Thursday, January 26, 2023


It's a warm spring day on a famed New England trout river. There's little wind and between clouds the sun warms the bottom of the river. In a gentle ripple no more than two feed deep sits a wild trout. She is an old fish with a couple of spawns under her belt and a decade of surviving the changes, both natural and unnatural, that has taken place on the river of her birth. She carries battle scars from some of the trauma she had survived. Notably, her maxillary are both in varying states of damage. As any trout does, she eats without complete understanding of what she's ingesting and many times throughout her life she has eaten things that weren't food. Some of these things were sharp and attached to a barely discernible line, and though the odd large animals that pulled in that line always let her go, the repetitive catching had completely destroyed the trout's jaws. The maxillary was an important part of the trout's anatomy for feeding and the damage had made not-insignificant difficulty for her ability to obtain nutrients. In fact, those large animals regularly effected the trout's feeding. She'd learned to be more discerning in what she chose to eat because each time she'd made the error of eating one of those artificial items she was forced to struggle and exert a lot of energy. To avoid that the trout had become extremely careful, to the point that she'd sometimes even reject real food items. At this very moment a Hendrickson hatch was in progress. Duns like tiny sailboats rode the turbulence of the riffle but the trout stayed down near the bottom. The consistent disturbance of the large animals had forced her into feeding different feeding habits. She didn't feed from the surface as much, she picked different lies, and she fed less during the day than she otherwise would. Much like the need to be more picky about what she mouthed this also had a small but present effect on how much nutrients she could obtain. Though she was doing okay- she was at least alive -she was less healthy than she would otherwise be were it not for those intrusive and ever-present animals. 

Of course, she wasn't the only trout those animals were effecting. Just a few feet away there was a dead fish, slowly decaying and being consumed by caddis larvae. This trout had been hooked poorly by one of the fake food items and even though the angler let the fish go he was bleeding horribly. A few hours later he settled to the bottom a few hundred yards below where he'd been released, completely lifeless.  This trout wasn't the only one to die such a death. It didn't happen every day, but it did happen. Some fish were handled poorly, some just happened to be hooked in critical places, and some were caught and released at times when they were already under extreme stress. Though the trout's little pea brain couldn't comprehend the concept, her life and that of every other fish in the river were negatively effected by every interaction with those big animals. This was life for this trout, though thousands of years of evolution had given her traits to avoid the sort of predators that would always eat a trout if they caught it, she was having to adjust to avoiding a predator that would likely just put her back in worse shape than she was before. It was a strange and foreign sort of pressure for a fish to accommodate. 

The trout's brain also couldn't comprehend the other ways by which these animals impacted her life. The hatch of mayflies drifting over her head was a strong one, but these hatches had become more and more sparse as years progressed. The animals would trod across that bottom day in and day out, crushing nymphs and disturbing habitat. The things they put in their lawns and on their roads would drain into the river with each runnoff and kill yet more bugs. Over time what had been blizzard emergances became more sparse, and the nymphs in the drift became harder to come by as well. This effected fish smaller than the trout as well, and blacknose dace and common shiners had less to forage on. The trout relied on these small fish as forage as well and they at some times critical for her to obtain energy. As the forage base got smaller, the large animals stole the river's water as well. They used it to make their lawns greener and their cars shinier, and to relax and clean themselves after a hard day of trying to fool the trout. When the water made it back into the river, if it did at all, it was warm and often richly nutrified. When the hot, dry summers came this killed more forage and more trout as well. But the animals continued to come to the river in droves doing everything the could to catch more and more trout. some days the trout had to leave her lie again and again as the animals came along and spooked her one after the other. She could hardly catch a break. Of course, she kept trucking along. A trout doesn't really understand the implications of what goes on around it, it just does what it's biological imperatives tell it to so that it can stay alive. It eats, it tries to avoid being eaten, and it makes more trout. It responds to stimuli to better survive. 

The big animals, us, are impactful on trout, and unless we're doing (keyword: proven and effective) habitat projects, re-introducing extirpated forage sources, or introducing healthy nutrient sources (I believe is was Ernie Schweibert that said sometimes the best thing that can happen to a trout stream is for a trout to take a s*** in it, and this does bear out with population densities and average size in many cases), our impact is always negative. The more of us fish, and the more often, the higher that impact is and the more fish we will unintentionally kill... the more stream bed our wading boots degrade... the more redds get trampled... the more trout's behavior gets altered. 

There is a limit to how much fishing pressure a river can take before both the health of the fishery take a hit. Those of us who pay attention are keenly aware of how fishing pressure changes a stream and it always makes it worse. We anglers need to be mindful of this, and in the current world of chasing clout and everyone wanting to look like they slam fish all the time, with anglers wanting to fit into the top of the social hierarchy, its all too easy to lose sight of the impact intense pressure has on any fishery. Either we can accept it and continue to watch the fishing quality and perhaps more importantly the experience quality decline, or we can take personal responsibility for our own personal pressure. And don't do it to be holier than though. Don't do it to brag. Do it because the fishing will be better for the next guy and better for the fish if you only pull one nice trout out of the wintering hole, or leave a few of the heads coming up along the bank alone after you've already had a great evening of dry fly fishing. There are ways to spread out your fishing pressure and still stay out on the water all day and catch a fulfilling number of fish. It's up to each of us to find that way of fishing that both full fills and excites us and reduces our personal impact on the fishery. And I know I could do better, that's my biggest goal this year both personally and as a guide. I hope I can diminish my own personal damage to the resource we all rely on. 

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