Climate change comes for a favorite summer pastime: fishing

As the West suffers another summer of drought and fire, fishing holes there and elsewhere are feeling the heat.

A brook trout, Virginia's state fish, swims in a river there. The fish needs cold water to thrive—and at the current rate of climate change it may no longer be found in Virginia by 2080.

The Middle Fork of the Flathead River is born in the high rocky country of western Montana near the roof-ridge of the continent. At first, the river is little more than a shouting mountain stream. For the next 40 miles its waters run fast and headache-cold through green wilderness. The river gathers the snowmelt off Muskrat Pass and Slippery Bill Mountain and a half-dozen creeks, tumbling over eager westslope cutthroat trout and bull trout as it earns its reputation as one of the beloved waterways of the American West.

On a warming mid-summer morning at the river, the waters curled around the shins of a short woman holding a tall mug of coffee. The woman wore a trucker’s hat pin-cushioned with fishing flies and polarized sunglasses that cut the water’s glare.           

Hilary Hutcheson is a well-regarded fly-fishing guide and climate activist, much in demand across the nation. Hutcheson’s main fishing season in western Montana is brief, which means frenetic, and by late July, her voice, which is lightly scuffed at the best of times, sounded as if it were being played through old speakers. 

“It’s almost Angry August, when all the guides get a little twitchy,” she told me. “The nights are just naps and the days are just packed. We say that we sleep in December.” Still, the chance to be on the water had her in a good mood. She pushed off and took the oars, nosing the bow of the fishing raft into the flow of the river.

The day was yellow and warm. Cobbles the pale pink and faded green of old church-fronts lined the shore. The river held the stones and sky and the fish within it as if in a jewel box. Hutcheson, 43, grew up here on the Middle Fork. She knows the river better than almost anyone. Frequently, she edged the raft out of the current, dropped the anchor, and suggested we study the water together—a tail of foam riding the surface, a curl of back current rotating lazily behind a boulder—and consider what the river told about where one of its handsome cutthroat trout lingered, feeding, beneath the surface. Only then would she tell me to cast to the fish. 

On a day like this, with the beer cold in the cooler and the air taut with hope, it was hard to believe that anything could be wrong in the world.

But change has come to the Middle Fork. The glaciers of nearby Glacier National Park, which feed cold, clear water into the river all summer long, are vanishing. The patterns of water flows are changing. Clients don’t catch as many fish as in the past. All this was evident already in 2019, when I spent time with Hutcheson—but the summer of 2021 has turned into one of the toughest yet on cold-water fish in the American West. States from California to Oregon to Montana experienced skimpy snowpacks last winter, followed by an unusually warm, dry spring that erased what remained. Many places then saw record heat in late June. Fish began to suffer.

In early July, low water levels and high temperatures caused managers to close Idaho’s Silver Creek Preserve, a world-famous trout fishery where Ernest Hemingway used to fish. In Montana, “hoot owl” restrictions, which forbid fishing from 2 p.m. to midnight, were put in place on a roster of world-class trout rivers, to save fish dealing with high heat the added stress of being caught and released. In late July, as the water warmed behind dams on the Columbia River, incoming sockeye salmon started dying, an environmental group reported.

On the Flathead, one of the gravest threats posed by climate change to fish is genetic: Introduced fish are mating with the river’s handsome, native cutthroat trout, a mixing that has been abetted by changing water flows. If left unchecked, this could wipe out the cutthroat population and have devastating effects on a cherished American fishery.

When we talk of the climate crisis humans have created, we often focus on sweeping cataclysm: Melting Greenland. Rising oceans. Australia aflame. A world speeding hard into a future of fire and flood. Overshadowed are the subtler changes that promise to alter the way we move through our daily lives, and see our backyards, and plan our weekends. One such change is the warming of cold-water lakes, rivers, and streams around North America and the world. As these waters heat up, many fish that now live in them will be in trouble. Which means fishing will be in trouble, too. Already the changes are underway.

