass rivers is one of the best places to do foraging. And you might let your wife or your partner listen to that podcast and maybe she'll be more inspired to go with you. So, those are just a couple of suggestions. But, you know, keep your outing short, you're not going to be able to fish all day long, but I think you can make it work with a little thought.
Here's an email from Jeff. "Thank you for all you do for the sport. When I first began fly fishing about 10 years ago in Western Connecticut, I built so much of my foundational knowledge from your videos and books. Your podcast has been part of my weekly routine during all this time. I was recently invited to go fish some private lakes in the Adirondacks in September and I'm told we will be fishing mostly for brook trout on these lakes, both wading the shore and from a boat. The little bit of stillwater fishing I've done has mostly been stripping poppers for bass, although I did once fish some lakes in Colorado in high wind and we fish for trout with Woolly Buggers of an indicator with a lot of success.
My question is primarily about presentation. When fishing dries to rising fish, how much movement, if any, should I give to them? How does that change in glassy versus slightly windy versus very windy conditions? If there are any rises, how would you go about prospecting with a dry? Would a dry dropper be worth trying? I assume the other answer is just stripped streamers under the surface or even deeper, but are there other methods that I should be thinking about? One more very quick question. I've recently found myself able to fish a local stream for a couple of hours about four to five times a week because of where my daughter goes to daycare. I've always been in the habit of breaking down my rod between outings. But now that seems inconvenient and I'm finding myself keeping it rigged up for weeks at a time. Aside from the obvious risk of doors and cargo harming it, is there any reason I should avoid doing this?"
So, Jeff, when you're fishing dry flies in lakes, you know, you first want to observe the behavior of the fish. And usually, they'll follow a pattern, they'll be cruising and they'll follow a pattern. And the first thing you should try is to figure out which direction that fish is going, figure out if it has a pattern at all, and then try to get the fly in front of the fish and then just let it sit there and hope that the fish comes along and says, "Oh, there's another bug," and eats it. That doesn't always work and sometimes, you want to start twitching the fly, and you don't want to aggressively strip it across the water unless the fish are chasing midges or crane flies. You want to just give it a twitch to catch the fish's attention and, you know, sometimes they're going to be off a few feet away, and just a little twitch with your dry fly could make them come to the fly.
Now, you can certainly try a dry dropper as well. Probably doesn't work as well in lakes as it does in streams. I'm not that much of a stillwater angler, but yeah, you could try that. And then, of course, always, stripping streamers work. And depending on the water temperature in those lakes, you're probably going to want to take a sinking line with you, a full sinking line or a depth charge line because the fish may be deep. They may not be rising, they may not be near the surface, and you may have to fish either nymphs or streamers deep. You've done that before with an indicator, you may want to try it with the sinking line as well. So, you never know what you're going to find on the lakes, but hopefully, you'll have a good trip.
Here's an email from Eric from Boston. "I'm new to fly fishing and I was wondering why aren't all non-wet fly nymph tied on jig hooks with tungsten? I've seen Zebra Midges done this way at some local fly shops but not other common patterns like Pheasant Tails, Copper John, Flashback Hare's, etc. If I'm indicator fishing, don't I want to get the fly down as quickly as possible and avoid snags? So, what gives? Tradition, stubbornness, or some other factor I don't understand as a non-fly tire?"
So, Eric, jig hooks are great, they will slightly lessen the tendency to catch your fly on the bottom. However, nearly all weighted nymphs, whether they're tied on jig hooks or not, will ride hook point up just because of the weight on the fly. So, you know, not all people tie flies on jig hooks because maybe they want a longer shank hook. Jig hooks are generally short shank, at least the current ones that are available. I haven't seen any really long shank nymph hooks. Sometimes for the proportions on a fly, you want a longer shank hook. Jig hooks are great.
And I think if you look a little harder, you'll be able to find things like Pheasant Tails and Copper Johns tied on jig hooks. People certainly do it and you will be able to find it. But, you know, jig hooks are not a panacea. They're not the end all, be all to fishing weighted nymphs. And there are also times when you don't want to have your fly right on the bottom. Of course, you never want to have your fly right on the bottom. You want to have your fly above the bottom because if you're right on the bottom, the trout can't see it. So, you want to have it a little bit above the bottom and yes, you do want your fly to sink quickly.
But sometimes, the fish will be feeding midwater and you don't want a fly that'll sink to the bottom because they don't see it. So, I guess that's why not all flies are tied on jig hooks. And, you know, sometimes certain patterns just look better not tied on a jig hook to a fly tire and that's mainly an aesthetic thing, that definitely not a pragmatic thing. But, yeah, all patterns can be tied on jig hooks but they don't need to be tied on jig hooks. As far as tungsten is concerned, yeah, you know, I don't see any reason to use anything else. If I want a fly that doesn't sink as quickly, I'll just put on a smaller tungsten bead. If I'm fishing a beadhead, I'll put on a smaller tungsten bead. No reason that I can think of to tie flies on brass beads. They're a little bit less expensive than tungsten beads but tungsten is just so efficient at getting a fly down. I agree with you there, that if you're going to use a bead at all, probably Tungsten is the way to go.
Here's an email from Josh from Connecticut. "First, I hope you and yours are faring well up there in Vermont. I know you're having a rough time with all the flooding. Wishing the best for you. I have a comment, a question, and a tip. My comment is regarding the caller who asked about returning to the spots where guides take you. The last couple of times I was in that situation, I just asked the guide straight out. Both times they said, "Yes, no problem." If they said no or I sensed hesitation, I would stay away. I don't want to mess with anybody's livelihood.
