Fish are in Hot Water (Literally)

As I’m writing this, I’ve sweat through just about every part of my shirt in the 100-degree heat. It’s no secret it’s been hot, and it isn’t just at my house; across the US, people have had to deal with well above-average temperatures this summer. Last year ranked as one of the hottest summers on record, and the beginning of fall bestowed far too little rain to help quench our water bodies’ need for water. As the warmest part of the year gets progressively warmer, we need to understand that we aren’t the only ones feeling the heat; our aquatic friends are suffering through it too.

If you follow any fly fishing accounts on social media, you’ve likely noticed the call to action for anyone fishing for salmonids. As some of the most heat-intolerant species in North America, trout and salmon need all the help they can get from us anglers to protect them during the summer. Often, helping means doing anything you can to stay away from them. Once the water temperatures reach the high-60’s, mortality rates after release begin to climb. The exhaustion from being played coupled with high water temps and low dissolved oxygen content can be lethal for any salmonid. It is our job to refrain from targeting these species when they simply can’t handle the stress of being caught.

That being said, there is responsibility on other agencies to ensure average anglers do their best to protect our nation’s fish. One idea that I wholeheartedly support is imposing “hoot owl” restrictions on susceptible and highly pressured fisheries. The premise is that certain bodies of water selected by the state’s fish & game agency are closed during the hottest parts of the day during the summer. A step further would be to completely shut down that fishery during the hottest part of the year to limit any fishing pressure, and in turn, excess stress on the fish.

Unfortunately, states are unwilling to take this monumental leap towards protecting the future of our fisheries because they are apprehensive about the reactions from less conservation-minded anglers, not to mention the potential economic impacts this may have. What they don’t understand, however, is that the economic impacts could and likely would be beneficial; with better fisheries, tourists and traveling fisher-people would be more inclined to visit that region because of its reputation for superb wild fish. And hopefully those unhappy with the decision to temporarily close the water body to fishing would be heavily outnumbered by those that grasp the importance of a healthy fishery.

One of the largest misconceptions surrounding warm water temps is that it only affects trout-in reality, there are many other fish species that are underappreciated and also can’t withstand the heat. Although trout have the lowest heat tolerance of most North American fish, muskies, northern pike, walleye, and even perch struggle when the mercury starts climbing. Unlike salmonids, it is typically alright to target these fish during the summer, but it is crucial that the heaviest tackle is used to minimize fight times. In addition, barbless hooks and quick releases all contribute to keeping fish happy and healthy while we’re soaking in the sun.

Members of the Esox genus are at higher risk of mortality in warm water.

Not only is responsibility important when the temperatures begin to get hot, but so is preventing these warm temperatures in the first place. One of the best ways to ensure rivers stay cool is by protecting or adding riparian vegetation and overhanging tree cover. These plants provide shade and act like sunscreen for rivers, keeping their temperatures in a suitable range for most species. It is important to consider that this isn’t only necessary for the main stems of rivers, but their headwaters as well. Small feeder streams that create larger rivers are often forgotten when protective measures are put in place, but this is the number-one source of cold water for most river systems. All the water that ends up in larger streams has to come from somewhere, and often its the little brooks and creeks that flow out of mountains and wetlands.

So, the bottom line is that our lakes and streams get hot in the summer, and continue to get hotter each year. It is our responsibility to ensure the health of fish during these high-stress months, but it is also necessary to put measures in place to prevent the need for our protective efforts in the first place.

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