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A Year in the Life of the Gallatin River

Published in the Jan/Feb 2008 issue of the Montana Sporting Journal

By Joshua Bergan

If you pay attention, it becomes clear that Montana’s rivers are just as full of life as the antelope, elk and grizzly bears that depend on them. They ebb and flow with the seasons, just the same as the grass and trees green and brown, and even more so.

The life cycle of a river is a wondrous event to bear.

The following is a year in the life of the Gallatin River, as photographed from a private spot just west of Belgrade.

NOTE: The photos are unified by a large, broccoli-shaped tree (referred to as the tree) on the opposite bank. Refer to this tree to see how the river changes throughout the year.

1. The year of our Lord 2007 started out mild, with little snow and moderate temperatures. On January 5, the Gallatin River was running pretty much wide open, with the exception of some small ice shelves. But soon …

2. … the main channel of the Gallatin was completely dammed by ice. What little water that still flowed was forced into the old channels that only get used during runoff and when the river gets dammed (and also in one small canal barely visible on the opposite side of the river) like this, just 12 days later on January 17.

3. By February 2, the only water that still ran was in the old channels beneath the ice. Note how high the flooded river comes up on the trees on the opposite bank (about 3 or 4 feet).

4. The following day, the ice began to break. Note the trees on the opposite bank.

5. The river flowed with the warmth of young love just in time for Valentines Day. Air temperatures had allowed to the river to break through the ice, and water is coursing through its main artery again.

6. Eight days later the beating of the sun warms the water enough to bring the midge, the year’s first adult insect, to life. The remnants of a dammed river create cavernous cut-off banks of snow (around five feet tall) that briefly imprison the river.

7. The sun granted us this masterpiece on March 28. The snow is nearly gone. Note the tree on the far left.

8. By April 13, she looks fishable. You better get your casts in now; mountaintop snow has already begun melting and soaking into the Gallatin’s high-elevation tributaries. Winter stoneflies have returned and any day now, the skwala.

9. By April 29, the springtime’s dirty tradition is upon us. March browns and blue-winged olives have arrived and anticipating anglers again have to wait. A small thunderstorm adds more runoff to an already-muddy river, but we’ll take what we can get.

10. More of the same on May 3. This marks the second time of the year the water was forced into the normally unused old channels (the arm to the bottom left is dry during normal conditions). March browns are still present.

11. This sepia-toned photo shows the one-month anniversary of 2007’s runoff. The fishing season in Yellowstone Park has now begun, unburdening the river from antsy fishermen. Runoff on the Gallatin is still going strong.

12. By June 7, the trees have greened, but the river remains brown. Shouldn’t be long now, and it’s a good thing. Salmonflies should be here soon. Yellow sallies and Pale Morning Duns are the entrée du jour, for the trout.

13. Throughout the next month and a half, the river went from brown, high and plump to clear, low and boney. In the interim, it was at a normal level for just a day or two. The giant stoneflies have come and gone, light Cahills made a cameo and the caddis are in full swing.

14. By the middle of August, the river appears starved and dehydrated. The sun beams lightly through the smoke of area wildfires. Once again, fishing rods must be shelved.

15. Three days later, the smoke has cleared and again the river sees no mercy. Even the insect life suffers.

16. For a few hours on the afternoon of August 20, a storm in the mountains upstream washes wildfire ash into the Gallatin, giving the skinny river a few drops of nourishment along with an eerie gray hue.

17. By September 11, the heat from the evening sun has subsided and significant rainfall is still needed to replenish the river.

18. A week later and still waiting. The smoke has returned, giving the water a brief reprieve from the sun’s scorching rays and the blue winged-olives have begun their encore. October caddis have also arrived, a little early.

19. Hallelujah. October 8 and Mother Nature finally took pity on the Gallatin, returning her to her healthy and voluptuous form. Brown trout beware: Area fishermen have developed a hankerin’ for big fish after a long, hot summer of closures. Mahogany duns and spinners are common, October caddis remain and winter stoneflies appear.

20. By October 25, snow briefly returns. Steam lightly rises from the relatively warm water. Only some mahoganies and a few BWOs remain.

21. A beautiful sight on Halloween. The river is still fishable, and fishing well at that.

22. A month later the snow has returned for good. The ice shelves are unusually broad for this time of year as ice chunks migrate downstream. Midge pupae and stonefly nymphs are almost the only available insects, not that it’s warm enough for fishing anyhow.

December’s hibernation brings us full circle, and thus we see a year in the life of one of Montana’s most beautiful gems.

Along with springtime’s green and autumn’s brown, the river will live to see another year.