By CalTrout’s Field Reporter, Mike Wier
As hard as it is to admit or accept, California is heading into another drought year. After having three good winters in 2016, ’17, and ’18, California broke out of the last dry cycle and was in relatively good shape. For a time, our fisheries were thriving again. In my experience, 2018 was one of the best trout fishing years of my entire life. The winter of 2018 was also one of the best snowboard seasons I can remember in many decades. The temperatures stayed cold for several months and much of our precipitation in the high country fell as snow as opposed to getting more rain at high elevations the previous year. I believe the fishing was so good in 2018 because there was a cohort of trout that had survived the drought years and when everything exploded with new life, they had a ton of food and less competition. The few that survived got very big. Then, 2019 seemed like an average winter, but 2020 numbers came in far below average. We got a bit of precipitation upfront in December, January, and February. Then it pretty much stopped. None of the usual big March, April, or May storms came through. Because of the timing of the precipitation, we hardly had a spring runoff in most of the Sierras.
Its now creeping into early summer and many of our rivers around the state already look like Fall flows. Every reservoir you drive over is down significantly. Many of them never made it to the top this spring to begin with. A state of emergency has already been declared in the upper Klamath basin due to being critically dry. Other parts of California are bound to follow.
As anglers we are also stewards of the resources that we use. It’s up to us to change and adapt our practices based on the best available science and current environmental conditions. I am proud of the angling community of which I am a part of and how much it has evolved in the past few decades. More and more anglers are becoming conservationists and also taking the time to study and learn about the resources they use and how best to interact with them in more sustainable ways. Fifty years ago, catch and release fishing was a radical concept, now it’s standard practice among fly fishermen. Twenty years ago, it was still common practice to keep the biggest fish you catch. Now more and more anglers are realizing those trophy trout are way more valuable to the ecosystem for their genetics and brood stock. Also twenty years ago, grip and grins were the norm for fish photos, but now more and more anglers are realizing the value of keeping fish wet and photographing them in the water. As a community, we are all moving in the right direction, but in years like this we need to do even more to ensure that our cold-water fisheries remain sustainable and healthy. Here are some tips that can help you navigate fishing in a drought year.
First and foremost, I feel it is important for every angler to be able to recognize and determine the specific stressors on a fishery; these are indicators that you should potentially not fish in that spot on that day. The fact of the matter is fish are having a hard time these days due to a myriad of environmental factors and stressors. Even if we put angling pressure completely aside, we are seeing an extreme downward trend when it comes to population abundance of wild salmonids in California. CalTrout‘s 2017 SOS report states that 45% of our native salmonids will be gone in 50 years and 78% gone in 100 years if current trends persist. The most common stressors include water temperatures, dissolved oxygen levels, diminished flows, ground water levels, impacts of wildfire, legacy impacts of mining and other extraction, agriculture operations, pressure from other anglers or wildlife, and/or pollutants in the waterways.
When it comes to trout fishing, dissolved oxygen levels are super important. Trout breathe oxygen just like us; they filter it out of the water through their gills. That’s why trout are a coldwater species. The colder the water is, the more dissolved oxygen it can hold. Both temperature and flows play an important role in the amount of dissolved oxygen in any given waterway. Most anglers are probably not going to be carrying a dissolved oxygen meter, but many will have a thermometer and can visually gauge how the flows are doing for any given waterway. Prime metabolism for trout occurs between 55 and 65°F. Catching trout in temperatures above 68 can become stressful for them. Above the low 70s can be lethal. I highly recommend checking water temperatures before fishing for trout, especially in creeks and rivers. If conditions don’t look optimal, consider opting out of fishing there and head somewhere different, or target warm water species.
Stillwater fishing can be a great alternative to stream or river fishing. Especially in the hot part of the summer. Most of California’s natural lakes are found in higher elevations where the water is typically cooler throughout the hot summer months. Many of the lower elevation lakes are impoundments and those reservoirs are typically pretty deep. Anywhere you have deep water there will be a thermocline. That means the surface temperature may be on the warm side for a trout, but 5 or 6 feet down there is typically a temperature change and that colder deeper water will be suitable for trout year-round. In lakes, the fish are typically spread out more as well. This lessens the impact of angling pressure because anglers are not just concentrated on specific areas like a riffle or a pool in a river.