To some this might seem picayune. But fishing has never been simply a pastime. Fishing is summer camp. Fishing is Saturday with your buddy, or your daughter. For millions of people fishing is a way to grasp the wriggling natural world in your hand. In many families fishing is art passed down as heirloom, a tradition fashioned of wisdom and bound with 10-pound test line and a Palomar knot. “Now I know,” Ota Pavel wrote in his sad, perfect memoir, How I Came to Know Fish, “that many who fish do not go out for the fish alone.”

There are many ways to catch a fish. Hutcheson is a fly fisher, arguably the most elegant kind, and also the most ridiculous. Fly fishers attempt to dupe a fish by tossing an artificial insect the size of pocket lint appetizingly upon the water, using casts that take years to perfect and a second to bollocks up. The fly angler must share the mind of a fish—must know what the fish is eating, and where, and notice when the fish has switched to a new flavor of mosquito, say, and reach into her fly box to select from dozens, even hundreds, of flies the imitation that is most irresistible. She must then cast that fly into the equivalent of a teacup at 20 yards. Fly fishing favors obsessives, or else it creates them. By its nature, as Norman Maclean wrote, it reminds us of our flaws, but occasionally allows us to draw close to grace.

Back on the river that morning, Hutcheson said not to worry about those hybridized fish. We were upstream enough on the Middle Fork that we shouldn’t see any today. I cast. The first fish I brought to hand was a mutt. 

The second fish was, too.

So was the third.

Paying attention

Around the world, more people fish for fun than fish for a living—perhaps 700 million people worldwide, by one estimate. Americans are particularly passionate: More than one in seven of us grabbed a fishing rod in 2017. Most headed to freshwater—the nation's lakes, rivers, and streams. Fishing inland waters for recreation props up the economies of entire small towns like Ennis, Montana and Maupin, Oregon, generating about $30 billion in direct spending alone in the U.S. each year.

In the mountain valley where I live out West, I like to head to the water in the blue morning when the air still holds the beginning-of-the-world smell of river mud and rot. The river flows through bottomland flecked with cattle and cabins and ponderosa pine and, in the spring, bouquets of yellow balsamroot. Its waters hold some remarkable fish, like the world-weary Chinook salmon that each August will brush past a wader’s legs, intent only on sex and death. I am not so foolish to think that I own any piece of this Earth in any lasting sense, but more than anyplace, I think of this river as my own. I string the rod, guess at a fly to tie on, and dip both hands in the cold water like an ablution—a vestige, perhaps, of a Catholic upbringing. Then I get to work. To fish is to enter into a relationship with the world—to note each wrinkle on the water, and the insects that lie beneath the rocks, and a heron unfolding origami wings to head downriver. To fish is to pay attention. And to pay attention, deeply and unmixed by distraction, Simone Weil wrote, is itself a kind of prayer.

My river has changed, though, since friends first brought me to its banks two decades ago. The river these days is skinny late in the summer, and it is warmer. Odd algae slick the rocks. The steelhead and salmon no longer return in the numbers they once did. Smallmouth bass, a voracious, non-native fish that enjoys the warmer waters of the nearby Columbia River, impounded behind 14 dams, now push upstream into tributaries like my river. All of this will get worse, scientists say. The salmon and steelhead and bull trout all may be gone by century's end, and that despite many millions of dollars spent on restoration efforts, a local aquatic ecologist, John Crandall, told me.

Around the world, freshwater fish went extinct twice as fast as other vertebrates during the 20th century. The United States and the rest of North America are not insulated from the trend, despite great successes here cleaning up rivers and lakes since the 1972 Clean Water Act. Almost 40 percent of North America’s inland fishes are imperiled, a 2008 survey found, nearly double the percentage of just 20 years earlier. Why? We have bulldozed rivers and made them run as straight as aqueducts. We have logged mountainsides, paved riversides, and built homes there, sending silt and pollution running into streams. We have introduced fish from elsewhere that outcompete the locals.

And now comes climate change to land still another blow, like a roundhouse to a battered boxer.

