GRAND FORKS -- I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a bad year to be a river angler.
Very bad, depending on the river.
I thought about that the other day, while driving across the bridge over one of my favorite small rivers, a Red River tributary that has served up some memorable fishing over the years.
Not this year; this year, the sight of the river makes me sad. I don’t think there’s enough water to float a toy boat, and the shoreline is clogged with algae that’s thriving in the overly warm water.
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It’s awful, and I cringe at what it will mean for fishing in years to come.
The Red River is low, as well, and just about everyone I know says they’ve never seen it like this. But at least it’s not nearly dry like many of the smaller tributaries.
We’ve been through this before, of course. I remember stopping by the same small river in the fall of 1988 – also a drought year – and I don’t think there was even enough water in the stream to get my ankles wet.
The fish came back a few years later with the water, and I’m hopeful the same will happen again, but it’s been several years since we’ve seen drought conditions as extreme as this year.
There have been occasional dry blips, to be sure, but the past two decades more often have been too wet than too dry.
This year’s conditions seem even worse with all of the smoke in the air every day. As dry as it was in 1988, I don’t remember smoke like this. This year, the smoke is relentless, and with tens of thousands of acres of forests continuing to burn in parts of Manitoba and Ontario, it’s probably not going away anytime soon.
I’m not sure which is worse, but from a fishing perspective, at least, I think I’ll take too wet over too dry. A happy medium would be even better, but that’s an elusive benchmark.
As former Grand Forks Herald publisher and editor Mike Jacobs – a survivor of both floods and drought – has said, he prefers a flood because it’s in some ways instant and gone, at least on the Red River.
Droughts, by comparison, tend to linger, and recovering from their effects takes longer.
I tend to agree with Jacobs in his preference, though I might have been less convinced that Saturday morning in September 2019, when I woke up to a waterlogged basement after 5 inches of rain fell during overnight in Grand Forks.
Like many homeowners and landowners across the region, I fought water until freeze-up that fall.
The extreme dry conditions also will have a negative impact on duck hunting this fall. As the North Dakota Game and Fish Department reported Monday, Aug. 2, the number of duck broods observed during the annual July brood count survey was down 49% from 2020 and 23% below the 1965-2020 average.
The state’s wetland index was down a whopping 80%, the largest one-year percentage decline in the 74-year history of the survey, according to Mike Szymanski, migratory game bird management supervisor for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck.
Without adequate water, ducks that normally would have set up shop and nested either moved on or didn’t bother nesting.
That’s going to be a big adjustment for hunters who don’t remember the drought years and have only enjoyed the bounty of abundant wetlands and ideal nesting conditions.
On the upside, the dry conditions could bode well for production of ground-nesting upland species such as pheasants and ruffed grouse. Ruffed grouse drumming counts in Minnesota are down from last year, but a couple of wildlife managers I contacted in the northwest part of the state said they’ve been seeing more broods, which suggests the dry spring conditions may have bolstered production.
That’s exactly what happened in 1988, perhaps the best fall of ruffed grouse hunting I’ve ever experienced.
We’ll see what the fall brings. In the meantime, we hope and pray for rain.