My question is regarding setting the hook on small trout. I fished some local streams here in Connecticut for small browns and brookies. I'm getting a lot of takes but I'm missing a lot of them when I go to set the hook. I'm being real gentle on the set, just a wrist flick. Am I too quick on the set? Should I give a short pause before setting? I've tried both but still, my set rate isn't what I think it should be. Any tips for hooking these little guys would be great.
Finally, my tip. I'm a relatively new fly tire and made the mistake with some small wire where I let it go and it unspooled like crazy. No way that was going back on any neat fashion. Anyway, I had the idea to use a band from a spent tippet spool on the wire spool. I tied a knot in the band to make the loop small enough to be snug on the wire spool, threaded the wire through the hole where the tippet went through, and essentially unspool wire like I do from a tippet spool. Works pretty well. "
Well, Josh, that's a great tip on asking guides and I admire you for your integrity. Setting hook on small trout. You know what? You're going to miss a lot of small trout. When I'm fishing for small brook trout here in Vermont or anywhere in New England, I expect to land about, I don't know, one out of four that takes the fly because...oh, I'm not sure why. They're very quick at taking the fly, they're very quick. And sometimes they're so small, they can't get the hook in their mouth. You know, they don't have very big mouth, so chances are they may not be able to get their mouth around the fly.
And, you know, I've seen small trout just pick at an insect that's too big for him, you know, they'll pluck a leg and then they'll pluck another leg and then they'll finally try to get the fly down. So, they will attack larger insects than what they can put in their mouth, but it may take them several tries. My advice to you is you can't be too quick in setting the hook. These little trout are so fast that you don't want to hesitate at all and you're gonna miss some. Now, I use a bigger fly on purpose on small trout streams just because I don't want to hook the really small ones, you know, the ones under six inches long. I don't want to put a hook in a fish that small. So, I use a bigger fly.
But if you want to land these fish, you know, if all you got is really tiny fish and you just want to fish for them, I would use a smaller hook, use a small barbless hook. Smaller hooks probably going to do better, but smaller hook, make sure it's sharp and quick hookset and still, I don't think you should expect to hook all those small fish that you fish for. And that's a great tip for wire spools. I have the same problem with mine. There are spool bands that you can also buy for thread and tensile and materials. Some fly shops have it, but you can probably find them online but that's a good idea to reuse band from a tippet spool.
Jeff: Hi, Tom. Jef from Northeast Ohio here. I had a question about coiling the fly line when you're retrieving it or when you're stripping. It seems like about 50% of the time when I go to cast back out, I'll have just a knotted mess in my hands. Sometimes it comes up flawlessly and other times not. But just wondering if you had any tips or suggestions on ways to make coiling and then casting that coiled line back out more successful. I have the stripping basket, I use those when I can, but sometimes, you know, I don't always have one on me.
So, yeah, I'm just wondering if you had any tips or suggestions on that. It seems like I coil, I guess, every other coil of wire, if that makes sense. Like, if I'm stripping it and I'll just strip, pinch that one, strip again, let that little bit of line fall, and strip the next one, pinch and coil it, and then that seems to be a little easier to cast back out because I guess we just have less wraps. But anyways, hope you'll have something for me. If not, maybe one of your listeners do. Thanks, Tom.
Tom: Jeff, I think there's a couple of things you can do here. One is to, first of all, make sure that you stretch your line before you use it so that it doesn't already have some coils in it or kinks in it. So, just, you know, have a fishing buddy pull out all your line and stretch it or at least pull out 50 feet, you know, whatever you're going to use for the day and stretch the line. That'll take some of the kinks out of it. Or just, you know, attach your fly line to something that's solid and just back up, pull the line off the reel, and stretch the line.
The other thing is to clean your line. A clean line is going to present less resistance, it's going to shoot through the guides better, and may tangle less. The other thing is when you're coiling line, make sure that you coil the line in order. In other words, the first coil goes furthest up on your hand, the next coil goes a little bit more toward your fingertips, the next coil goes a little bit more toward your fingertips so that when you shoot the line, the coils that go off your hand first are going to be the ones that are not buried under the other coils.
It's like line coming off a spinning reel and you can actually kind of point your fingertips at your stripping guide. And if you take care and coiling that line on your hand and then point your fingertips at the stripping guide, it should come off your hand easier and you should have fewer tangles. You're still gonna get tangles if you coil line when you're stripping, still going to happen. But maybe those things will help a little bit.
Here's an email from Logan from Central Vermont. "I'm sure you being a Vermonter as well are aware about the statewide flooding we've been experiencing. I hope you and everyone else are doing well and staying strong. This leads me to my question. I took a walk down my favorite fishing stream earlier today. To no surprise, it was all flooded. What should I prepare myself for when the water goes back down? Will the stream's ecosystem change? Should I expect to rediscover the stream's pools as if I were approaching a new stream? How will the trout respond to this sudden change? Unfortunately, I was not into fly fishing during Irene, so this is the first flood I've experienced as a fly angler."
Well, that's a great question, Logan. And I do get this from various regions of the country after they have severe floods like we had in Vermont. And here's the scenario. So, when the water floods, on the surface, it looks horrible, it looks catastrophic. But you have to remember that as you get deeper and deeper into a pool or a stream, the velocity is going to be less. So, what the trout do is they tuck down into places where they're protected from the current close to the bottom along the banks, where the water flow is slower, and they'll find these places.
