I am not a researcher, fish biologist, or hydrologist. I am a fishing guide.
I started guiding anglers just months after graduating college in 1974. I guided for over 40 years on the North Platte River near Saratoga. Guiding made me a professional observer. My daily job required detecting nuances that others might miss. Keen observations make a successful guide.
In 1974, 19 out of 20 anglers I guided were spin fishing. Many casted minnows on a two-hook rig. Fewer than one out of 20 were women. Everyone kept their limit of trout. Catch and release was not yet part of the collective psyche. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department had the foresight in the early ‘80s to reduce creel limits, restrict tackle to flies and lures only and end the decades-long stocking program upstream of Saratoga.
Over time, the demand for guided trips increased and so did boat traffic from private floaters. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, the North Platte watershed experienced average to above-average snowpack. There was plenty of water in the local rivers, and there was plenty of room for everyone.
Then, weather patterns started changing. The 2002 drought was one of the most severe on record. That year I rowed my last guided trip of the season on July 1 because the North Platte was too low. Severe drought visited again in 2012. When the Platte gets low, water temperature rises and water clarity increases. Algae grows in the warm, clear water. Diminished flows means the algae sloughs off a filament at a time. negatively impacting water quality for much of the summer.
This scenario is tough on fish and in 2012 I started seeing open sores on rainbow trout. The warm water made reviving fish more difficult and less successful. I abandoned the rivers on the hottest algae-ridden days. I started taking clients to alpine lakes and streams because water remained cold and clear there.
Today, river-boat traffic continues to increase. Floating the North Platte or Encampment River during periods of low water, when a boat can barely scrape down over the rocks, is hard on the boat and rower. It is also stressful on trout, forcing them to flee every time a boat passes.
When rivers get low, it is time to leave the drift boat at home. Every river needs as many friends as it can get but as good friends, we all must be respectful of the resource.
Many of the West’s most iconic rivers have their beginning in our state’s high country. Most rivers transition into warm-water fisheries before leaving Wyoming. Warm-water species move upstream as water temperatures increase, disrupting historic fisheries.
In 2020, the Upper North Platte River country endured the Mullen Fire, one of the state’s largest wildfires recorded. Most of the Platte Wilderness burned along with many sub-watersheds essential to both water quantity and quality. These side streams provide essential spawning and juvenile rearing habitat for trout and other aquatic species.
What is the future of the North Platte trout fishery? Will it be loved to death? Will it fall victim to debris flows from canyon slopes no longer able to hold erosion in check after fires destroy vegetation?
My experience in the scheme of things is too short to confidently see the future. However, if we are vigilant, respectful and empowered by the facts, my guess is that the North Platte and Encampment rivers will continue to provide solace, relaxation and connection with nature for years to come.
Climate change is real. It has real impacts to real people and for trout. Agencies, organizations and individuals can and do make a difference. The Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust has provided many millions of dollars as matching funds for river channel restorations, aquatic habitat enhancements and perhaps most importantly, river reconnections that remove barriers to fish migration.
These efforts add to the resiliency of our state’s fisheries.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department and numerous federal agencies round out the many funding sources reducing the burden of funding these expensive projects.
So let us all be mindful of how fragile our beloved fisheries are, how important they are to us and will be to our daughters and sons. Let us also recognize the many organizations, agencies and individuals who help our fisheries to be the best that they can be.