Fishing in the time of climate change

Streams of cold water for trout, salmon and other fish are overheating due to climate change; Which hurts fishermen in a place where they spend their best days.

The “middle branch” of the Flathead River originated in the high rocky part of western Montana, close to the North American Grand Continental Divide. It extends tens of kilometers in the middle of the green wilderness, where it absorbs melting snow from the “Muscat Crossing” and “Slippery Bell Mountain”, and six streams, to turn into one of the favorite waterways in the American West. On a warm summer’s morning, the water was rippling about the legs of a short woman with sunglasses on and a sports hat that had been attached to artificial fishing flies. The woman is called Hilary Hutchison, an industrial fly fishing guide, climate activist, and public speaker who speaks to audiences across the United States. Her summer hunting season in western Montana was short–meaning it was frantic–and by late July her voice sounded as though it was being heard through old loudspeakers. ‘An anxious August’ is approaching, she told me, when all the guides are feeling a little anxious and nervous. The night’s sleep turns into a nap and the day is full of hard work. However, every chance she gets to stand near the water puts her in a good mood. She pushed the raft into the water, grabbed the oars, and moved the front of the raft to make its way down the river. The day was sunny and warm, and the riverbank was pebbled with pale pink and pale green, like the facades of old American churches; In a scene in which the river, with its stones and the sky above it and the fish within it, appeared as if it were a box of precious jewels. Hutchison, then 44, grew up here near the rivers of Flathead; She knows her very well. She would often pull the raft out of the current, drop the anchor, and suggest we study the water together and think for clues as to where the cute underwater trout is to eat. Then, she asks me to cast the line to catch her. On a day like this, with cold drinks in the cooler and hopeful weather, it was hard to believe that something was wrong in the world.

But the change reached the “middle branch”. The glaciers and snowpacks of the nearby Glacier National Park, which feeds the river with cool, clear water all summer, are receding. The flow of water is changing its patterns. Customers are catching more hybrid fish than in the past. It all became evident in 2019 when I spent some time with Hutchison, But the summer of 2021 turned out to be one of the harshest summers for cold-water fish so far in the American West.

From California to Montana, there were little snowfalls that vanished with a warm, dry spring. Many places recorded unprecedented temperatures in late June. The fish suffered from it all. In Idaho, low waters and high temperatures forced officials to close Silver Creek Preserve, a world-famous trout fishing area where American writer Ernest Hemingway fished.

In Montana, evening fishing restrictions have been imposed, prohibiting fishing from two in the afternoon until midnight on the world’s best trout fishing rivers, to reduce the pressure on fish from catching and releasing them in the hottest hours. In Flathead, one of the most serious threats posed by climate change to fish is genetic: fish from other places (or exotics) are interbreeding with local trout, a crossbreeding process that is prompted by changing water flows. Left unchecked, this process could wipe out populations of trout and destroy one of America’s favorite fisheries. When we talk about the climate crisis, we often focus on major disasters; The Greenland Melt… just one example. Little changes in our daily lives are hidden; It is warming cold-water lakes, rivers, and streams around the world. As these waters warm, many fish will face a certain dilemma. This means that fishing will be in turn in a critical predicament. These changes have been accelerating for some time. This may seem trivial to some of them. But the fishing was never just a pastime; Rather, it is like a summer camp with all its connotations. Millions of people find fishing a way to make sense of the natural world in their palms. Many families see it as an art that is passed down between generations, like inheritance, and a wise tradition tightly tied together, like the tightness of a fishing line knotted on the hook. “Now I realize that many fishing enthusiasts do it not just for the fish,” says Uta Pavel in his sad and sweet memoir, “This is how I came to know the fish.” There are many ways to fish. Hutchison fly-fishes, arguably the most elegant and arguably ridiculous of all; The fisherman tries to deceive the fish by throwing a small and tempting artificial insect into the water – in the right place – using throwing methods that require years to master and one second to come up with a clumsy job. This type of hunting attracts, or creates nerds; By its very nature, as the writer, Norman MacLean has pointed out, it reminds us of our imperfections but sometimes allows us to approach transcendence. On the riverbank that morning, Hutchison told us not to worry about those hybrid fish. We were upstream at the “middle branch” where we shouldn’t see any. I threw the fishing line into the water. The first fish I caught was a hybrid.

The second was also a hybrid.

So was the third.