Now, some of them, yes, some of them will get battered around. Some of them may die. The trout that it affects the most are the little young of the year trout that are, you know, a couple of inches long. They can't hold against that heavy current and they'll get washed into fields and they'll get pushed around and battered around. And in the future, you may have a year class dominance, so you may not have any small fish from the next couple of years. But, you know, there'll be enough...if they're wild fish, there'll be enough fish left that they'll repopulate that stream fairly quickly. And, you know, trout have been exposed to floods since they first evolved and they can handle them.
After Irene, I looked at a couple of streams that were just devastated and I thought, "Oh, boy, this river isn't going to come back in my lifetime." Well, a couple of months after Irene or a month or so, I fished, and, yeah, the fish were skinny and they had scratches on them and they were kind of banged up, but a lot of them survived. And in the years following, I found that where the Highway Department didn't go in and channelize the river, the trout were just fine.
In fact, I had some of the best fishing I'd had in years in these particular streams. Where they were channelized, where people went and put a bulldozer in the river, yeah, it took a long time for the fishing to come back. And your pools may change, it really depends on how stable the stream course is in your favorite stream. Some places are very unstable and gravel bars move around and logs move around, and the pools change after a flood. In other streams and in certain stretches, the habitat is really stable and things won't change much.
But that's going to really depend on, again, how stable the ecosystem is and you'll find places where the pools have changed and you'll find places where they have not. One of the things I would recommend is that you don't bother fishing places where they've had bulldozers in the river because that habitat is going to be pretty severely impacted for many, many years to come. Which is know, sometimes you need to put bulldozers in the river to protect property, but it's almost never a good idea for the ecosystem and can have long-term effects on it.
Here's an email from Galen from Ogden, Utah. "I love the podcast. I can't thank you and Orvis enough for all you do. I'd like to give a shout-out to two anglers whose names I didn't catch last year at the Henry's Fork. Me and my wife got married and spent our honeymoon fishing the ranch. Our first night out there, two guys struck up a conversation with my wife and heard we were on our honeymoon. Later that evening, walking out and deflated from the missed trout, we ran back into them and they gave us a wedding present, a really awesome hand-tie flies that we both use the next night to catch awesome rainbows. So, if you are one of the anglers who gifted us those flies, I just want to say thank you, you really made our trip." Oh, that's great, Galen. That's just the way fly fishing should be and it's great that you had that experience, particularly on your honeymoon.
Seth: Hey, Tom, this is Seth in Washington, DC. I'm calling about a crisis that I'm about to experience which is I'm gonna move back to Dallas, Texas. I feel like I've just barely got to a point where I'm figuring out the waters here in the DC area in Northern Virginia. And just as I'm getting that figured out, we're moving to Dallas where trout fishing is non-existent. I guess my question, Tom, is what are some things that I can think about to cope with this new reality? What kind of fishing could I explore there?
I know the bass fishing is present. I know that there are carp fishing opportunities. But if you were moving to Dallas and were going to be there for the foreseeable future, what would you do to cope? How would you get excited about that move when it comes to fly fishing? Appreciate all that you and Orvis do for the fly fishing community and look forward to getting your answer. Thanks, Tom.
Tom: So, Seth, you know, this is a common problem. What makes you think that fly fishing is only for trout? Yeah, Texas has one trout stream in the northern part of the state in the hill country, the Guadalupe, which is a cool little stream. Yeah, but there's lots of other stuff. I took a trip to Dallas this year and I had a ball fishing in very urban conditions. Now, I was chasing carp, and I love carp fishing. So, you know, you said that you know they do have bass and carp and yeah, they do have bass and carp. And also, they have some really great gar fishing in Texas and in southern Texas, they have native cichlids which is a really interesting-looking fish I've never caught that I want to catch some day.
And, you know, you're not that far from saltwater. You've got redfish and sea trout and maybe some tarpan on the coast. So, there are a lot of fly fishing opportunities in Dallas, you just gonna have to kind of change your expectations and the way you fishing and the species you chase. And the good thing is that there's a vibrant fly-fishing community in Dallas. There are four Orvis retail stores in Dallas and the fishing managers are all fanatic fly fishers and they fish in the immediate area a lot. So, I suggest that when you get to Dallas, find your nearest Orvis retail store and go in and find out what kind of opportunities that you have in that area, and I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.
Okay, that is the Fly Box for this week. Let's go talk to Wade Fellin about this mysterious issue with Montana trout. So, my guest today is Wade Fellin. Wade is one of my heroes. Wade's family owns Big Hole River Lodge. And Wade, how many years has your family owned that lodge?
Wade: My mom and dad started it in 1984, so this is Dad's 39th season.
Tom: Wow, 39th season. And Wade, you really...I mean, people at Orvis really admire you because you have been on the forefront of protecting your watershed, the Big Hole River watershed, but other places in southwest Montana. And you lead an organization, right?
Wade: Correct, I'm the program director of Upper Missouri Waterkeeper which speaks at law for 13 rivers that form the upper Missouri River, which of course, goes all the way to the Mississippi and out to New Orleans and we're a headwater state. And my watershed over here, the Big Hole, Beaverhead, Ruby, and Jefferson flow into that greater watershed. So, since 2013, I've been on staff at Upper Missouri Waterkeeper with Guy Alsentzer and Jason O'Neill and Quincy Johnson. And we're a small team, but there's a lot of work to do in that 25,000 square mile basin.
Tom: Yeah, there is. And, you know, you've had some real problems in your watershed that we'll get into, and some recent problems that are new developments. And I want to just admire you know, your business relies on sending fishermen to your lodge, right, and guiding them and hosting them and everything, and you have raised the alarm call on numerous occasions that there's problems in the watershed. And it would be so easy...and I know some other guides who kind of kind of turn their back to the problems and say, "Oh, everything is fine, they're coming to fish, and, you know, we'll fill up our drift boats and our lodge." But you've been really honest with complete integrity about helping to protect these watersheds.
