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The Back Porch

Still hungry

Still Hungry

This story is featured in Montana Outdoors May-June 2014 issue

It’s runoff season, the time of year when snowmelt in the mountains and rain on the plains cause rivers and streams to run high, wide, and not so handsome.

Impatient anglers head to reservoirs or just downstream of a dam, such as Holter on the Missouri or Yellowtail on the Bighorn, where the river is not as roiled.

But most anglers prefer to sit out this time of year and wait for the water to drop and clear. They maintain that rivers are just too muddy for fish to see their bait, making them too hard catch.
True, to a point. Yet fish still have to eat.

How they find food depends on the species. Some, like catfish, sauger, walleye, and freshwater drum, are adapted to finding food in dark or turbid surroundings. Others, like northern pike, bass, and trout, depend mostly on sight in clear water. One clue to the importance of vision is the relative size of a fish’s eye. Trout, goldeye, largemouth and smallmouth bass, and northern pike have large, prominent eyes they use to find food. These species are less successful locating a meal when a clear stream or river is muddy or “off color” (an odd term when you consider that clear is not a color).
Fear not, for these fish won’t starve, though the luckless angler might. For instance, trout can go days without eating, especially in winter when their metabolism slows down. And even during runoff, they still feed even if their vision is obscured; they just aren’t as efficient. Some trout in a muddy river will seek a spot where clear water enters, like from a spring or small tributary. Or they’ll feed on larger prey that’s easier to spot.

Even in the middle of a muddy stream, like the Smith River in May, people still catch trout, so obviously the fish are still attempting to eat.

The structure of a fish’s eye limits its vision, even in clear water. According to one textbook, most fish are nearsighted, and the medium of water limits their vision to a maximum of 30 to 50 feet. Factor in the camouflage of prey species such as emerald shiners or perch, and many predator fish cannot see their quarry even 15 feet away. Just another reason why anglers need to cover as much water as possible. Sometimes you might have to put your lure, bait, or fly right in front of a fish’s snout before it knows it’s there.

Catfish, sturgeon, and burbot have relatively small eyes. That means they use other methods to locate food. Many of these bottom-dwelling fish have taste buds on their lips or head. Some species of catfish have taste buds over much of their body, including the barbels, mistakenly called whiskers.

The ability to sniff out food is important to these fish. Plenty of companies sell various types of “stink bait” for bottom-dwelling species such as catfish, carp, and suckers. Uncommon in Montana, the
foul-smelling concoctions plastered on a treble hook are popular in the warmer waters of the Midwest and South.

Whether you want to hold your nose and go that route, or just toss out your favorite lure or streamer, don’t let a little muddy water this time of year keep you from fishing. Fish gotta eat too.Bear bullet

Bruce Auchly manages the regional Information and Education Program in Great Falls.