A wholesale transformation

Around the world, climate change is hitting many inland fish hard—in both direct and indirect ways. As air temperatures rise, rivers and streams warm. Sometimes, waters simply become too hot for fish to tolerate, or the warmth makes them susceptible to illness or pathogens.

Around the United States, less winter snow now falls in the mountains, snow that feeds rivers and streams throughout the rest of the year. Winter snows arrive later in the season and melt earlier: In the northern Rockies, where Hutcheson lives, peak snowmelt in the spring occurs two to three weeks earlier than in past decades. Less water in a river or stream means less places for fish to live, which limits their population. In the Northeast and Midwest, much more rain now falls during heavy downpours that scour streams of eggs and young fish.

Game fish that rely on cooler, fresh water—walleye, trout, salmon, whitefish, to name some of the most popular—are particularly squeezed by the warming world. Consider the brook trout, a fish with an olive back scribbled with runes and sides freckled with haloed dots. “Brookies” are frequently said to be the loveliest fish in the U.S., and anglers pursue them in the coldest, cleanest streams of the East and Upper Midwest, their native range. In Wisconsin, brook trout are expected to disappear by 2050 from nearly 70 percent of the 10,000 miles of rivers and streams where they now swim, John Lyons, curator of fishes at the University of Wisconsin Zoology Museum, and colleagues reported in 2019. “You could argue this is a best-case scenario,” Lyons said.

Wisconsin is not unusual. An angler in Philadelphia who today drives around 50 miles to catch a brookie will have to drive 200 miles farther to find one by century’s end. In Virginia, brook trout will retreat ever higher into the Shenandoah Mountains, keeping to the coldest water, until they run out of mountains altogether. Given the current arc of warming, by 2080 Virginia’s state fish may nearly vanish from Virginia.

Walleye are the most popular sport fish in Wisconsin; by 2090 they’re projected to disappear from more than two in three lakes in the state where they now swim. Even rainbow trout, the most commonly stocked freshwater fish, could see its usable waters in the U.S. decline by more than one-third before century’s end. 

One of the endangered places is “fly fishing’s Valhalla,” the Harriman Ranch on the Henry’s Fork in Idaho, a stretch of river whose huge rainbow trout and serene Old West beauty once led the writer John Gierach to propose, cheekily, that a 100-yard stretch of the ranch be preserved at the National Bureau of Standards, as the yardstick by which all other fishing be judged. But the shallow, languid waters of the ranch already are too warm for rainbow trout on some days—a trend that will continue until the big, hard-fighting fish that made the place famous are no longer here, at least in the summer when the place is so popular. The exact timing of this loss is uncertain—but it’s coming on rapidly, said Rob Van Kirk, senior scientist at the Henry’s Fork Foundation.

It’s not just rising water temperatures that are affecting fish; the bugs they feed on are changing too. Montana’s Madison River is famous for its fishing each spring during the salmonfly hatch, when trout feed recklessly on the chunky, clumsy, two-inch-long insects. But a 2019 study confirmed what anglers had long suspected: The salmonfly’s range along the river has contracted, and the insects are smaller and are less abundant in the river's warmer reaches. By century's end, the insects are expected to disappear from nearly one-quarter the length of the Madison’s main stem, according to lead author Heidi Anderson, now an aquatic ecologist with the University of Montana.

Given how many anglers are seeing their favorite fishing holes affected, you might expect more of an outcry from them about climate change. A decade ago, Todd Tanner, a writer, hunter, and former fishing guide, founded a group called Conservation Hawks to spread the word to the nation's estimated 40 million hunters and fishermen, hoping they might better listen to one of their own. He started the nonprofit after an editor at a sportsmen's magazine rejected a story Tanner wrote that mentioned climate change, declaring it “a Communist plot.” 

While a few “hook and bullet” publications still won’t touch the subject, Tanner told me, the recreational fishing industry and its media have slowly come around to the threat. Anglers are coming around, too, he said. But there is still not enough urgency.