Wade: Well, thank you for saying all that. And I want to back up and saying that you're, you know, one of my heroes and I couldn't be where I am today 17 years into my guiding career without the support of Orvis and the broader conservation message that not only your company but your customers follow. And that makes it pretty easy to take stands on these things knowing that there's an army willing to do what needs to be done nationwide and worldwide that love fly fishing, and Montana is truly a fly fishing mecca.
You know, when you think of pristine trout fisheries, there's maybe one hand that you can count around the world of where that is. New Zealand, Argentina, and southwest Montana is definitely on that list for most. And our watersheds, like so many, are dealing with low flow and warming temperatures. Climate change has really changed our bug life and the way we fish our rivers and what we're experiencing right now is not new. In fact, the Big Hole, Beaverhead, and Ruby watersheds have been watching trout numbers decline for the last seven years and we've seen ups and downs since we stopped stocking these rivers in 1969.
There have been ebbs and flows. The Big Hole River has been up to like 2,300 fish per mile, which arguably was too many. We had a lot of little fish in the system and not those great big fish who like to catch on a dry fly. And then those numbers have dropped and in 2014, we had a fairly big die-off in the Big Hole River and the upper Beaverhead River and as a result, in 2015, we had a lot of big fish in the system. 2016, a lot of big fish in the system. But this, what we're experiencing now is new.
Since our, you know, 2014 die-off, the numbers kind of came back up. Since 2017, the numbers haven't come back up, and this year, they hit a 25th-percentile historic low in the Jefferson basin, the Big Hole, lower Beaverhead below, you know, a few miles down near town. The upper Beaverhead is kind of a different system, there's a dam that controls that, there's a lot of food in there, and then there's a diversion dam that starts what I would call the real beaver head in terms of more of know, not a dam controlled fishery down there.
So, historic low numbers on that section of the Beaverhead. And I want to make that point because a lot of the guides and fly shops on that upper Beaverhead that run the bobber rigs up under the dam or dry fly when the PMD hatches going on, they're seeing kind of a 50-year average of fish but it's a different system. And I think that's what got them up in arms as these news articles started to come out is, "Hey, the upper Beaverhead is right where it should be." Well, coming down the river in the more of that watershed model, the Beaverhead, Ruby, Big Hole, and Jefferson and down into the Missouri and then come back up some of those fingers into the Madison and the Gallatin, those rivers are all interconnected and fragile right now.
So, what we're not seeing is a return of fish numbers over the last seven years. And as we hit this historic low, we're asking Fish, Wildlife, and Parks why. You know, we have biologists on these rivers that are working their tails off and they're saying, "Well, you know, there's something more than flow and tempt, there appears to be a disease in these rivers." We have grayling and cutthroat in the Big Hole River, and in the mainstem river, the numbers of those are so low right now that they're not calling them a population.
And browns and rainbows are dying in June when flows are good and temperature is low, and they don't know what exactly is killing them. Is it a kidney disease? Is it a fungal disease? Is it something else? So, right now, you know, there's a big urgency to figure out what it is. We can't manage what we don't know. But also, I think the reason that we started this new organization, Save Wild Trout, is because due to staffing right know, FWP, Fish, Wildlife, and Parks has a lot of money and they say they don't have resource issues, but they don't have the staff on the ground right now to learn what this disease is.
They're putting that together but then coming out from that, you know, that's a long game study type scenario. And how we got here is what we're more concerned about, how can we in Montana better manage our water resources more quickly and kind of pull up from just Fish, Wildlife, and Parks upcoming disease study to find out what's killing these fish and think more about what got us here to a situation that's probably death by 1,000 cuts scenario. Where all sorts of changing land use, increased cattle production, changes in fertilizer, magnesium chloride on the highways, ranches selling and houses building, increased angling pressure, chronic low flow, all of these things we've known about.
And our state agencies kind of work in silos. The DNRC works on flow, the Department of Environmental Quality works on pollution, and Fish, Wildlife, and Parks works on the biology. For the last three years, Upper Missouri Waterkeeper has been calling on our governor's office to form a Coldwater Fisheries Task Force, which is not novel. You know, back in the day, Governor Rosco formed a coldwater fish...formed a task force rather, he didn't call it coldwater fisheries task force, but we had whirling disease in several of our rivers you'll remember.
And they mobilized quickly, set up labs, put millions of dollars towards funding, and we need that now. We need interdisciplinary experts across the state agencies working together on a new coldwater fisheries management plan for not only Montana, but I think that's copy and paste to a lot of western rivers, maybe a lot of rivers across the country. I'm not familiar with the rivers in the east, but I'm sure low flow and warm temps are affecting you as well.
Tom: Yeah, and you really hit the nail on the head that the different agencies do work in silos in my experience. In most states, they do, so Montana is not unique. But I think you're taking the right approach in getting all of those agencies together on a task force to...because it is all about temperature and pollution and land use and biology, it's all intertwined.
Wade: And ideally, you know, this happens at the state government agency level because there's a lot of money there. But realistically and more nimbly, Save Wild Trout we started in early June and have fundraised a lot of money in a short run. And our initial goal was to hire a histopathologist that would get over here...I offered to have this person live in my guest bedroom just beyond the Big Hole River every day looking for a live but dying sick fish because that's what Fish, Wildlife, and Parks is missing. They have a lot of dead fish that they've taken samples from and haven't found anything unusual.
