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A Red Flag for Cherished Cold-Water Fisheries

  • Alec Underwood
  • Jun 09, 2021

For many of us here in Montana, we spend a good chunk of the winter and spring dreaming of warm summer days casting to rising trout on any of the various blue-ribbon waters in our state. When it gets really hot, I head to higher elevations in search of cutthroat in mountain lakes or high gradient streams. It’s an opportunity to escape busier waters and the sweltering temperatures in the valleys. 

With many of our larger rivers swelling with spring runoff and the good fishing yet to be had, you’d think the notion of heading for the hills wouldn’t even cross an angler’s mind in early June. But as I talked with fishing friends at a barbecue recently, one suggested exactly that, and for one major reason— it was 95 degrees on Thursday, June 3rd. 

As somebody who pays attention to snowpack, runoff, drought and how extreme temperatures can impact trout, the fact that we’re already seeing mid-nineties temperatures in early June is a red flag in my mind. It’s almost every year now that I find myself hoping for more late spring snow storms, or at least cooler temperatures to help maintain a steady runoff to feed our streams and keep our fish happy. 

My concern for how fish will fare this summer is exacerbated by looking at what’s happening across the entire Western U.S., a historic drought that will likely cause the first-ever water shortage declaration in the Colorado basin. Take a quick look at the U.S. Drought Monitor, and you can really visualize the extent of what is going on. 

drought-west-06-2021

Whether it’s record setting temperatures year after year, the long-term decline of snowpack across the west, the proliferation of drought or more intense and more frequent wildfires, the impacts of climate change can be witnessed everywhere you look. 

Impacts on our cold water fisheries are well documented too, like the shifts in species composition, where non-native species thrive in warmer water temperatures as more sensitive native species retract higher up in watersheds. Lower stream flows and higher water temperatures in mid to late summer cause trout to be physiologically stressed. Finally, we all see the impact of warming waters first hand through the temporary closures or restrictions on some of our most cherished trout rivers. 

Witnessing these impacts year after year can be disheartening, but its incumbent on all anglers to continue calling for meaningful action to address the impacts of climate change. Already there are efforts to mitigate carbon pollution from industry leaders such as the Fly Fishing Climate Alliance, a coalition of fly fishing businesses who have pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030. In addition to these efforts, the Biden Administration has revealed a bold vision to conserve America’s lands and waters and combat climate change through jobs, infrastructure, energy transition, and restoration efforts that will build resiliency in our landscapes.

Wildfire-River-ElkNow more than ever, anglers need to advocate for protecting the fisheries that we hold dear. That means thinking ahead to combat the largest issue of our time by calling on our elected officials to support common-sense policies that address climate change, and allow our fish, wildlife and sporting opportunities to persist for future generations to enjoy. It’s as easy as googling the contact numbers for your congressional delegations and leaving a message with their offices, that this issue means something to you. Get to it, if not for the sake of the earth, for the sake of our fish.


Alec Underwood is the federal conservation campaigns director for the Montana Wildlife Federation

NWF Outdoors is a leading voice for hunters and anglers combating climate change. To learn more, visit www.nwf.org/gamechanger

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