Upper Madison River File

An angler fishes the upper Madison River. 

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I’ve bought a lot of stuff because of fly fishing. Rods and reels, obviously, and waders and wading boots. Nets — plural, because I’m good at losing them. Nippers, hemostats and an overly fancy pack to carry things and help me look cool.

There’s more, but you get the idea. Some of it’s necessary. A lot of it isn’t.

And yet, for no good reason, I ignored one necessary piece of equipment for far too long: a stream thermometer.

I picked one up earlier this month after years of walking past them in fly shops. I don’t have a good excuse for the delay. I guess I worried it might make fly fishing — a recreational activity that turns people into amateur biologists, hydrologists and entomologists — too scientific.

Of course, that’s ridiculous. It’s also the wrong way to look at a thermometer. Checking water temperatures can help anglers, but its more important purpose is to protect the fish.

Especially in a summer like this.

A lackluster snowpack and an unending cycle of hot and dry have left our rivers low and warm. Trout need cold water, and the water isn’t staying cold. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks started ordering fishing restrictions in late June. Among them was a ban on fishing from 2 p.m. to midnight on the lower Madison, a perennially warm river that was regularly reaching 75 degrees.

That’s too hot. Catching and releasing a trout at that temperature is a good way to kill it.

This isn’t the first summer like this, and it won’t be the last. Summers like these put the onus on anglers to fish responsibly. We want trout to thrive, and for a long time.

Fighting them fast and keeping them wet helps. So does knowing the water temperature, and reeling up when it gets too hot.

Montana Trout Unlimited encouraged anglers in an online post this week to stop fishing when temperatures top 67 degrees. As that number gets closer to 70, trout are under even more stress. Sticking a hook in their face can only hurt, even with the reprieve they get when temperatures drop overnight.

There are still ways to fish for trout. Fish early, before things warm up. Maybe go high into the mountains to find colder water.

Bring the thermometer, just to be sure.

Mine is now attached to my overly fancy pack. I hope I’m better at hanging onto it than I am at hanging onto nets.

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Michael Wright is the Chronicle’s managing editor. He can be reached at mwright@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2638.

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