You know, they've found causes of death but they could have been secondary causes of death, so they haven't found anything unusual with the dead fish. What they need is a live fish. And we said, "Well, when is that going to happen?" And they said, "March of 2024, we're going to start an angler cause mortality study and a creel survey and we'll do some disease study." And we got together and said, "Let's see how much money we can raise. What's the histopathologist's cost? Let's get him on the ground right now or her on the ground right now and figure this out."
And whether that was already in the works at the state agency or whether that kind of lit a fire, over the last two weeks, they have identified a histopathologist in Pennsylvania and a lab that can take these live samples or slides from a live fish that they take samples off of. They have a disease team on the ground, they were on the Beaverhead River Thursday of last week. My wife and I walked four and a half miles on the bank while Fish, Wildlife, and Parks floated and shocked the river.
And unfortunately, I've taken pictures of these sick fish for the last three summers and kept the folder and they seem to be dying in June and then again in October, and maybe some throughout the summer but we're not seeing it. And for the third year in a row, the mobilization from the state side, which, you know, it's like moving a barge, it can't happen quickly.
So, that's what Save Wild Trout is trying to do. Rather than wait until people can get on the ground, we're trying to independently hire whatever they need, and then work collaboratively with them to bring them that data and try and get that solved as quickly as possible. But then, you know, stepping back once we identify the disease, that's step one, and then work towards managing that.
But how we know, we need to be looking at all the tools in our tool belt and get people from around the country that have worked on these issues that come to Montana and love to fish. Put science experts on an advisory board and build a privately funded nimble organization that can help direct this governor and his administration, the next governor and their administration, and work with all the state agencies to come up with a better coldwater fisheries plan for Montana.
Tom: So, before we get any further, why don't you give us the website address of that organization so that if people want to donate or join or whatever to support it, they can?
Wade: Sure, it's really easy,
Tom: Okay, that's easy.
Wade: And there's a great big orange donate button. If you scroll down, there's a list of partners. Orvis is prominently displayed at the top of that list. And we have support from YETI and Patagonia and several other companies, and then about 30 local businesses here in the Beaverhead and Big Hole Valleys.
Tom: So, Wade, it's interesting, June and know, I hate to ask you to speculate, but what's your feeling on... June and October are times when you have decent flows, decent water temperatures, what's your take on this if you don't mind speculating/
Wade: There are so many conspiracy-type theories, you know, and then there are some really good theories, but they're all theories right now without data. And that's where we need to identify, all the cross-cutting strategies for improving our trout populations long term, but that's what we want to know is what can we be doing short term? I know Knapweed is, you know, this purple flower that we needed for our bee populations and we brought it over and it turned out to be a noxious weed that we haven't had in the Big Hole that long, really, and it's really taking off.
So, spraying for Knapweed is very important for an agricultural community. It sterilizes all the plants around it. It's also very important not to have Knapweed on riverbanks because of the same reason. If they sterilize the willows and the wild grasses, the banks just fall in and the rivers get wider and shallower and warmer. So, we've really ramped up as a state our assault on Knapweed with an herbicide that has like a 50-year half-life, and I've been very concerned about this for years now.
You know, the people that are spraying this stuff are all covered up and wearing masks, and the guy in charge of it passed away from cancer, unfortunately, and it says right on the back, this is a carcinogen. So, if we're putting something that dangerous in our soils with a 50-year half-life, and then every year the snow melts and it runs into the rivers, is that having an effect?
Tom: Do they spray in June and October? Are there certain times a year that they spray?
Wade: They're spraying in June. October seems to be more low flow, warm temps, long summer, that's when the brown trout go beat each other up and get spawning redds built and that makes more sense if it's a fungal infection, that they're opening sores on their body and becoming susceptible to this and then that fungus maybe is getting in the redds. I'm not sure on that. But, you know, I've been worried about Knapweed spray, are we killing good plants in the water column by putting that through soils into the water column?
June is also when a lot of the algae blooms in the upper river, which adds oxygen to the river, and one hypothesis is this is adding kind of unnatural arsenic and changing the pH of the river as the algae blooms. We do know that as algae dies, it robs the water column of oxygen content. And we've dad's been on a crusade about our bugs. We have a lot of bugs in the system than entomologists tell us but we don't have the diversity we used to have.
Now, we have stone flies and caddis, we don't have our beautiful PMD hatches and our Green Drakes when it rains, we don't have the diversity of bug life. So, what's causing that? Is that affecting the fish? The biologists say no, there's plenty of food source in the system. In 1991, we started using salt and magnesium chloride on our roads again. And a lot of the roads in Montana are built along rivers because they cut through the canyons. Is it something to do with cattle and how fields are irrigated and nutrients are loaded into groundwater?
And is that fueling more of the nutrients...the Big Hole River Foundation has been doing four years of water quality data collection locally at 10 different sites on the Big Hole every two weeks looking for nutrients, sediment, temperature, flow, pH, dissolved oxygen. And what they've identified in the Upper Big Hole River anyway, is that we are three times over the standard set in the Clean Water Act for nutrients. So, you know, we sat down with a rancher about a month ago and talked all this out, which I think is the key to all of this, bringing people to a table and learning from both sides and coming up with solutions.
And this rancher said, "Boy, I hope that's all it is, is nutrient pollution because we can fix that. It won't be cheap. We'll have to move some cows away from the waterway in the winter when it's 50 below and they're, you know, going to the bathroom on the ground right near the river. And in the spring, high water washes that in and we flood irrigate here, so a lot of that manure marinates and warm shallow water across the fields." But if that's it, you know, that's fixable.
