Despite weak snowpack, river enthusiasts optimistic

May 3—Despite this winter's paltry performance, there's still some snow left in the mountains to melt, and river lovers are watching it closely.

While some late-arriving snow did help the mountains recover a little this spring, snowpack in most drainages in Eastern Washington and North Idaho didn't reach normal levels before it started melting.

Now, some middle- and lower-elevation snow has turned to water. Higher-elevation snow is still hanging on, though, meaning area rivers have not reached peak flows.

For anglers, that means the window of prerunoff fishing is not closed. For whitewater enthusiasts, that means the best days of the year are still to come.

The annual question of when runoff will arrive and just how high the rivers will go remains unanswered.

"Things are looking OK," said Jon Wilmot, owner of FLOW Adventures in Spokane. "It will all depend on how the water holds out."

As of Friday, the Spokane River was running at about 6,600 cubic feet per second downtown, according to the U.S. Geological Survey's stream gauge. That's almost 10,000 CFS lower than it was this time last year.

The Northwest River Forecast Center predicts the Spokane will rise significantly next week, though not to the levels seen last year. The center's long-term forecast predicts the river could reach 15,000 CFS later in the month.

Wilmot's company offers rentals and runs guided trips on the Spokane, typically from Peaceful Valley downstream. Once flows drop below a certain level, he said, the whitewater excitement is limited, so he offers more leisurely tube floats.

If the remaining snow melts all at once, the river would reach a high peak and then taper off for the year, prompting Wilmot to trade rafts for tubes sooner.

When that happens, however, always depends heavily on how the weather shakes out in May and June, especially in a low snow year.

"We've been shy of snowpack before and had a cool wet end of May and first part of June," Wilmot said. "That always helps the season last a little longer on the Spokane."

Rain and cooler temperatures are expected Sunday and Monday, but the Spokane area is expected to warm back up by next weekend, according to the National Weather Service.

The agency's long-term forecast for May, June and July says it's likely that the region will see above-normal temperatures and below-normal precipitation levels.

The same factors will also determine how the season pans out for other rivers in the region, such as the Clark Fork in Montana.

As of Friday, that river was running at about 7,100 CFS. The river forecast center predicts that it could rise to close to 20,000 late this month.

Paul Delaney, of the Northwest Whitewater Association, said that's a level the river traditionally reaches.

"You're gonna have a good year, I think, regardless on the Clark Fork," Delaney said. "It's got such a huge drainage."

He said the same is likely true of the Salmon River in Idaho. Both spots are popular day-trip destinations for Spokane area rafters, as is the Wenatchee River.

Delaney himself is preparing for a multiday trip to the Owyhee River in southeast Oregon, one of a few areas in the West that received well above-normal snowpack this winter.

"There's a wealth of snowpack in the Owyhees," Delany said. "We're going to have nice flows for our trip."

Meanwhile, fly anglers are finding fishable conditions and decent insect hatches on the famous cutthroat streams of North Idaho — the St. Joe River and the North Fork of the Coeur d'Alene River.

Flows are in the range that keeps them clear and makes them floatable for those who like fishing out of a boat. The North Fork, for example, was running at less than 700 CFS near Prichard on Friday.

Kenyon Pitts, a guide and salesman at Silver Bow Fly Shop, said anglers on the North Fork of the Coeur d'Alene River are seeing some salmonflies — big, orange stoneflies that provide great dry fly fishing.

The hatch is a couple of weeks ahead of schedule, but anglers will take it. Pitts added that the flows typically are over 2,000 CFS for this time of year, and the lower water makes for prime conditions.

"This is pretty much as good as it gets for this time of year," he said.

That doesn't bode well for July and August, he noted, as the river could get low and hot sooner than normal. Conditions like that are bad for fish, particularly when they're caught and released.

Low and hot river conditions aren't a deal breaker for rafters and kayakers, though.

Delaney said he's rafted the Spokane River at close to 40,000 CFS in the past, but he's also done it when it was under 1,000 CFS.

Low water can make some of its technical features more challenging, and river enthusiasts with the right gear and the know-how can still find some fun.

"Whitewater guys can find fun at just about any level," Delaney said.