West coast Drought 3

Guest Blogger: Michael Vorhis, Fly Fisher & Author, FreeFlight Publishing 

Shallow shoals
Shallow shoals

At time of this writing, much of the USA West Coast is more than three years into a severe drought. Initially its effect on streams was within the scope of normal habitat fluctuations. But as it has worn on, the world of cold-water fish like trout, whitefish and char (e.g. brook trout) is heading from elevated concern toward a desperate and deadly struggle to endure.

(Imagine air seeping off relentlessly into outer space. What could we do?  Couldn’t flap our arms and follow it; we’re trapped here under its subsiding surface. We’d cut back on activity, stake out more oxygenated areas and try to defend them…all the while hoping more air will arrive before we gag horrible deaths. Dystopian, yes. We might be tenacious…determined…but still quite simply not in control.)

The current drought probably can’t be accurately branded “climate change.” There have been multi-year droughts here roughly every thirty years or so, by human records–just far enough apart for people to forget and presume that each new occurrence has never been experienced before.

And there are lower frequency cycles at work no one yet understands. Much true scientific (as opposed to socio-political) data supports the deduction that cycles of far longer periodicity exist, wherein 200+ years of drought are punctuated by interleaved 100-year time spans of moisture…and that a 200-year dry period may be a reality we’ve now entered, despite hopes to the contrary. Compared to the long term average, the five centuries leading up to now–including the one during which this region was populated and industrialized by man–have been unusually green.

Nature’s cycles inevitably overpower all lesser players.

Some effects on angling that I’ve noticed personally and have discussed with professional fly fishing guides and other anglers are these:

Shallow creeks
Shallow creeks

1. Scarce at the Source — There is already no snowpack left in the California High Sierra, and I’m writing this in May. Snow melt will thus not provide either water or cold temperature to the streams (again) this summer and autumn. The occasional irrelevant bit of drizzle or short-lived flurry will yield only a tiny fraction of what the streams rely on, and even that precipitation will cease very soon. Some water feeds in from springs and the little surface run-off left, but its temperature will rise in the summer sun and will not be cooled by snow melt. The scarcity of water and its inability to be cooled will have cold water fish feeling sluggish and can also wreak havoc with insect hatch patterns.

2. Evacuation — As water levels drop, fish know it; they have the instinct to go find deeper haunts while they can still get there. They’re not going to scoot through shallows in the upstream direction hoping to find safe haven. If they’ve found a deep hole AND if their escape downstream is cut off by too-shallow shoals, they’d have to wait it out there…but given half a chance they’ll move downstream, hoping to locate more water. Those who don’t will soon be riding around in the bellies of raccoon, foxes, hawks and bears.

3. The Squeeze — The drying up of a stream can be thought of as a wall approaching fish from above; shallows are an impassable barrier moving toward them as the drought and summer join forces. As cold-water fish tend to retreat downstream, they begin to encounter another wall, moving upstream in their direction. That wall is the temperature wall. Summer warming is not kept in check by cool water influx, and is further accelerated by slow water travel and shallow depth (giving water much more time to absorb energy from rocks and soil). This warm water “wall” moves upstream day by day. The fish find themselves in an Indiana-Jones-esque dilemma, with two impassable barriers grinding toward them at an alarming and lethal pace. Rainbows might try a last-ditch run for the sea, I don’t know. But if they don’t and the walls slam together, it’s mass death.

Algae in Stanislaus
Algae in Stanislaus

4. Tailwater Denial — Streams below dams often live in oblivion–artificial worlds formed by water released in controlled fashion regardless of the boom-or-bust realities of weather. But their fate is not eased forever; as a drought wears on, dam releases are reduced to trickles by man, and tailwater fisheries must finally face the warm hard truth.

The water upstream of the dam gets lower, and warmer. That’s the new soup released into the stream. It may look like the same fishery, but conditions are no longer optimal…and being warmed before release, the water is also often choked with algae; it’s oxygen-poor and carries a higher percentage of contaminants than before. Fish try to escape it with their one defensive downstream-evacuation play, but if the stream bed runs through a low altitude agricultural area, as is often the case with tailwaters, then further warming occurs rapidly as it flows sluggishly along. The temperature wall now charges upstream at a dizzying rate and with it comes aggressive species who like things warm…like bass. Already-weary trout suddenly find themselves competing even more for available food, and fingerling trout are looking down the barrel of an appalling triple threat.

5. Dam Bursting — Water management folks sometimes “burst” dam releases in drought periods, thinking it’ll help migration of species they get special funding for (such as steelhead), while still letting them crank back on the valve overall. But the average release goes down by these techniques, not up, and flow bursts also change the lives of insect and small fish species, which can have other odd effects on stream normalcy.

6. Size Matters — Previously year-round-flowing small creeks will cease to exist, along with everything in them. Thousands of tiny paradises lost.

7. Frying Pan to Fire — With every degree of warming, cold-water fish become less resilient, less recovery-prone, and less able to survive the rigors of predation escape. Even if they throw a hook or dodge an otter, their chances of perishing after the escape go way up. Imagine managing to outrun a mountain lion and then dying of breathlessness.