Climate change is such a big word, a big term, rather, that it doesn't seem fixable and I think a lot of people go on business as usual without addressing it. And we need to build climate resiliency into the fly fishing world everywhere. And here, it looks like bringing folks together about how do we be more efficient with our water use to put more flow in the river, but it's not just dilution as a solution to pollution. It's got to be fixing the problem too.
Tom: Right, at the point source or at the source.
Wade: Right.
Tom: Is there an alternative for Knapweed removal?
Wade: Yeah, they've done big projects with weevils. That's the most exciting one to me because goats eat Knapweed too, but then you have different issues with nutrient pollution in goats and weevils are being used on several ranches around here. And I'll try and send you a link on more details for those interested, but from what I understand it's a bit like beekeeping. Somebody comes in and brings a bunch of weevils and they go to town on the Knapweed and that seems like a much cleaner way to handle that stuff.
Tom: And the weevils can really control it, huh?
Wade: Sounds like it.
Tom: More goats, less cattle maybe?
Wade: Yeah, I'm, you know, whiskey is for fighting, water is for...water is for fighting, whiskey is for drinking around here and there have been some unfortunate posts to hit Facebook from the outfitting community pointing fingers directly at the ranching community saying, "This is your fault, you take our water, you've killed our fish." If we lose...and we are losing this beautiful ranch land that, you know, fifth-generation ranchers have conserved and taking care of 30,000-acre parcels that are hydrologically connected and without flood irrigation, we don't recharge the aquifer, and there's a lot of good things being done on that ag land that supports our fisheries.
As we lose those ranches, you know, the show "Yellowstone" isn't helping our overcrowding issues. People are moving to Montana and I get it, I wouldn't want to be in Phoenix this week when it's 118 degrees. Montana is a beautiful place to be in the summer. But as this ranch land disappears and we stick straws in the aquifer, condos and wells and impermeable surfaces, that's not good for the rivers, either. So, if we can keep cows not condos as Montana Land Reliance says, but just manage them and replace willows that eat up a lot of the nutrients, hold back sedimentation, shade the river, and then figure out, is it an antibiotic or some crazy new fertilizer that's been tried and that's not what was done in 1920.
We need to really look at all the available data sets that people are experts on. And rather than have FWP go through a five-year study and try and come up with a grad student that'll take this on and then five years too late, we come up with, "Oh, we actually knew all this science, it was just kind of disparate and siloed," we have to bring those people together now, and that's what's Save Wild Trout aims to do.
Tom: That's great, that's great planning. And I'm sure you're right, that it's a death by 1,000 cuts, but we have to address them one at a time, right? And control the things we can control without ruining our agricultural industry.
Wade: Right, right. It's part of what makes Montana Montana, and, you know, we have to eat three times a day. So, farming and ranching nationwide are very important, but that doesn't mean we can't be doing better with how those pollutants are handled. And the same token...and I think Orvis has been very helpful with this. I think the angling community can be doing better right now and that will help bridge some gaps and be a bit of an olive branch to these, well, adversarial conversations if the angling community stops fishing at 68 degrees water temperatures as identified by, you know, Trout Unlimited and Keep Fish Wet and other organizations that have been advocating for safe water temperatures.
Montana's current hoot owl cut-off...hoot owl being a logging term where you couldn't cut firewood after 2:00 p.m. because the forest was a tinderbox, so they start cutting again at midnight when the dewpoint was low. Fish, Wildlife, and Parks adopted this term. And when the river hits 73 degrees in Montana, it triggers a hoot owl, meaning you stopped fishing at 2:00 p.m. I think that's too late and I asked the fisheries biologists how did they arrive at this number and they said, "Well, it's really the only number we have data for."
There was a study done on the Smith River years ago where fish were caught and released once at different temperatures and 73 was the temperature at which they died. So, why did we then set state policy at a lethal temperature level? I think we should ratchet that back to about 68 degrees. And rather than call it 2:00 p.m., which, you know, some's 73 degrees today and then tomorrow, it gets cold, hoot owl is still in place, so people get angry. But then by the same token, if it hits 73 degrees and then only cools to 65 degrees and you're back out there at 8:00 a.m. the next morning fishing fish that shouldn't be caught, we're just killing our resource without anyone else's help, we're doing it to ourselves.
So, I think who hoot owl, with today's social media, and everyone has a cell phone and Fish, Wildlife, and Parks can email everyone, we could nimbly implement and lift a closure on rivers when water temperatures reached 68 degrees. Even if like in 2021 that's in June at 11:00 a.m., the Big Hole hit 68 degrees, we can close it that day knowing cooler weather is on the way and then nimbly reopen it and get the angling community to acknowledge that fish are stressed. It's like running a 5k and then having somebody at the finish line hold your head underwater.
Whereas when it's nice and chilly outside, you can run a 5k and for someone who could do that, they'd probably come up laughing. So, being cognizant of what's safe for the fishery in terms of water temperature. Pinching our barbs...I talked to Kelly Galloup, the king of two hook streamers, and we're going to do a YouTube video together about cutting the back hook off of these articulated streamers.
Tom: Yay. Yay.
Wade: We don't need two hooks on streamers. We don't need double hooks.
Tom: We don't, we don't need two hooks on streamers.
Wade: But if we do those things, I think there's...and then lastly, redefining success on the water. My dad has been pushing this for years. And, you know, when you're on a trout stream, there's so much going on emotionally and both physically and mentally. And if you sit down and take in the day, you're gaining so much from that day on the water. And if you approach the day with, "Oh, I hope we catch a bunch of fish and I hope they're all big," and if you don't meet those expectations, you leave having a bad day, you've done yourself a disservice. So, I think getting involved in all of these things and knowing how fragile the ecosystem is and how cool it is to be able to interact with it and be a part of making it better is a really fulfilling successful entry and sustainability in the sport.
