Hoot owl blues

I’d been here before. This exact same pool, the exact same fish, and the exact same feeling – “Just let me catch this fish before I call it a day… please?”.

The difference was that the last time, I stopped fishing because it was time to call it a day. We’d had a long day and were both ready to stop. This time, however, I was stopping because I had to. An emergency closure notice had been issued a day or two before I arrived and, at 2 pm, we had to shut it down. 

It was the third week of July and it was already stinking hot out. So hot, in fat, that the government of Alberta had instituted time of day closures, also known as hoot owl hours. We had to stop fishing by 2 pm. And, even though no one was around or ever would have known that we had stopped, we did.

It was frustrating, especially when I’d driven 8 hours to be here. But I got it. I really did. Our rivers in B.C. have been in an increasingly rough shape and next door in Alberta, they weren’t doing much better. I’d seen nothing but low flowing rivers the whole drive out to see my brother. There was slightly more water in Alberta, but not much.

Time of day restrictions give the fish a break during the hottest part of the day. If things didn’t improve, at least from a water temperature perspective, the next step would be a full-blown closure. No one wanted that. The term hoot owl originated from the logging world in the early 1900s. During the intense heat of the summer, loggers had to be careful of accidentally starting fires with their equipment (they still do). They found that working during the cooler morning hours, when they could still hear owls hooting in the trees, was safer and reduced the risk of fires. It eventually became the de facto slang for time of day restrictions. 

No one even wanted the time of day restrictions. It made life difficult for everyone who relied on those rivers for a living, like fly shops and guides. A day earlier, we’d stopped at a fly shop after the day’s closure kicked in. The owner came in after a short day of guiding and he didn’t look happy.

“I didn’t see a single sign out there about the closure,” he said to us and anyone else who would listen. “And there wasn’t a single conversation officer out there enforcing the rules, either.”

We hung around the shop for a bit longer. We shopped for flies. He blew off steam. 

“You’d think he’d be more supportive of a rule designed to protect his business,” my brother said after we left. 

“He’s probably more upset about the temporary pain to his business,” I said. 

His attitude was understandable, but problematic at the same time. He had every right to be annoyed at the impact on his business, but when people come into his shop and see local guides bitching about the regulations, it sets the wrong tone. It creates a weird implication that it was a bogus rule change and that if no one else was following the rules, why should they?

As much as I disagreed with what he said, he had a point. There were no signs. No visible enforcement. There hadn’t been a notice when I bought my license or anything like that. If I wasn’t as plugged into the scene as I am, I wouldn’t have known there was a mid-season reg change. And, because of that, all that really ended up happening was a bunch of people stopped fishing, while a bunch of others kept right on going. If we’re lucky, they noticed the river was quieter than usual. 

Back down in the canyon, I broke down my rod and walked back to meet my brother. We were so close to a spot I’d been dreaming about for a few years, but if we wanted the freedom to fish these rivers again and discover some of these spots we’d been dreaming of, we needed to follow the rules. Alberta’s trout population has been getting its ass kicked by a whole set of factors lately, with everything from coal mining to logging threatening the local waters. We didn’t need to add to the pressure by fishing for them on days when they needed a break.

The low flows and heat were just the tip of the iceberg, really. 

We started the 5 km walk back to the truck. Most of our time was spent starting wistfully at the river, wishing we could wet a line. It was hard, but necessary. There was a noticeable difference in both water levels and fish population in this stretch of river compared to last year. If we wanted to fish this stretch again next year (and the year after that… and the year after that) we had to show the river the respect it deserved this year. 

Eventually, we made our way back to the truck and drove off in search of a cold drink. 

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