Western Trout Rivers: An Angler's Prospectus

Fly fishing: Out west, with years of lingering drought, and now reports of declining trout populations in the holy-waters of Montana...

July 2022

As we move out of winter into summer, lots of eyes take note of the snowpack outlook for the coming year. Out west, with years of lingering drought, and now reports of declining trout populations in the holy-waters of Montana, media coverage has put a keen eye towards climate change and its potential effects on future trout fishing prospects. The largest concern is that our current drought may continue through 2030, according to recent reports from National Geographic.

As we move into summer, a reinvigorated focus will be placed on avoiding streams with elevated temperatures and searching for alternate fishing opportunities. Fishing closures are almost assuredly expected around the West this season as well. 5280 magazine recently featured an article postulating whether or not anglers are ready to deal with the new normal: drought. The messaging is as clear as ever, once water temperatures eek past 68°F, hooking and releasing a trout can get lethal. This can't be how it's going to be every year from now on... right?

Looking into the future, some predictions see stream temperatures rising across the board by 1.8°F by 2050. When you think about temp increases coupled with drought conditions, trout are dealing with a double whammy. In drier western states, drought and higher temperatures are coupled together; if temperatures warm earlier in the year, runoff starts earlier, and by August, there isn't much (if any) snowpack left to supply streams with an influx of cool water later in the year. The early pulse of water doesn't often coincide with the crop growing season, and the large demand for water in the agricultural industry siphons off the already dwindling water supply as the season progresses. Without any in-stream flow protections or supplementations from reservoirs, stream temperatures will continue to increase as flows decrease, and we can say goodbye to accessing some stretches of blue-ribbon or gold-medal waters during the summer months.

This will undoubtedly impact the guiding community too, and 5280 reported in that same article that several guiding operations are already faced with canceling outings to avoid fishing in overly hot conditions.

Not long after finding the 5280 article, I read an article about what kills trout, and couldn't help but connect the dots that a lot more people are getting worried about losses in the coming years. So, what does kill trout? The author highlights the big culprits: drought, high temps, but beyond that, diseases, old age, flooding, predation, chemical shock, getting hooked, genetic decline, poor spawning, overpopulation, and stress. Many have direct links to warming, like poor spawning, and stress. If runoff happens earlier, the entire river ecosystem gets knocked out of sync, as many species rely on a consistently timed pulse of spring water to cue important life events. Everything from the Salmonflies hatch just after peak runoff, to trout spawning cues can be altered by stream temperatures and flows. Even flooding (Yellowstone this year) can be connected to warming climate. As climatic oscillations become more dramatic, extreme storms may become more frequent. Diseases, like the proliferative kidney disease which caused a large whitefish die-off in 2016, are more likely to radiate during warmer conditions.

With this laundry list of stressors, compounded by angling pressure, when is it going to become too much to sustain a healthy fishery? How does the trout angling community pivot? Do we just adjust to fishing more tailwaters? After all, temperatures are buffered below (bottom-release) dams and conditions can remain optimal throughout the year... but bring on the river crowding. Even then, dam releases might require efforts from conservation groups to lobby for more water on behalf of fish and river ecosystems. This might be unpopular if droughts continue and dams are required to hold more water as drought insurance. So where else can we shift our angling focus?

Why leave fish to find fish?

We usually discuss this question riverside, but the real application around the West is: do we leave the usual fly fishing haunts to go exploring new, unfamiliar terrain? For now, the trout fishing we are accustomed to promises jumping rainbows and streamer-chasing browns that fill your net to the brim. Is that feasible forever? What happens when angling pressure and environmental stress pushes things over the limit?

Why would we want to give that up to go hike up a creek for fingerling brook trout? There is no 'glory' to catching a trophy 12" brook trout out of a creek that no one has heard of, compared to netting a 20+ inch brown trout out of the famous Henry's Fork. Don't get me wrong! I think many would love that chase, but overall, the focus remains on the big, famous waterways – the places we collectively praise. Social media isn't helping either...

Keep in mind my western perspective, but in my opinion, there is a messaging problem from big fly fishing brands, as well. According to Orvis' Tom Rosenbauer, We don’t like to tell people what to do.” I understand that perspective, and to their credit they do lead by example. They enthusiastically showcase the fun of bass and carp fishing. Yet the magnetic draw of trout fishing is too strong that without a compelling voice commanding the room, things might not change quickly enough to make a positive impact. Plus, over the past 50+ years, the big brands and publications have been so (big) trout focused that they effectively have been telling us what to do: river fishing for trout. The catalogs, the idyllic imagery, people (like me) grew into fly fishing because of that. When new people find fly fishing, around here at least, they want that same thing. The shops, the guides, are all following the demand, naturally.

I’m not blaming them for this approach, but it’s only recently we’ve learned that a pivot might be needed. If the future of fishing in this idyllic setting is in jeopardy, how do we break free from that mentality? (cough-**Improved stream access laws might be a good starting point**-cough). If you‘re reading the same things as me, you’ve probably seen this coming as well. Still, I'm finding it really difficult to pull myself away from fishing (and dreaming about) the well-known rivers, despite an active push to think outside the usual trout destinations. For now it's just an ethical dilemma, but in the future? We're not trending in the right direction...