Doomed by Drought

As fellow Native Fish Coalition MA board member Will Friedland and I laid eyes on the brook (or more accurately, the trickle) we were about to fish, we simultaneously muttered two dispirited words: “Oh boy.” This was no giddy with excitement-because the stream is chock-full of-happy little trout Oh boy. No, this was a “I’d have to renounce my status as a conservationist and ethical catch-and-release practitioner if I put a fly in there” Oh boy. We both viewed the depressed, drought-stricken stream with sullen eyes, wondering if this was the end of the line for what used to be one of New Hampshire’s finest wild brook trout streams.

If the effects of this summer’s drought weren’t already apparent, our lack of water is now glaringly obvious. Just about every lawn you see is nearly burnt to a crisp, and local message boards urge townspeople to limit water use. All of my home state, Massachusetts, is now at some level of drought, and a large portion of the commonwealth is at a critical stage.

For fish, and the anglers that target them, this is bad news. Very bad news. If you’ve been on a river lately, you have likely noticed once-raging currents diminished to mere rivulets incapable of supporting any kind of aquatic life. Low water supplies less oxygen, fewer nutrients, less protection, and warmer temperatures than normal water levels. Predators such as herons and otters have easier times picking fish off in clear, low water. Spawning beds could be left high-and-dry for eggs to die. Droughts can ruin an entire year class of fish, or in severe cases, an entire population.

Certain native species, such as brook trout, are particularly susceptible to low water. They require cold, well oxygenated water, something low water can’t provide.

Between 2016 and 2017, Massachusetts experienced a drought that lasted 48 weeks, one of the worst in history. Beginning in early June of 2016 and ending in early May of 2017, the peak of the drought occurred through the fall of 2016. Entire year classes of brook trout, a fall spawning fish, were entirely decimated by this widespread lack of water. For a species already struggling to hold on in a state where industrialization and climate change is wreaking havoc on wild ecosystems, this was the last straw for many populations. Even in my suburban hometown with a population of nearly 37,000, brook trout reportedly still inhabited some tiny headwater streams prior to this drought. But after, those streams lay barren and trout-less.

So for those of you that might not have understood why Will and I chose to forgo the fishing on that New Hampshire stream, perhaps now you have an idea. Not only could it have stressed the fish we caught to over exhaustion and possible mortality, but we could have even wiped out an entire population of fish if we were particularly succesful.

Luckily, brook trout aren’t the only species we have to fish for in New England. Later in the week, I stopped at a local warmwater river to see how it was faring in this heat. The trout that were stocked in the spring were now likely long-gone, since replaced by bass, sunfish, and fallfish from further downstream.

A pretty redbreast sunfish caught from the drought-stricken river.

When I arrived at the river, it looked to be in a similar condition as the brook trout stream: bony and warm. A quick reading of my thermometer revealed a water temperature of a whopping 82-degrees. Yikes!

Just before I took my first cast, I spooked a great blue heron silently stalking the clear, shallow water where fish were readily visible without any protection. Even though they are less affected by warm and low water, warmwater species are still threatened when water levels drop.

As I walked upstream, I found fish holding in nearly every deep pocket. Most of the stream was just inches deep with any structure. In places where there was a foot of water or more, schools largemouth bass, redbreast sunfish, fallfish, and creek chubs congregated. They didn’t look to be in distress – they still rose to the occasional insect, chased each other out of the prime lies, and finned lazily in the meandering current. Still, with every step I took, they shot away looking for cover, obviously conditioned to frequent predatory attacks.

When I did catch fish, I made sure to take the best care of them that I could. They were stressed enough in this dry spell, so there was no reason to stress them out any more than necessary. When I quickly removed the hook, I kept the fish well submerged in the water, making sure not to squeeze it too tight. Most were off the hook and back into the pool or riffle within twenty seconds of first eating my fly.

Other than practicing responsible catch-and-release, what else can we do to protect our cherished fish during this period of high stress? Other than doing our rain dances, there’s not a ton we can do to raise water levels or lower water temperatures. But we can help conserve water by only using our fair share. We have all heard the strategies to save water a million times, so I’m sure I don’t have to repeat it here. But knowing these strategies is different from implementing them. It’s up to us to actually put these practices to use, not just for the current health of the environment, but for the future of the outdoors.

Luckily, despite this severe drought and all the water we use, all hope is not lost for even the most vulnerable species. As Will and I continued our adventure down the New Hampshire trout stream, we began to see the occasional brookie or two. In the face of 90-degree-plus highs sustained for over a week, these gems of the East still inhabited the rapidly-warming creek. Finally, as we neared the road crossing where our journey would end, a torrent of lightning-quick char shot through our feet. The fish took cover behind a large boulder where the water felt just a little cooler to the touch. A water thermometer reading confirmed the slight difference in temperature – just a degree or two – but enough to keep these brook trout happy.

What we had stumbled across was a spring. Groundwater upwellings maintain a constant temperature throughout the year, providing suitable habitat for coldwater fish through the shoulder seasons. At this spring in particular, trout of all sizes were schooled up by the dozens. You could sense their distress as we observed them, but they apparently weren’t disturbed enough to risk venturing into the warm, shallow water upstream of the spring.

We easily could have dropped a fly in the school and roped brook trout in one after another. But if we did that, what kind of example would we be setting for other fly anglers? What kind of example would we be setting for ourselves?

3 thoughts on “Doomed by Drought

  1. What a great article, Spencer! You brought the emotion and inner conflict into the drought issues that we fly fishermen are facing now. Both your writing and your fishing acumen are amazing.


  2. Spencer I have been toying with the idea of going to the Androscoggin River in NH in September. For a larger river like that, do you think it’s ok to fish? I have not yet checked flow levels but I will do so soon.


    1. Hey Miles, that area of NH and western Maine has actually been blessed with a good amount of rain and fairly cool temps throughout the summer. By September I would imagine it will have cooled off enough and the flows will be high enough for some great fishing!


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