Tom: Yeah, absolutely. So, I think, to the credit of the angling community, I'm hearing over and over again from people that they stopped fishing, it's 68 degrees. So, I think that's become accepted practice and if we all keep hammering on it, I think we can make people voluntarily, from their peers, stop fishing at 68. To your knowledge, are outfitters observing that 68 degree? I mean, I assume that you guys are stopping fishing when the water temp hits 68.
Wade: We are and we have for years. And I would say probably 80% of the guides and outfitters that I see on these rivers, the Big Hole, Beaverhead, Ruby are self-imposing 68 degrees. The fishing is not good after that anyway. You know, [crosstalk 01:14:23], but with these Perdigon nymphs, you can get down into pretty fast water and we may be catching fish we shouldn't catch at that time of day. But if you're out dry fly fishing, it's time to go get a beer at that temperature anyway because you haven't caught a fish in the last hour and a half.
But our clientele, and like you say, the angling community with education and knowledge of what's the right thing to be doing, we'll get up early, get out on the river early and fish when fishing is best, and then get off the river early. But it's those bad actors, you know, you have bad actors in the ranching community that get all the press on Facebook and the fingers pointed at them. And same token, there are 20% of the guides and outfitters that know these rules are unenforceable even if they are law, and voluntarily, they're not going to be followed.
So, they're out on the river 4:00 p.m. fishing away in low warm water because they can and those are the ones that hit Facebook and give us all a bad name and it's hard to watch for everybody. Everybody that cares about these resources don't want to see them further stressed at that time of day. So, I think if the angling community takes it on voluntarily nationwide and then pushes Montana through citizens' effort or, you know, ask the Governor for an emergency rulemaking that, "This summer, were at historic low trout numbers on three iconic rivers. Please, until you get the new study done in figuring out what a safe temperature is, let's call it 68 this summer for the next two years until trout numbers come back up."
And that's another point I'd like to make because I think, you know, it's not like elk that have one calf each year. And if you wiped out a population of elk, it takes a long time to bring them back. Fish have thousands, and if we figure out what the disease is and start working towards management solutions for water and...right now, all we're doing is angling restrictions, which I'm all on board with. As a business owner, I'm on board with these restrictions, but we have to do more than limit where it's easy. We have to work on these hard issues and I think this fishery will come right back.
Tom: Yeah, we all need to do what we can. And, you know, I would say that my advice to anglers that go to southwest Montana is to take a thermometer with you and if you're fishing with an outfitter and the water is over 68 degrees, you know, call it a day and don't fish with that outfitter anymore. You know, if they don't have any business, they're not going to be doing it anymore.
Wade: Right.
Tom: So, everyone should carry a thermometer, whether you're, you know, do-it-yourself fishing or fishing with a guide and just keep taking that water temperature.
Wade: One of our guides, Roy Morris, has can buy them on Amazon for 33 bucks, but it's an indoor-outdoor thermometer that's waterproof and pretty hardy and he's installing them on all our guides' rafts. He velcroed the thing right to the frame and then stick that little wire down along the tube through the baling hole just enough to be in the water. You have a real-time temperature gauge your whole day through.
Tom: Wow, that's great. That's a great idea. That's a great idea. So, before we started recording, you were talking about this project with YETI Coolers to try to get some of these fish that are not dead but dying. You want to talk a little bit about what you guys are doing there?
Wade: Yeah, so Fish, Wildlife, and Parks needs a live but sick fish, that's the missing link right now on this disease. And the days that they're able to be out know, they don't want to shock the river every day, that's not good for fish either, especially at this temperature, but it's really important to find one of these. So, they've done a couple of shocking programs in the past week and have not found a sick fish. They found some white fish with lesions and took tests on those and they took some samples from healthy fish so that when they find a sick fish, they can cross-check them.
But, you know, we're seeing them a lot. We being the guides and general public anglers are seeing a lot of sick fish. One of my guides yesterday had one on the Big Hole, a white fish with a great big cauliflower lesion between its eyes. The fish was blind and still alive in eight inches of water, he had no way to, you know, keep that fish alive to get to cell service and get it to Fish, Wildlife, and Parks. So, YETI sent up 10 coolers and Fish, Wildlife, and Parks helped Save Wild Trout identify the proper aerators and they're shipping today, I'm going to drill them all into the YETI Coolers and then drive them down to Ruby Springs Lodge.
They've identified two guides that want to help on the Ruby and Jefferson. I'm going to talk to Healing Waters Lodge on the lower Big Hole, Complete Fly Fisher up here on the upper Big Hole, and then of course, Big Hole Lodge will have a list of guides that will carry these coolers either in their boat or in their car on wade trips. And another option is to get zippable laundry baskets. Find one of these sick fish, zip them in the laundry basket, drop a rock in the laundry basket, make a GPS coordinate on your phone, get out to cell service, call Fish, Wildlife, and Parks with the coordinates and they'll drive right up and get that fish out of the river and do the test and put the disease part of this whole thing to rest.
Tom: Now, if it's a disease and it's not an environmental, you know, or pollutant issue...or even if it's a disease, the pollution is probably exacerbating it. But if it's a disease, what can you do?