The path to activism

Hutcheson still recalls the day as a girl when a friend’s uncle put a fly rod in her hand and she caught her first cutthroat trout on the Middle Fork. Soon she owned a two-piece Daiwa rod from Snappy’s Sport Senter in Kalispell. She and her sister taught themselves to fly fish. Then, in 1992, the film adaptation of A River Runs Through It appeared, based on Norman Maclean’s classic novella of Montana fishing and family ties. 

The country went crazy for fly fishing, or at least for a young Brad Pitt in a wet shirt. At the time the sisters were in high school, working summers as rafting guides. “Who here can fly fish?” the company’s owner asked. The two raised their hands. They became among the first female fishing guides in the area.

Today, Hutcheson owns a fly shop, Lary’s Fly & Supply, on Nucleus Avenue, the short main drag of Columbia Falls, the riverside town where she grew up. She writes about fishing, often with a conservation bent. And she works as a guide well over 100 days a year, all over the world. But wherever she goes, she told me, she always looks forward to coming home and fishing for the native cutthroat.

“Cutties” are a special fish, she said. “They pull, they fight, they run.” Some fishermen don’t consider them very wily; Hutcheson is more generous. “They give you a lot of opportunities,” she said. "Get your fly in the right position, and they typically won’t deny you.”

Hutcheson credits her sister and brother with motivating her to activism. She had been paying attention to climate change since college. But as a fishing guide, she started complaining about it—about politicians and their inaction—a lot. Her siblings grew exasperated. “You’re out there every single day,” they told her. “You have a role in this.” Start showing influential people these places and speaking up, they told her; that’s your price of admission for loving, and using, public lands and waters. Hutcheson realized they were right. “We can’t just expect someone else to do it,” she told me. “We are They.”

As the first fishing-industry member of the Riders’ Alliance of Protect Our Winters, a group of more than 100 professional outdoor athletes whose sports are affected by climate change, she has been to Washington several times to lobby Congress and White House officials. She tells lawmakers about the changes she’s seeing to the rivers and the landscape and the effects on fish—but also the effects on people and the economy of her home. During the short summer fishing season, Hutcheson and some fellow guides typically work from June into October, nearly without a day off, to grab as much work as they can. In 2018, though, massive fires tore through Glacier National Park and the surrounding area, keeping her off the river for nine days.

“When we get shut down during fire season, at the height of my fly-fishing season, I can lose a winter’s worth of groceries for my family,” Hutcheson said. The only businesses in her town that still thrive during times like those are the places that sell liquor, she told a Congressional hearing a few years ago. Such wildfires are on the increase in the Rockies. “I care about humans who will lose their jobs, their livelihoods, and their fundamental happiness as this system collapses,” she said in her testimony.

The problem with rainbow trout 

Hutcheson’s concerns also led her to the work of scientist Clint Muhlfeld—and to an indirect way that climate change is threatening her beloved river. Muhlfeld is a research aquatic ecologist for the U.S. Geological Survey in western Montana who tries to tease out how changes in their environment affect native fish and other freshwater species. One day when I was with Hutcheson, as the mercury climbed toward the 90s, she and I drove with Muhlfeld to the North Fork of the Flathead, on the western boundary of Glacier National Park.

The North Fork courses here through a wide, cobbled floodplain, tracing a new path each spring. In the distance, Glacier’s chipped teeth were piebald with snow, deep even in midsummer. Muhlfeld, a lean, excitable man with a blurring tattoo of a bull trout on one ankle, stood in the bow of the raft clutching a fly rod. “We’re at the invasion front, right here,” he said, as Hutcheson pushed off.

Over decades, humans stocked roughly 200 million rainbow trout in Montana’s rivers and lakes, including 20 million in the Flathead River system. Montana wasn’t unusual; fish were stocked all over the West to buoy the sport fishery, often simply dumped from railroad cars banging across the country. Rainbow trout, which are native to coastal streams of the northern Pacific Rim, leap high when hooked, and they taste good, and even today many anglers enjoy bagging them. But there’s a problem: They reproduce with all 12 subspecies of cutthroat trout, most of which, like the westslope cutties in the Flathead, are native to the interior waters of the West. Today cutties only occupy about 10 percent of their historic habitat. Hybridization and loss of habitat are the main reasons why they’re struggling.

