Matt Dickerson: Low, warm water and bad karma

I’ve been spending a lot of time this summer driving over my favorite local trout rivers, looking down into the water, and shaking my head in dismay at the low water levels. And my next thought is that I probably shouldn’t go fishing.
Of course every summer the temperature seems hot and the rivers seem lower, just like every winter the temperatures seem cold, and every April during snow melt the water seems high. So despite having lived in Addison County nearly 30 years, I’m sometimes hesitant to actually trust my observations. I know the water is lower in the summer, but is the water really lower this year than usual?
The answer is definitely yes. According to U.S. climate data, the average monthly rainfall in Burlington for the month of August is 3.9 inches. As I write this column on the last day of the month the total rainfall had reached only 2.1 inches. And it’s been that way all year: precipitation has been only half to three-quarters of typical. Back in early June when I took stream temperatures on the Middlebury River, they were already at late July or August temperatures. And water levels were already low then.
As I have noted before, when rivers are warm and low, cold-water species like trout are already under stress. Getting hooked, played, and released can kill a fish in these conditions, no matter how careful an angler is. Of course if you are out to catch a fish for your creel to put in the frying pan that night, then mortality rates are not an issue.
But as much as I want to get out in the rivers to enjoy a quiet summer evening of casting, I avoid fishing in these conditions. I also avoid writing about trout fishing in local rivers because I don’t want to encourage others to be out fishing when it will add stress to the local trout.
Until one recent night. The temperature for the past few days had been just a few degrees cooler, and the forecast for the weekend was for a dramatic drop in temperature, plus some light precipitation. I thought it might be time to get up into one of the shady gorges where the water temperatures are generally a few degrees cooler and I could find some deep pools.
So as sundown approached, I hiked into a favorite spot — a “honey hole” that I can always depend on to hold a few trout. Actually, a series of four honey holes over about a hundred yards of water where I often land brown trout, rainbow trout, and brook trout all in the same outing.
Turns out I was wrong. The water temperature even in the gorge was much higher than I expected, on the borderline of being too warm to catch and release fish. If I hadn’t done so much work to get in there, I would have turned around and left. But I had only an hour to fish before dusk, so I thought I’d at least explore.
At the first hole, I lost a good fly in an overhead tree. Thirty minutes later, I broke the buckle of my good fishing pack trying to scramble down an armpit-high rock ledge. Though I might have seen the shadow of one spooked fish, I didn’t get a single strike. As dusk settled in, I climbed out of the gorge defeated.
A lot of scientists are concerned about the impact of climate change on cold-water species. I heard about it last summer in Alaska when I was writing about arctic char and Dolly Varden trout. I heard about it this summer in Wyoming when I was writing about cutthroat trout. I don’t know if that’s what I’m observing evidence of in Vermont this summer, or if it’s just the annual variation.
Rain is now falling. My weather app tells me we might get temperatures in the fifties at some point in the next few days. I’m looking forward to fall fishing.

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