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An Angler’s Lament: The Rivers We Love, Shriveled into Memories

Fishing, and fly-fishing in particular, creates an intimacy with a stream and its life forms. What happens when the stream disappears?

Written by Shawn Pittard Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes

“Whoever wrote the little psalms of the Tao Te Ching believed that the long calm regard of moving water was one of the highest forms of prayer.” — Kenneth Rexroth

It comes as no surprise to me that the poet Kenneth Rexroth was a fly-fisher. Poets and fly-fishers have much in common. Both pastimes invite the use of all of one’s senses to make close, sustained observations and to make connections between them. But as the dry years became drought years, the moving water that was the subject of my long calm regard began to vanish before my eyes. The changes I witnessed also altered how and when I fish and, ultimately, whether I will fish at all.

One of my favorite rivers in the Sierra Nevada is the Truckee. Its source is the outflow from Lake Tahoe’s north shore. Last fall, it was reported that the lake had receded to the point that only five cubic feet per second of water was reaching the Truckee’s mouth and entering its system. I needed to see it for myself. What I found looked like little more than the flow from a garden hose.

The winter that followed was mild and produced little snowpack. This summer, the Truckee received no outflow from a further-diminished Lake Tahoe. Five to seven cubic feet per second is the current reported flow in most of the Truckee in California. Flows increase as the river gets closer to Nevada and benefits from water released from downstream dams. In low-flow sections, water temperatures are as high as 74 degrees Fahrenheit.

Trout are a cold-water species, making the drought-induced warm water temperatures a particular danger for them. Generally speaking, trout thrive in temperatures between 58 and 64 degrees Fahrenheit. As water temperature goes up, the water’s oxygen content goes down.

Before the drought, I used a submersible thermometer to help me figure out where the trout might be holding. Trout seek out places — what we call lies — where they can find food to eat, get relief from the current and rest or protect themselves from predation. A lie that combines all three is called a prime lie.

When the thermometer shows consistent temperatures in the optimal range, trout have lots of options — the entire river is potential habitat. As the water warms, the trout’s options are reduced. They move toward cool waters found in deeper pools, in the shade of alders and willows along the banks, at the inlet of a spring-fed creek. Another option is to move to oxygenated reaches of the river, places where riffles or waterfalls aerate the water. During sunlight hours, weed beds add oxygen as a byproduct of photosynthesis.

Up to a point, higher water temperatures are better for the fly-fisher. There are simply fewer places the fish are likely to be, increasing the chances of figuring out where the fish are holding. For myself, this is an enjoyable problem-solving process – one in which I enter the food chain in the ecosystem, try to see and think from inside it.

Sometimes this process leads to a trout taking the fly I present to it. Having a trout on the line leads to new considerations for a catch-and-release fly-fisher, who strives to safely play, land and release a trout.

When temperatures increase, it becomes more difficult for trout to recover from being caught and released. The lactic acid that builds up in a trout’s muscles during twisting aerial leaps and hard runs against the fishing line becomes more difficult to clear when the water is warm.

Before the drought, when the water was colder, fly-fishers could reduce lactic acid buildup by limiting the amount of time the fish was played, using tackle of appropriate weight and strength to bring the fish to hand as quickly as possible. We also take care not to touch the fish with dry hands, which can remove the protective film on the fish’s scales, or to use a net made with materials that will not harm the film and with a mesh size that will prevent entangling gills and fins.

In the best of all cases, the trout is never lifted out of the river, but is kept in contact with the water — and its oxygen — so it can continue to breathe. If the trout is weak from its struggle, the fly-fisher guides its nose into the current, allowing water to flow in through its mouth and out through its gills while cradling the fish until it is ready and able to swim away under its own power. Finally, it breaks away, kicking up water with its powerful tail.

At warmer water temperatures, a fish is more likely to die after it is released.

As flows in rivers and streams became lower and lower over the past year, causing temperatures to increase, I restricted myself to fishing the earliest morning hours when water temperatures were at their coolest. I frequently consulted my thermometer and, as a general rule, would stop fishing when the temperature approached 68 degrees — and never fished after it reached 70.

There was more than temperature to consider, though. Low flows were concentrating trout, putting them into increasing competition with each other for both feeding and resting lies. Shallower water affected their protective lies, made them more vulnerable to predation by ospreys, raccoons and bears. The trout were living in an increasingly stressful environment.

We have reached a point where no amount of care and consciousness on our part can protect trout in many of our rivers and streams under the current extreme drought circumstances. Where the flows are too low and the temperatures too high, I am not fishing. These sentiments are being shared loudly in blogs, on guides’ websites and in online fly-fishing reports.

In wetter years, online reports provide information about insect hatches that are occurring and the artificial flies that best match them – flies that are typically for sale at the fly shop providing the report. As the drought progressed, these reports instead became sources of increasingly essential information about flows and temperatures, about where and when one should exercise restraint.

Finally, there were calls for everyone to stop fishing certain streams, along with a call for regulators to enact more aggressive protections.

“Don’t fish and don’t ask if you have any idea of what is going on!” says one reliable and popular report. “I would NOT fish the Truckee for the rest of the summer if you have any ETHICS!”

Questioning a fly-fisher’s ethics is a particularly effective approach. So much so, the report goes on to taunt regulators with those very ethics: “This is a decision by the fly-fishers who are generally frustrated that the DFW (California Department of Fish and Wildlife) will not impose closure regulations.”

Some regulators respond that, because the situation is so severe, closing the river to fishing won’t make any difference.

Over the course of this extreme drought, the rivers I’ve regarded with long calm have reached the brink of disappearing. The fish that depend upon moving water are in a struggle to survive. I find myself muttering an anxious prayer, a prayer for rain, a prayer for the resiliency of our watershed, and a prayer that its human inhabitants will take action to protect the system that ultimately sustains them.

Shawn Pittard is a writer and fly-fisher and works as an environmental planner at the California Energy Commission in Sacramento. He is the author of two volumes of poetry: Standing in the River_, which was the winner of Tebot Bach’s 2010 Clockwise Chapbook Competition, and_ These Rivers from Rattlesnake Press. You can reach him at [email protected].

Top image: The author’s nephew and niece, Riley and Kennedy Tanaka, fish the Truckee River in June 2014. Back then the river — and the fish — still had adequate water flows. (Photo by Shawn Pittard)

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