A few years ago the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service declined again to place westslope cutthroat on the Endangered Species List, declaring that the agency still considered a cutthroat with 20 percent rainbow genes a genetically pure fish. Muhlfeld and his colleagues took a hard look at that assumption. Their results shocked them: If a cuttie contains just 20 percent rainbow genes, the trout’s “fitness,” as measured by the survival of its offspring, is reduced by half.

As we drifted in the boat, I caught a modest fish on the fly, scooped it in the net and showed it to Muhlfeld. He pointed out the vibrant slash under the jaw, the rosy belly that indicated the fish had spawned this year, and the dense spots above its lateral line, a sense organ that runs the length of its body.

“Onchorynchus clarkii lewisi,” he said appreciatively. “That fish right there is likely a genetically pure cutthroat trout.” It has the genes, the adapted traits, that make it perfectly suited to survive and persist here, as it has done since the last Ice Age, through times even warmer than this, he went on. “Beautiful fish,” he said, handing it back to the river.

Later I landed another fish. Muhlfeld looked at the fish. His tone changed. He pointed out how the slash beneath the jaw was fainter, and how the spots now appeared both above and below its lateral line. “Probably a low-level hybrid,” he said.

Hybridization is a problem both for fish and for fishing, he said. Rainbow trout are the rough equivalent of factory-farmed chicken. When they hybridize with native fish, the interlopers adulterate thousands of years of wild genetic wisdom that those native cutthroat contain. The mongrel fish aren’t as suited to their environment or as nimble at adapting to change.

For many years the problem stayed largely contained. Rainbow trout largely stayed where they were introduced in the lower reaches of the Flathead system. They spawn earlier in the spring than cutthroat, and high spring runoff would wash away their eggs, scientists think.

But climate change has altered that equation by promoting reduced water flows that likely permit the introduced rainbow trout to spread further upriver, indiscriminately. There they hybridize more often with the native fish, creating their less-fit offspring. In one location, the amount of gene-swapping increased tenfold over the last 30 years, Muhlfeld and colleagues found. And once hybridization begins, “it’s a one-way street,” Muhlfeld said: You don't make those offspring pure again.

After around 2003, when the Flathead area was in drought and the river saw dramatically lower spring flows, hybridization appeared to surge, Muhlfeld told me. Years like that, once outliers, are projected to become more common as climate changes—each delivering a fresh injection of less-fit hybrids. 

Simply put, these inferior fish won't survive. There will be fewer fish in the river, Muhlfeld said. These “cutt-bows” are also not as feisty and fun to catch, added Hutcheson, the guide. None of this is good for those who love fish, and fishing, she said.

”They’re ticking time bombs waiting to go off, under the right environmental conditions,” Muhlfeld said of the rainbows. Hutcheson plopped the fish I’d caught back into the river.

Anthropocene fishing

Fishing will not end as cold lakes and rivers warm. The sport will suffer severely in places, though, and will look very different in others. As fish such as trout retreat, they will often be supplanted by smallmouth bass or other species that can tolerate warmer water. “It’s still a fish you can fish for,” a research fisheries biologist at the U.S. Geological Survey named Robert Al-Chokhachy told me with a shrug. But cold-water recreational fisheries are more valuable, economically, than their warm-water counterparts, Muhlfeld told me. And there is another kind of loss, when a native fish is replaced by one that could be found most anywhere: a biological grayness, a world more impoverished and less interesting, where everyplace is more like anyplace else.

In Fishing Through the Apocalypse, Matthew Miller cautions readers not to over-romanticize the pastime they think they know. That rainbow trout arcing over a pluperfect Montana scene in A River Runs Through It? Humans put that trout there. In most places fishing hasn’t been an unsullied wilderness experience for a long time. When some anglers today sit at their computer, hitting the refresh button, waiting to find out when a tanker truck from the state wildlife agency will back up to their local lake and dump in this year’s load of young hatchery-raised fish—this too is fishing. And this too is communion with nature. Though such interventions have a checkered environmental past, they may become even more common in the future, to buoy recreational fishing.

