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Prized trout streams shrink as heat, drought grip US West

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Posted at 9:58 AM, Sep 06, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-06 11:58:41-04

SARATOGA, Wyo. (AP) — The North Platte River in southern Wyoming has been so low in places lately that a toddler could easily wade across and thick mats of olive-green algae grow in the lazy current.

Just over two years ago, workers stacked sandbags to protect homes and fishing cabins from raging brown floodwaters, the highest on record.

Neither scene resembles the proper picture of a renowned trout fishing destination, one where anglers glide downstream in drift boats, flinging fly lures in hope of landing big brown and rainbow trout in the shadow of the Medicine Bow Mountains.

But both torrent and trickle have afflicted storied trout streams in the American West in recent years amid the havoc of climate change, which has made the region hotter and drier and fueled severe weather events. Blistering heat waves and extended drought have raised water temperatures and imperiled fish species in several states.

In the Rocky Mountains, the attention is on trout fishing, a big part of both the United States’ $1-billion-a-year fly fishing industry and the region’s over $100-billion-a-year outdoor recreation industry.

“It seems the extremes are more extreme,” said Tom Wiersema, who’s fished the upper North Platte as a guide and trout enthusiast for almost half a century.

Some years, Wiersema has been able to put in and float a section of river about 10 miles (16 kilometers) north of the Colorado line all summer. This year, Wiersema hasn’t bothered to float that stretch since late June, lest he have to drag a boat over wet, algae-covered rocks.

“That’s what the river is at that point. Round, slippery bowling balls,” he said.

In nearby Saratoga, population 1,600, leaping trout adorn light posts and the sign for Town Hall. The North Platte gurgles past a public hot spring called the Hobo Pool, and trout fishing, along with the fall elk hunt, are big business.

Phil McGrath, owner of Hack’s Tackle & Outfitters on the river, said low flows haven’t hurt his business of guided fishing trips on drift boats, which launch from deeper water in town. The fishing has been excellent, he said.

“You want to go easy on the little guys in the afternoon,” he urged a recent group of customers who asked where they could wet a line before a guided trip the next morning.

It’s basic trout fishing ethics when temperatures get as high as they were that day, 85 degrees (29 Celsius), and water temperatures aren’t far enough behind.