You often hear the argument that stillwater fishing is boring. Many conventional anglers fish with bait or a troll from a boat. Fly-fishing can be a lot more interactive. You can kick around in a float tube and work the deeper sections of the lakes or walk the banks and sight fish for cruising fish. Sight fishing is my all-time favorite method of fly-fishing and high-country lakes in California can provide a very fun and interactive experience. It’s often more like hunting then fishing. I try to find vantage points where I can see well into the water and look for cruising fish. You must cast to fly right into the perfect position based on which way the fish is heading and how fast your fly sinks. There are also lots of spots where fish continue to feed off the surface of high-country lakes throughout the summer- sometimes all day long. It’s hard to find something better than catching big trout on dry flies out of crystal-clear lakes.
If you are going to be fishing in streams and rivers, please carry a thermometer and make a point to check water temperatures. During the last drought cycle, many anglers voluntarily enacted hoot owl closures on lots of California’s famous fisheries; most notably, the Truckee River. A hoot owl closure basically means that anglers voluntarily restrict fishing to the mornings and evenings when you might hear an owl hoot; the water temperatures are also cooler. We then give the water a break during the hottest parts of the day. Even the guides follow these rules and take a siesta with their clients if they have a full day trip. Hoot owl closures are typically enacted because temperatures are reaching above 70 degrees, but they can also be in place because of low flows. As I mentioned before, both temperature and flows affect the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water. Some streams might be cold enough but have very little flow which stagnates the pools and can be stressful for fish.
One of California’s greatest assets is it’s coldwater Springs. Throughout various parts of the state, we have several primarily spring-fed wild trout rivers that maintain fairly cold temperatures year-round. Water that is stored underground has the perfect thermal barrier and typically maintains a set temperature that is much cooler than the surface temperatures. The closer you are to a spring source, the colder the water is going to be. The longer it flows on the surface in a stream or river, the more it has a chance to be warmed by the sun. Spring-fed rivers typically have the most consistent cold-water temperatures that last throughout the entire year. That’s why spring-fed systems typically hold robust populations of wild trout.
Even in the drought years, the spring-fed systems will maintain the best flows and the most optimal temperatures for trout. I won’t sit here and list the names of all of our most famous spring-fed rivers, but you can do some research and determine which rivers are fed by springs. These are snowmelt driven or free stone systems, which are tailwaters. Consider planning your mid-summer trips to fisheries that are predominantly spring-fed. Or tailwaters that come from a deep lake with a cold-water thermocline. But also, please be conscious of crowds and overfishing those particular streams.
By now you have probably heard us preaching proper fish handling techniques many times over. These practices become more important than ever in a drought year or in any conditions where fish are already stressed. We recommend you employ ethical fishing practices when fishing for wild trout or if you don’t plan on eating them.
First off, single barbless hooks are the standard for catch and release. Some areas allow barbless treble hooks now, but we strongly discourage anglers from using treble hooks when planning to release fish. Then, consider upping your tippet size so you can decrease fish fighting times. The quicker you can get a fish in, the less lactic acid they will expend and the quicker their recovery time will be once released. A net helps with this too. Always wet your hands before handling fish and keep them submerged in the water while removing the hook. Never drag a fish you plan on releasing up onto the rocks or the grass. And especially don’t handle them out of the water with dry hands. Dry hands and grass can rub off their protective slime layer which protects the fish from bacteria and infections, as well as helps them glide through the water. Also, studies have shown that fish are very susceptible to brain damage if they hit their head on rocks. It’s hard for them to do underwater, but once out of the water a couple hard flops on the rock can leave lasting damage and severely interrupt their ability to reproduce successfully.
If you plan on photographing your catch, please consider keeping them just under the water or at least leaving their gills in the water. And if you have to do a grip and grin, make sure the photographer is ready and grab the fish firmly by the wrist of its tail with one hand under the upper part of its belly. Quickly lift it up for a photo, then get it back in the water.
Also, when water temperatures are warmer and there is less oxygen, it might take longer to revive fish. Keep the fish underwater with their heads facing upstream so the current is pushing through their gills. Gently rock the fish back-and-forth with their head facing upstream to flush some water through their gills. Then wait for the fish to kick off itself once it has caught its breath and gained its strength.
Thank you for being considerate in these tough times. It’s up to everyone to pitch in to ensure that our resources can sustain themselves for the long run. The responsibility lies on all of us. We also recommend you practice ‘leave no trace’ fishing and or take the time to pick up a couple extra pieces of trash, even remind others to do the same. Let’s leave our streams even better each time we visit them.