Dry forest floor
Dry forest floor

The Oregon coast (and northward) is seeing differences too, but I believe its rainy season has mostly just gone from “dang wet” to “wet.” Utah, Texas and points east have had more than their share of rain and snow. It’s all dropping down the latitude ladder just behind California rather than just before it. I include a few photos of places in Yosemite Valley that were lush, green and flowing in years past, but are near barren now. Yosemite has seen this scenario before and its opposite too, but for now it must endure, as must the dwellers of the streams.

Despite my fascination for the noble high mountain salmonid and my love of its tall-pines, steep gradient, freestone habitat, I find myself gearing up for other species–researching smallmouth bass water (smallmouths are thriving in higher stretches of rivers and streams than their warmer water preferences had opened up to them before), reading up on what the heck a surf perch and a corbina are, buying wire leaders and mighty feathers and hooks, learning how to tie patterns bigger than a grain of sand. Brave new world.

Trout en masse are resourceful, and resilient, but many of the individuals will pay the price. I hope they make it. And I feel a little guilty about hassling them during the biggest test of tenacity they’ll ever face. So if I get out there, it’ll be with barbless hooks 7x tippets and brief battles, and with an eye to giving them a second chance.


  1. Having grown up in SoCal along the San Gabriel Mountains, I appreciate the challenges the native Coastal Rainbow Trout face as small tributaries shrink from over use and lack of snow and rain to keep them healthy. Left to their own devices, they obviously can survive as they have for 10s of thousands of years as the climate cycled through wet and dry periods. But the continued presence of the Mexican Native Trout species (descendants of the coastal rainbow) in the tiny tributaries of the Sierra de San Pedro Mártir mountains in northern Mexico attest their ability to survive harsh environments.

    I do note a big difference in management approaches for trout between Montana and California. In Montana, the stocking of trout in rivers was stopped in 1975 with the result of significantly improved wild trout fisheries. Although California has some heritage wild trout fisheries in rivers and streams, most rivers appear to be put and take fisheries that require much less concern or attention to maintain stream quality—the river is not the trout’s home, but merely a bus stop until it succumbs to the anglers’ cheese. When I read this post, I was surprised to find that the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has not placed any fishing restrictions on their heritage and wild trout waters to protect the resource during this period of extreme drought. In Montana, protocols require mandatory restrictions to be placed on fishing when conditions (high water temperatures and/or low flows) reach certain levels. Although our drought conditions are not near as bad this year as California, we have experienced restrictions on many of Montana’s rivers.

    But Montana and California are different states with different issues. With 39 million people, CDFW charges $47 for an annual fishing license that is primarily funds the states extensive hatchery program to grow trout for put and take fisheries. With only 1 million people MFWP only charges $18 for its annual license which in reality funds very little of anything. Although I am certainly over simplifying this, as long as California focuses on put and take trout fisheries in its rivers and streams, heritage and wild trout will suffer without restrictions during these drought conditions. Going after more resilient Smallmouth and those strange saltwater critters seems like a prudent thing to do.

  2. I suppose the money collected by Montana Fish & Game might go toward studies, the data of which has thus far been able to stave off any put-and-take policy notions; so your $18 might be accomplishing something after all. We can hope.

    Put-and-take approaches seem senseless, I agree–especially when they go to even more ridiculous extremes. I know of at least one lake here in California (and there are plenty more) that gets stocked with rainbows…but under the guise of protecting the DNA of tiny native rainbows in high creeks which feed that lake–native fish that data shows haven’t existed for a long time–they sterilize the stockers before planting them! One might say this is a precaution in case the natives still exist, but if so the state should dispense with the stocking entirely, and save the money. We pay our fees to improve the picture long-term, not to dream about hooking a single hold-over every couple of years to get free meat that actually costs us several hundred dollars a pound. Stocking is expected, by those who pay for it, to be aimed at ESTABLISH A THRIVING POPULATION. It’s not to create a Disneyland-esque recreation tank that drinks money every year ad infinitum for zero sum gain.

    I have mixed feelings about stocking (as a later article of mine will show, albeit in the tongue-in-cheek style I often enjoy writing). I know that there are many pressures on Fish & Game departments, and maybe a bit of it does come from people who carry stringers. Other pressures are born of those departments’ own self-serving thirst for Federal funding (the over-balanced focus on Steelhead instead of trout populations as a whole is one good example–coastal states claim protectionist stances on endangered and migratory strains to keep that money flowing in).

    If Fish & Game departments were to establish self-sustaining fish populations, protect them well with habitat guardianship, restrict taking instead of fishing (in fact PROMOTE fishing, and education along with it, as a package deal), gear up to hatch and support microcosm DNA strands in localized fashion, and then focus the rest of their efforts on understanding diseases like funghi, Whirling Disease, and others, we might have a good program that works today and for the future as well. That’s the dream we’ve been paying for.

    Thanks for your thoughts, Mike, as always.

    – Mike Vorhis

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