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The Climate Change Threat to Colorado’s Fly-Fishing Industry
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The Climate Change Threat to Colorado’s Fly-Fishing Industry

Colorado's Fly-Fishing Industry Faces the Growing Threat of Climate Change


Hutch Hutchinson was like many other transplants who fell hard for Colorado. It was autumn 1986. Hutch Hutchinson, a New Hampshire native, had just completed his second summer as an Alaska fly-fishing guide. He made the cross-country journey from New England and Aspen. Hutchinson, then 24, had just moved there with his brother. He was only planning to visit for a few short days. Instead, he called up his mom to ask her to ship his stuff west.

Many things have changed since then. Hutchinson began a family, became a travel specialist for Orvis’ Vermont-based fishing giant Orvis and co-founded The Hutchinson Group in 2015. Roaring Fork Fishing Guide Alliance, a professional organization dedicated to the conservation of the region’s fisheries. The Roaring River Valley has also changed. Pitkin County’s population has grown by more than 60 percent since 1986, development has increased dramatically, and right around the time the alliance got off the ground, Hutchinson began to notice ominous shifts in his home rivers.

Two of the most striking signs were that water levels were dropping steadily and temperatures were rising faster during the peak summer months. Both conditions can prove deadly to trout, but well before that happens, good sportsmanship demands anglers hang up their rods: While trout can survive water temperatures in the high 70s, at least for a few days, they often can’t endure being hooked and released when those temperatures creep above 67 degrees. “As water gets warmer, it holds less dissolved oxygen,” says Tom Rosenbauer, a fly-fishing educator and Orvis’ chief enthusiast (which is, apparently, a real job title). “So when you go and jerk trout around on the end of a line, you are stressing them further. They can literally suffocate.”

Hutchinson was done with it by the fall of this year. He told his fellow members at an alliance board meeting that fishing outfitters around the state and the valley should start to think about how they can adapt to climate change. “These discussions need to happen now,” he says, even if it’s “probably already too late.”

Last summer was marked with record-breaking high temperaturesColorado is experiencing a drought that has been exacerbated by the recent flooding. Parts the Dolores River, a popular fishing spot northwest of Durango, has nearly dried up. Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) implemented at least 16 voluntary closures (during which the agency asks everyone from tubers to anglers to stay off the water but doesn’t forbid it) and one mandatory closure on sections of eight rivers to protect stressed fish. However, summer 2021 was a terrible year. The future looks even worse.

Fly fishing in Altmont Colorado Getty Images

A team headed by Dan Isaak (a Idaho-based biologist), has been conducting research for the past ten years. U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station in Fort CollinsHe has been compiling temperature records for various streams and rivers throughout the Western United States into a comprehensive data base. In 2014, Isaak and other researchers began using that data to predict temperature shifts in the region’s waterways; four years later, they found that by 2050 there will be an average increase of 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit. Furthermore, Isaak’s research shows that unless the world gets serious about tackling the climate crisis, the increase will jump to nearly 5.5 degrees by the end of the century.

That’s not enough to make trout disappear, but it could have major effects on where they’re able to live, much less thrive. “As the water gets warmer, they’re going to have to move up in elevation [where it’s cooler] to maintain their equilibrium with the environment,” Isaak says. According to his research, that could result in an eight to 31 percent decrease in suitable habitat in the West as some rivers and streams are pushed past trouts’ thermal tipping point.

But climate change is about much more than just rising temperatures, says Diana Lane, director of the Sustainable Food and Water Program at the Nature Conservancy’s Colorado field office. “When you think about warming, people immediately go to high summer temperatures,” she says, “but there is a whole complicated cascade.” If the snow melts earlier in the year, for example, there will be less running water during the summer, and rivers with low flow not only heat up faster, but they also have fewer deep pools in which cold-water fish can seek shelter. If a trout is fortunate enough to find cool water, it could become trapped. This can make it easier for predators to grab. Plus, earlier snowmelts and longer, warmer summers also have the potential to affect the life cycles of the insects trout depend on for food and possibly the trouts’ breeding schedules.

The swimmers that do escape to higher elevations aren’t out of danger, either. As their habitat shrinks, some trout populations could become isolated, increasing the chance that climate-change-driven natural disasters—such as fires, mudslides, and extreme flooding—could wipe them out, Isaak says. To save an endangered cutthroat strain, CPW staff had in 2018 to trek into the path of the 416 fire near Durango.

Add angling and you have a recipe for disaster. Although there will still be plenty water that is cool enough for trout to survive in, there will be fewer locations and fewer days when water temperatures can be safely fished. Isaak’s water temperature database has records for a handful of popular Colorado cold-water fisheries. After identifying monitoring stations with multiple years of data, 5280To find out how often trout fishing locations reach the critical 67-degree threshold for safe fishing, we averaged the high water temperatures each day from June to September. We found that only a few people did this regularly, but when we added the predicted temperature rises, the number of warm water days skyrocketed.