Wade: That's above my pay grade. I don't know. But I know it needs to be treated more urgently than it has been for the last seven years, and I think finally there's a fire lit. But I'm hearing reports now of dead fish on the Madison and it went into hoot owl yesterday on the lower river. And of course, the Madison is connected to the Jefferson which is connected to the Big Hole, Beaverhead, and Ruby. So, I talked to John Arnold down at Headhunters and he said, "Oh, crap, I hope you guys figure it out up there because if it is a disease, I'm down the Missouri River, it's coming my way."
So, yeah, this needs to be like all hands on deck, Governor top priority, figure out what it is and how to manage it before it leaves these three rivers. There's no proof that those dead fish in the Madison are the same thing. It could have been angler-caused mortality or just warming temperatures. But it is pretty alarming to hear that there's, you know, not an army on these rivers trying to find one of these live fish yet.
Tom: Yeah, yeah. Well, Wade, if someone loves the Big Hole and wants to fish it this year, or the Ruby, what do you recommend?
Wade: I think if Fish, Wildlife, and Parks hadn't told us about this issue back in May, the angling community and the guiding community would not have known that we're at historic low numbers. The rivers are fishing well, the fish are big. In their shocking surveys in March and April, they weren't targeting little fish up in the willows because that's where the little fish hang out and you don't want to kill those with a shocking rod. So, they probably didn't get a lot of young fish in that survey. But they do know this is a historic low that can rebound quickly.
So, I don't think this is a "Stay away from Montana" type moment, it's just a "Be very careful with the fish you catch" moment. Fish at the right time of day, keep fish underwater, don't lift them out over a hard boat where they could flop around and maybe hit their head, and just treat each fish caught with the respect that you do with all these beautiful creatures you get to interact with and make sure those ones stay alive so that when this fishery recovers, we didn't add to whatever their demise was.
Tom: Yeah, and don't take so many pictures because taking pictures always increases handling time and you don't need a picture of every fish you catch.
Wade: And with big fish that you want to hang on your wall, I mean, there's some cool inexpensive technology these days. Your phone can dunk right underwater, Amazon is selling these little domes that push the water away from the phone lens so you get that nice split-level shot that you see Tom Boyd on the Drake. There's some really creative ways to get that grip and grin while still keeping the fish in its natural environment.
Tom: Yeah, yeah. Exactly. Exactly.
Wade: But yeah, I would say don't stay away from Montana because that's a sentiment that really worries me about a lot of places that are beautiful and being affected by change. You know, "If that place gets screwed up, I'll go somewhere else," and that's how we lose them all, you know? But if we dig in and fight for the places that are too important to lose and come out here and interact with Ed Abbey said, it's not enough to fight for the land, you must enjoy it. You got to get outside and interact and learn and figure out where we can apply pressure and get the state moving a little quicker on these things, but then not rely on the state, we can do a lot ourselves.
Tom: And if people aren't seeing it and appreciating it, they're not going to support it, and you're going to lose your public support of the resource. Well, Wade, it's always great talking to you. This is not an easy subject to talk about, certainly, but it sounds like you have a positive attitude. And boy, you're right, trout streams can come back very quickly because they lay so many eggs and, you know, it can bounce back, it can bounce back very, very quickly. So, let's hope that all the things that you're looking at and the state is looking at can be ameliorated.
Ameliorated, is that the right word? I don't know. I would have to ask Phil Monahan. But I'm optimistic, I've seen many, many fisheries bounce back. You know, whirling diseases, people don't even talk about it anymore. It kind of came and went and, you know, it was a big deal and everybody was panicking about it, but the rainbows bounced back.
Wade: Right, right. And I think for this two-year term or three-year term, whatever it takes, things are going to change, you know, for some businesses, and I'm sympathetic to businesses that are going to struggle. But I think there are ways around that, fishing at different times of the year when it's colder, fishing earlier in the day when it's hot, and offering new things that we may have never done.
I think Big Hole Lodge is going to look into an ecologist. And photography is a passion of mine and my dad is very good at it and we know some beautiful places around here at sunrise and sunset doing photography tours. To get weather this storm and reduce our impact, I think the fishing community can still be here and interact in a safe way and maybe do some things they've never done before in southwest Montana.
Tom: No, that's great. That's a great idea. All right, Wade, well, thank you so much for sharing your knowledge with us today. Really appreciate it and, of course, appreciate all you have done and the dedication and the hours and hours and hours that you've devoted to...days and days and years and years that you and your dad have devoted to protecting this resource, really appreciate it. And why don't you give us that website once more so that people can donate and support you?
Wade: Absolutely,, and the email there...because I want to hear from all of you. You know, you're the experts. All your listeners have dealt with these issues in your own watersheds and have great advice for me and us. So, I received that email when you click the Contact Us box, so I look forward to hearing from you.
Tom: All right, you're a brave man, you're a brave man to put that out there. You never know what you're gonna get. Believe me, I know. I'm looking at the podcast mailbox. No, most of the email I get is wonderful and supportive and positive. It's funny you don't get those trolls in the podcast email box. You know, it's when people can be anonymous on Facebook and Instagram that they're willing to be brave, but when it's an email going directly to you, you don't get that stuff.
Wade: Well, and if you've made it this far in the podcast, you're pretty passionate about this subject and I don't think you'll be mean. Facebook is pretty easy to be quick and move on to the next trolling item.
Tom: Right, yeah. All right, Wade, thank you so much. Appreciate it. Have a great summer and say hi to your dad for me.
Wade: Absolutely, will do. Thanks so much.
Tom: Okay, bye-bye. Thanks for listening to "The Orvis Fly Fishing Podcast" with Tom Rosenbauer. You can be a part of the show. Have a question or a comment? Send it to us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. in the body of an email or as a voice attachment. You can find more free fishing tips at