Over the last year I read about 60 studies on the future of freshwater fish. The predictions were frequently stark. And yet, many of the scientists I spoke to offered surprising optimism—not about the state of politics, or climate policy, but about other ways we can meaningfully help colder water fish in a warming world. In the Flathead River system, for instance, where those rainbow trout are muddying the genes of native cutthroat, aggressive moves by the state and federal government to beat back the introduced fish have kept the threat in check, so far, Muhlfeld said.

Workers have dug up the rainbow trout redds, or spawning beds, in creeks; placed poison in some lakes that connect to the river; placed barriers in some creeks to protect pure fish from intruders; and elsewhere trapped the rainbow trout and moved them to fishing ponds for kids to catch. The downside is that such work will have to be done forever.

It is theoretically possible, too, to cool down streams and rivers, even as air temperatures rise. Northeast Oregon’s John Day River supports the largest entirely wild run of chinook salmon, a threatened species, in the Columbia River basin. Warming waters and invasion by smallmouth bass may eliminate all chinook-rearing habitat in the upper watershed by century’s end. But the water has been warmed less by climate change than by clearing of the forests that once shaded it. In a 2019 study, scientists found that shading 23 miles of the upper river with mature native forest would lower the average daily high water temperature a startling 10 to 12 degrees Fahrenheit. Of course, you’d need to plant 23 miles of forest, then wait many years for the shade—but reforestation projects are underway on the John Day and around the West.

“We have solved conservation issues that have seemed intractable,” said author Miller, who works at the Nature Conservancy. “I think human ingenuity can go a long way to solving problems. The issue is that we often wait till things get really bad, and then try these last-ditch efforts.”

There is another reason for cautious encouragement. Models that predict a bleak future for inland fish do not account for the possibility that fish could adapt to a changing world. A 2011 study of sockeye salmon from eight populations in British Columbia’s 700-mile-long Fraser River system found that, even though the sockeye looked identical, they developed adaptations to undertake migrations of wildly different lengths, intensities, and water temperatures. “This shows us that within a species, different populations can adapt to their specific conditions,” said lead author Erika Eliason, a zoologist now at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

If we can buy fish time, perhaps they can adapt and persevere in this new world humans are creating. Sometimes they may require a helping hand: Muhlfeld and his colleagues have actually been putting imperiled bull trout in backpacks and carrying them to higher altitudes in Glacier, to help the fish find cooler waters they can’t reach on their own. But more often we can help fish by keeping their homes as natural as possible. We know what fish such as those Flathead cutthroats need: “cold, clean, complex, and connected habitats,” as Muhlfeld likes to say.

The connected part is particularly important, he said. A Middle Fork cutthroat is kissing cousin to a cutthroat living in the North Fork, similar yet also genetically different. Any of them might hold the genetic wisdom to helping the species do well in the future. But that diversity needs to be given the room to persist, and mix, and to express itself, he said. Helping fish isn't that complicated, he told me. Humans and our competing desires for the land and water make it complicated.

There are larger cataclysms to be concerned with under climate change than the loss of a fish, or a fishing hole. But it is no small thing we are also making a world in which we erode, and sometimes erase, the hobbies and small, simple pleasures, that give us respite, and produce a grin, and lighten our days with brief silver shards of beauty: a ski through deep snow. Ice skating on an open lake. Gardening. Bird-watching. Fishing.

As we drifted down the river one day, I asked Hutcheson whether she despaired. She knew how bad things might yet get. Hutcheson waved me off. Mourning was what you do over the dead. There was still time. Her job now was to get people to act.

“We still try. We try try try,” she said. “We’re alive right now, and for me, being alive is to try.”

If fishing is anything, it is the relentless practice of hope. It is the belief that despite what has come before, and no matter how much we have fallen short, next time we will do better.

Hutcheson tied a new fly onto the tippet of my line. She raised the anchor, took the oars again and returned the raft to the embrace of the river. She told me to cast.

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