20 Thoughts: What to do When Trout Streams are Closed Due to Drought & Heat?

We’ve had an incredible run this year. Last winter’s snow pack was low and melted early. We’ve had very little precipitation fall in Alberta from spring through summer. Daytime temperatures were in the high 20sC in April, continuing into the 30s through June, July, and August.

Stressed Brown TroutIf you’ve followed our Alberta Fishing Forecasts this year, you’ve read that we here at the Alberta Fishing Guide have been concerned for some time and outright asked you to leave certain waters alone.

Stream closures for lower elevation trout water through southern to central Alberta have been long overdue. Many waters have had in-stream temperatures of 19 to 24C since June. Depending on the trout species in a river or stream, temperatures of 18 or 20C begin to get critical for our trout. So today’s announcement that many trout waters in southern Alberta are closed due to in-stream temperatures being too warm is no surprise.

We’ll save the examination of the ‘response to drought system’ for another day. The system ignored the drought-stricken St Mary R below the dam that flowed at an in-stream temperature of 24.6C early in June and continued to do so all summer. But on Aug 11 it’s deemed too warm? Our brown trout streams in the Red Deer & N Saskatchewan River drainages have flowed 40 to 60% of normal flow levels with in-stream temperatures of 20 – 24C since June but still are getting no consideration. With browns and rainbows shutting down and coping in the shallow edge waters to deal with extreme stress, in a comatose state as shown at right, we have to watch where we fish to minimize our impact. But can we come down hard on the government when there are literally dozens of spin-off impacts to consider? That’s really tough. No matter how hard the rain dance, Fisheries can’t produce water.

But what does this mean for your summer trip planning? Should you just give up on trout fishing? Not necessarily.

There are some things to consider first. Here’s a few thoughts to making the best of our current situation in our trout regions.

  • The mountain campgrounds are going to be full. Random camping areas will be busy. Book ahead. Book now.
  • The high country is going to be busy. You will run into others. Patience and giving-way a little bit is going to be needed. Make a new friend.
  • Waters not listed on the “official” closure list will be busy. Many are so low and warm they shouldn’t be fished. If you are standing in a southern Alberta trout stream that just seems too dry and warm, don’t fish it.
  • It doesn’t matter if it is on the “official” closure list. If it feels like bath water, it is too warm. That stands regardless what species you are fishing, trout and grayling.
  • Just because the closures and advisories don’t include northern regions, know that grayling and bull trout north of Hwy 16 are enduring the same conditions for this, the second year in a row.
  • When the “official” closures end, know that while the water is 0.5C cooler for most of the day, trout are still stressed most of the day.
  • Tailwaters still produce cool water immediately below their dams: Oldman, Bow (Ghost), and Red Deer. While short runs before waters warm, there is cool water to be found and a few trout about.
  • The N Saskatchewan R from Nordegg to Drayton Valley has a few good trout and is most often over-looked.
  • campfallsThe Athabasca R east of Hinton to Whitecourt fishes well even in 2 feet of visibility.
  • The high country over night low temperatures are its saving grace. Those cutthroat trout waters are teetering on being too warm as well but many are in prime temperature zones.
  • Alpine lakes offer excellent sight-fishing for cutthroat trout cruising the shorelines. Waterton – Banff – Jasper National Parks and Kananaskis Country and most of our mountain pass roads (Nordegg area) lead to great trails to hike. The peak of the wild flower season is just passing but it’s a beautiful time of the year in the alpine.
  • Golden trout lakes are open and these small, gorgeous trout offer a great challenge and an excuse to camp out at the lakes as they fish well in the pre-dawn, post-sunset periods.
  • Larger lakes and reservoirs have good fishing. Check out the Kananaskis Lakes, they offer some great fishing.
  • Lesser known rivers are low and clear. Fish them close to the mountains and you’ll likely find water that hasn’t been fished and pools teeming with fish (but limit your impact because they can’t help but be stacked into pools given this drought – yes, this is a bit of a double-standard grey area).
  • Poke into the very recesses of high country systems. A good 2 – 4 day hike into the mountains can provide some excellent fishing.
  • Try fishing for pike! If you fly fish, pike on the fly can be excellent. Clear Lake south of Calgary and Cow Lake SW of Rocky Mountain House offer very good fishing. Many of our pike and walleye lakes are firing right now.
  • Any stream or river from just west of hwy 22, and all points eastward are too warm to fish. Regardless of what the Alberta gov has “officially” closed, you simply shouldn’t be fishing any brown trout stream tributary to the Red Deer or N Saskatchewan Rivers through the end of August. The drought has led to low groundwater percolation and very little cooling effect for these streams. Further, with extremely low and warm conditions, fish are further stressed due to proximity to others in the low habitat availability at present.
  • No matter how hot and dry it may or may not get we’re not likely to experience mass, absolute fish kills. It doesn’t even mean many fish will perish. Keep this event in perspective: it’s meant to minimize our impact. The fish are still there, they simply need to make it through the harshest drought and heat combination since 2002.
  • While the closures may come and go through August, reality is that in a few weeks the frosts will return and in-stream temperatures will recover, allowing us to enjoy the fishing. It might be best to leave the streams and rivers listed under the emergency closure alone until Labour Day unless we’re blessed with a cool, wet snap before then. There are several other opportunities. Explore them!
  • Stop in at your local fly shop or tackle shop and ask them where to go. They will know a few places to fish and enjoy an outing. Yes, you might be given the same information as a few other people but supporting these shops at the peak of what should be their season is important.

One thought on “20 Thoughts: What to do When Trout Streams are Closed Due to Drought & Heat?

  • August 12, 2015 at 12:42 am
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    It is always interesting to read of heat/trout problems from a land that we associate with snow, ice and good trout fishing! I cant agree more with your sentiments of leaving trout alone in the heat. Reading your temperatures makes me think that our trout are a special, acclimatized type, since we have temps above 18 degrees C all summer long. We carry on fishing at 20 degrees….it regularly gets to that even in our high mountain streams! But we stop fishing at 21 degrees. I guess you could say we live close to the edge here in South Africa. Wising you guys some rain, cloud, and frost soonest!

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