Photo of Tommy Sanders

with Tommy Sanders

Q: There has been massive flooding on the river system where I live. Are all the fish gone now?

- Spencer Gregory, Mayflower, AR

A. Well, Spencer, the wind blew 10 times harder than normal for three days last week and I didn't break apart or get blown all the way to Bermuda.

I’m sorry -- that was uncalled for. But I’m using borderline rudeness to make a point. You and I live on dry land, and we can take cover or at least adapt to environmental calamities. Fish can do the same thing, up to a point.

But your question is legitimate, and timely for sure. With massive floods raging from upstate New York all the way to the Gulf Coast, this spring has cancelled thousands of fishing trips and left lots of anglers worrying about the future.

Photo of the Morganza Spillway in Louisiana

But I can assure that all of your largemouth bass are not halfway to Ecuador right now. Fish are designed for quick movement, and their instincts are tuned to both short-term and long-term survival. Plus they will do everything in their power to remain reasonably close to home. In fact, studies of tagged adult fish that were stocked in waterways right before unexpected major flood events found most of them not far from their stocking point.

The first thing fish will do when water volume increases dramatically is to move out of the current and into eddies that are created by breaks in the bank, rocks, humps and other structures. They can also find more manageable water in bottom holes. They will ride the flood out in these places, maybe not thriving, but surviving.

Photo of a bridge and flood marker

Eventually, these fish will be searching for cleaner, less turbulent water. That search can cause them to relocate, at least temporarily. Sometimes they will even travel upstream to find better conditions.

Here, I’m talking mostly about adult or at least maturing fish. The young have a bit more trouble, as two- inch fingerlings are not equipped to deal with torrential situations. It’s possible for big floods to decimate entire year classes.

But it’s hard for fish to stay at home for very long if their habitat gets pushed downstream. You may think that fish have been washed away, but actually it could be that the grass, logs, laydowns, rocks and gravel that make life possible for them has all been relocated.

However, it’s also possible to come out better, habitat-wise, after a flood. Big floods can do a good job of scouring silted-in places. Raging water can expose or deposit rocks and gravel that vastly improve the spawning environment.

Of course there are some elements of the flood that are a definite lose/lose situation for the fish, including all of the toxins that a swollen river can pull in from our ever more built-out world.

Floods are no fun, and they can smash and send some of our best work as humans crashing down the river. But the fish can deal with floods.