Blue River Nathan Bilow/Getty Images

One monitoring site located just downstream of Evergreen, on Bear Creek, recorded temperatures of 67 degrees or less for an average of nine days per year from 2009 to 2015. Data is missing for some 2012 and all 2013. However, this number could rise to 50 days per year in 2050 and to 83 days in 2100. The Roaring Fork River near Glenwood Springs, Hutchinson’s home turf, could average 17 warm-water days in 2050 and 62 warm-water days in 2100. These two rivers could be closed to guide and anglers alike by the end of the century. This could have enormous implications for fly-fishing outfitters. Hutchinson estimates that June, July, and August account for around 65 percent of fly guides’ annual business. Says Hutchinson: “That’s their bread and butter.”

“We don’t like to tell people what to do,” Rosenbauer says, speaking of Orvis’ recent efforts to nudge customers away from fishing for trout in the summer and toward warm-water species like bass—or, failing that, to at least persuade them to seek out high-elevation streams and lakes where the trout are under less stress. “We try to educate them that, This warm-water stuff can be just like trout fishing!.”

The fact that the world’s most iconic fly-fishing brand, which built its image around trout for much of its 166-year history, is attempting such a shift highlights how climate change is poised to disrupt the business that surrounds the sport. And it’s big business: A 2018 analysis of CPWColorado’s fishing industry generates $2.4B in economic output annually and supports 17,000 jobs. No one is sure how climate change will affect those figures­­­—only that it will. We have to plan for the possibility that the latter part of July and a good chunk of August won’t be good fishing on rivers like the Roaring Fork and the Colorado in the future, Hutchinson says.

That’s already happening on a small scale. Cutthroat Anglers, the owner of Silverthorne outfitter Silverthorne, is announcing his intention to sell the company. The Denver PostHe had to cancel 16 guided tours to comply with a voluntary CPW shutdown in August. On the Yampa River, the site of last summer’s only mandatory closure, Johnny Spillane, owner of Steamboat Fly Fisher, says shutdowns have hurt his shop’s retail sales but haven’t affected guided outings. “We’re really clear when we are booking trips that if the water reaches a certain temperature, we are shutting it off,” he says. “We combat that by just fishing half days and getting off of the water before it heats up.” There are also places nearby at higher elevations to take clients, he says.

The most common prediction about the future is that ethical fishing will require you to travel further and higher to find it. However, Hutchinson believes that outfitters and guides should also start booking trips into November to take advantage of climate change’s shifts in the season’s ideal conditions. “It’s going to be a learning process,” he says, both for the industry and for its clients.

Others have worse outlooks. “I am sure we will see more restrictions on the times you can fish, where you can fish, and on the number of anglers,” Isaak says. “It could almost get into a situation where it comes down to a [lottery] system, like on the most popular whitewater rafting rivers, to regulate the quality of the experience.”

Isaak has a second predictionYou should also consider tailwaters: These sections of rivers downstream from dams will become increasingly popular and crowded fishing spots. If a reservoir has sufficient depth, the cold water released through its dam can help to mitigate the effects on climate change for miles downstream. Nonprofit organizations, such as the Nature Conservancy, already fund strategic water releases. CPW has agreements to do the same with partner agencies and municipalities that hold water rights. However, these agreements are voluntary so rights holders will not be legally bound to continue them in the event that water becomes more scarce.

“CPW is trying really hard to work with those entities,” says Josh Nehring, an assistant aquatic section manager at the department. “There are certainly areas in Colorado where agencies or people that hold water rights can completely dry up a stream.” That’s part of what happened on the Dolores this past summer: The river irrigates thousands of acres, and after two decades of drought, there wasn’t enough water for both fish and farmers.

Coloradans are working to protect their favorite fish—so that they can hook them—in other ways. Nonprofits such as the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council are planting shade trees along important waterways; the Colorado Water Conservation Board has water rights or agreements on parts of 45 rivers and streams to ensure they don’t run dry; and CPW’s Wetland Wildlife Conservation ProgramSince 1997, the state has funded the restoration and protection of riparian areas along hundreds of miles public and private riverbanks. But with over 58,000 river miles in the state, some 12,000 miles of which are home to trout, closures will remain one of the main tools for protecting the state’s cold-water fisheries. Hutchinson believes voluntary closures are smart, and the Guide Alliance even works with CPW to get the word out when they’re announced. But he thinks there have been times when people have been confused by the agency’s decisions, and some anglers say the agency isn’t being proactive enough to keep up with changing water conditions.

It’s not just nonprofits and the government that need to step up; the public has to take the initiative, too, Rosenbauer says. He says that a single trout can theoretically only be caught five to six times per week on popular rivers. The stress from each fight can last several days. Anglers will have to be more selective about how many trout they catch and release each morning. “Be happy with three fish on a hot day,” he says. “It’s either going to be that or someone is going to have to start regulating fishing pressure, and no one wants that.”

Colorado anglers seem to be up to the challenge by at least one metric. Although fishing closures have slowed the retail side of Spillane’s Steamboat Fly Fisher, one item has seen its sales increase: thermometers. Customers have been purchasing them at a rate that is nearly four times the rate they used to test water temperatures over the past few years. Many Coloradans now consider the life expectancy of a trout before they actually get to hold one.

(Read more: How Denver Anglers got hooked on Carp)


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