Around the world, more people fish for pleasure than for a living. At least 200 million people in developed countries alone. Americans have a great passion for fishing. Almost one in six people caught a fishing rod in 2021; Most of them went to the fresh waters of the country’s lakes, rivers, and streams. Recreational inland fishing supports the economies of entire small towns such as Ennis, Montana, and Maupin, Oregon, generating about $30 billion in direct spending alone in the United States each year. Despite this, freshwater fish worldwide became extinct twice as fast as other vertebrates during the 20th century. In North America, nearly 40 percent of inland fish are at risk, according to a 2008 survey; (700 species, nearly double the number 20 years ago). What is the reason? We have flattened rivers like aqueducts, cut down trees on mountainsides, paved river banks and built houses on them, funneled silt and pollution into streams, and brought in fish from other places that rivaled the native fish.

And now climate change is coming to deal another blow, like a round-kick at a boxer who has been hit hard. Climate change affects much inland water fish severely, both directly and indirectly. As air temperatures rise, so do rivers and streams. Sometimes the water becomes too hot for the fish to handle, or the warmth makes it susceptible to disease or pathogens. In the United States and elsewhere, winter snowfall is declining in the mountains, the snow that feeds rivers and streams for the rest of the year, to make way for rain that falls immediately. Snow falls late in the winter and often melts early in the spring; In the northern part of the Rockies, where Hutchison lives, the recent peak snowmelt occurred weeks earlier than previously usual. Less water in the river means less space for fish to live; Which limits their numbers. Another problem arises all over the country, but especially in the Northeast and Midwest, where a lot of rain is now falling during heavy showers. These rains wash away eggs and small fish. The pressure is particularly high on the so-called recreational fish that depend on cold fresh waters; And the most famous fish, bigeye, trout, salmon, and white fish. Silver trout with its olive back, letter-patterned and dotted sides, is often said to be the most beautiful fish in the United States. This species is hunted by hunters in the coldest and clearest streams in the eastern region and the northern part of the midwest of this country, where it is native. But in Wisconsin, silver trout are expected to disappear in 2050 or so from about 70 percent of the 34,000 km of rivers and streams where they currently live. In the southern Appalachian Mountains, silver trout will retreat to higher levels than the mountains to take in the cooler waters until they are all but gone. Over time, Virginia could lose this species, which is its official fish. Bigeyes are the most popular recreational fishing in Wisconsin; By 2090, it will no longer be able to support itself in the one-third to three-quarters of the lakes in this state that it currently hosts, and even rainbow salmon, one of the most widely stocked fish species, could be e be e seen. Significant decline in its usable waters in the Midwest and the West.


Hutchison still remembers the day a friend’s uncle put her fly fishing rod in her hand when she was a girl and caught her first trout in the Middle Branch. Soon, she and her sister learned to fly fishing. In 1992, The River Runs Through It was released, based on Mac Lane’s classic novel about fishing and family relationships in Montana. The country has become obsessed with fly fishing. The two sisters became among the first hunting guides in the area.

Today, Hutchison owns a fly fishing supply store in Columbia Falls, Montana, the riverside city where she grew up. She writes about fishing, with an emphasis on conservation efforts. Hutchison Delilah works about 120 days a year and fishes professionally around the world. But she is, she told me, always looking forward to coming home and trout fishing. Trout, Hutchison says, is a special type of fish. “She pulls, she fights, she runs away.” Given the numbers of fishermen seeing the extent of the damage to their favorite fishing grounds, one might expect them to issue an outcry about climate change. Yes, there were protests from some of them, but the feelings of protest in many moved slowly. Hutchison has been paying attention to this issue since her college studies. As a young guide at the time, she was frustrated by the changes she saw in the river and by the inaction of politicians. Her brothers asked her to start showing influencers about these places and talking about them. She gave it a sympathetic ear. “Other people won’t do this. We should handle it,” she told me. Hutchison has gone numerous times to Washington, DC, to lobby Congress and the White House for the Save Our Winter movement, which includes more than 200 athletes.

Professionals, artists, and others whose work has been affected by climate change. She started talking about the changes she was seeing in the rivers… and the effect that had on her hometown. “I care about the people who will lose their jobs, their livelihoods, and their core happiness as this system collapses,” she told a congressional committee in 2019. A year earlier, massive wildfires had broken out in and around Glacier National Park, forcing Hutchison to move away from the river for nine days. “When we stop working during the fire season, and we are in the midst of the fly fishing season, I cannot earn enough to buy groceries for the winter for my family,” she told me. The main businesses that still thrive in her town during times like these, she says, are places that sell alcohol.