Fly fishing during western drought | Hatch magazine

We’ve all seen and read about the record low water levels of famous western reservoirs like Lake Powell and Lake Mead on the Colorado River, but the persistent drought isn’t unique to the American southwest. From New Mexico to southwestern Montana and west across the Rocky Mountains to California’s Sierra Nevada, some of America’s most iconic trout waters have a real problem.

Southern Colorado, home to rivers that stretch from Arkansas and Johnson to the Animas and the Rio Grande, is experiencing another year of massive snowpack drying — as of this writing, the snow-to-water equivalent in these streams — according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service — ranging from about 65 percent of normal in the Gunnison Basin to only 16 percent of normal in the upper Rio Grande.

Heading north, things are getting a little better, but not by much, according to NRCS data. In Wyoming, the snow-to-water equivalent ranges from 69 percent of normal in the lower Green River stream to as high as 111 percent of normal in the Tong River basin in the north-central region of the state. Famous drainages such as Yellowstone and Madison Gallatin that originated within Yellowstone National Park are at 94 and 79 percent of normal, respectively. The headwaters of the Snake River currently have a snow-to-water ratio of 90 percent of normal.

In southwest Montana, home to legendary trout fisheries such as Yellowstone, Madison and Beaverhead, the snow-to-water equivalent is between 90-95 percent of normal. The northern quadrant of the state looks much better, with percentages well above 100 percent of normal.

In neighboring Idaho, the pattern continues. The northern tier of the state, including the treetop area, enjoys the fruits of a hard winter, with snow-to-water equivalents ranging from as low as 105 percent of normal in the far north from 182 percent of normal in the Wiser River basin on the state’s western border with Oregon.

But the state’s famous trout fisheries in rivers like Henry’s Fork, South Fork, and Teton all push through a second drought year in a row. Remember, too, that these rivers aren’t just trout—they are sources of most of southern Idaho’s irrigation water for crops ranging from wheat and barley to sugar beets and potatoes. Residents living in the southern half of Idaho have been told that the reservoirs will not be filled this summer and that the irrigation season will be short and potentially costly for the farming community, with snow-to-water rates ranging from 81 percent of normal in the Henry Basin connection. Fork to only 72 percent of normal in the Oihi Basin in the state’s southwest corner.

From west to California, things are looking particularly bleak along the Sierra spine, with most NRCS gauge stations recording less than 50 percent of normal when it comes to the water contained within the remaining snowpack.

For hunters, this is another year of bad news in a string of bad news years. If there’s any good news, it’s coming in a cool, wet spring and likely won’t do much to boost the existing mass of snow, but it does contribute to late runoff that will definitely help big-water trout when temperatures finally reach their summer peak. But it’s safe to assume that fishermen in the West – or those traveling west to fish this summer – will see more seasonal fishing closures, “loud owl” trolling restrictions and likely negative effects of a multi-year drought on some of the best trout rivers in the country.

So what do we do?

Well, you don’t have to be gloomy, but if you want to fish the big waters for big trout, come early before it gets too hot and dry, or plan backwater fishing vacations like Roaring Fork and Taylor in Colorado , or on the Snake’s South Fork or the South Fork of Boise, Idaho. Paradise Valley up to Yellowstone in Montana, where anglers now frequently report catching smallmouth bass, will almost certainly see seasonal closures with summer pushed aside, and other notable rivers, such as the Big Hole and Truckee will almost certainly be affected by lower waters and summer days warm.

Another option: plan to fish smaller waters atop the sinks of your favorite trout. Even in drought-stricken Colorado, high altitude trout water must be perishable (and biodegradable early) all summer long. The same is true of most western banks – the small streams that flow from the top of the country onto the territory of the US Forest Service will be more suitable for trout with the onset of summer.

No, the fish is not large, but it is abundant and opportunistic. If you know where to go in some of these western havens, you can catch surprisingly big fish in the small waters – but don’t expect the locals to offer much advice. It’s been a grueling few years of drought and heat in trout country, and while summer tourists spur the economy, trout fishing grounds are well-guarded these days.

You have more options of course. With gasoline prices well above $4 a gallon in most of the West, a road trip to Yellowstone or Rocky Mountain National Park will cost twice as much this summer. If you have trout water close to home, by all means, stretch your budget and hit the Appalachian tail waters instead of pursuing plans to get to Madison in July.

Sadly, judging by the increasingly depressing data, this may be the “new normal” in the West – we get less snow and it looks like summer starts early every year. And our trout is struggling. Last summer, by mid-July, popular trout rivers like the Montana Bitterroot had been killed off as water temperatures soared from the low to mid 70s—for trout, ideal water temperatures for active feeding are between 45 and 60 degrees. Once the water is warmer than that, the trout will slow down. At a temperature of more than 65 degrees, a confrontation with a fisherman can be fatal, even if the fish is released.

If you have to fish out west this summer, consider these tips to help you — and the salmon you’re looking for — make the most of your experience:

Get a thermometer

You can get a water temperature thermometer at your local fly store. Clip it to your jacket or sling bag and use it. Most of us who fish for trout often think we can tell when the water is approaching unsafe levels, but it doesn’t hurt to know for sure. If the water temperature is above 65 degrees, consider doing something else that day.

Keep the fish hydrated

When the water temperatures are warmer than you or you may like trout, it is important to handle the fish with care. If possible, never take them out of the water, and try to avoid extensive hand contact at all. This stresses the fish and reduces or removes the slime coating. When you add this up with water temperatures that are warmer than preferred, it often translates to stressed trout dying.

Fish early and fish late

Fish early in the morning after eight hours or so of darkness with Rocky Mountain’s patented chill together to cool nearby water or trout streams. When the days hit their 80s, it’s probably time to take a break. If necessary, fish again after the sun has cooled down a little, and the surrounding air temperatures have also decreased.

Catching smaller and higher water

The Rockies and the West are full of trout streams in the countryside that may require a bit more effort to get to, but can be rewarding when it comes to fishing. Because, even in the summer heat, temperatures remain mild during the day, and trout water is perishable, usually throughout the entire season. In general, the fish you catch will be on the smaller side. But… it doesn’t beat hunting at all.

Consider other types

It’s time for trout hunters to branch out a bit, and experiment with other species, especially in the summer heat. Bass and bunch fish offer great opportunities to fish all summer long, and lesser-known fish, such as carp and bull, offer some of the best freshwater sports most anglers will ever experience. For coastal fishermen, striped bass, redfish, trout, and sheepshead all make excellent sport fishing rods during the summer months. Sure, it’s hotter and worse, but the fishing can be excellent.

The warm climate does no favors for trout. Some scientific predictions, based on current models of climate change, say the United States will lose half of its trout in the next 40 to 60 years, simply because its habitat has become less hospitable. It’s a daunting thought—for many of us, our grandchildren may represent the last generation of trout fishermen in America.

But for today’s trout fishermen, making some adjustments in how and when we fish is likely what will conserve trout for the foreseeable future. A few small sacrifices can go a long way toward protecting our beloved fish… and our fishing.

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