The Dance With Wilderness Fires

wilderness fires
Wilderness wildfires: good news or bad?

by Scott Sadil

It should come as no surprise to anyone here that there are few things I enjoy more in fishing than hiking into a designated National Forest wilderness area and casting about for wild native trout. 

The fish are often plentiful and, at times, a wee bit stupid – if only because they’re so eager to attack an oversized dry fly, a big Humpy, say, or hopper, a playfully brazen offering for fish that will rarely pass the twelve-inch mark that I refresh with a Sharpie each spring on my copper-tipped wading staff.

Yet way out West, where wildfires have ravaged so many wilderness forests in recent summers, there’s a new wrinkle to this kind of low-key sport. If you haven’t strapped on a pack and been out there for awhile, you may not have heard: many wilderness areas, left to recover on their own following naturally-occurring lightning-ignited fires, are now crisscrossed by countless miles of all but impassable trails.

I’m not complaining. But it’s a startling change when you discover that a 30-mile river trail, long used by hikers and anglers alike, has been swallowed by overhead grasses and shrubbery, a refreshed understory invigorated by sunlight no longer blocked by forest canopy. And where the snags or fire-killed trees have fallen, you find your way blocked time and again, needing to resort to detours that often leave you, at best, in a maze of half-formed paths from others who have found themselves stymied by one obstacle or the next.

Wild trout somehow manage to survive wilderness wildfires

It’s a complex problem. Management policies prohibit use of chainsaws and other power tools within wilderness boundaries. Volunteer groups often pitch in, but the scope of the work is such that miles and miles of trail are essentially abandoned.  Have you been on the end of a crosscut saw lately?  And after you finish removing a hip-wide section from a fallen, charcoal-black Douglas fir, 30 inches in diameter, share with me, please, the language you use when winds from the next afternoon’s thunderstorm topple two more trees directly alongside where you managed your nifty bit of woodspersonship over many long hours the previous day.

The good news, of course, is that no trout anywhere has ever seemed to mind that angler access to river or stream has been severely restricted or even denied. Granted, trout aren’t happy when the shade of riparian forest is obliterated by fire; on the other hand, the new understory provides its own bankside shadows and protection, as well as habitat for hatched aquatic insects and streamside terrestrials. 

And if anyone tells you there’s anything that improves a mountain trout stream more than big woody debris, especially fallen old-growth trees, he or she is probably linked somehow to the promises of hatcheries – or some other management philosophy that argues human intervention able to outwit the sublime dexterity of nature.

It’s my guess that wilderness trout don’t like wildfires any more than you or I do.  But they’ve been through it before.  It may take a goodly while for things to resemble what we’ve known in the past.  Or we may have entered a new phase, different, as in our own lives, than any that’s preceded it. 

But if the trout still rise to a size 6 Hopper, how bad can it be?


Gray’s angling editor Scott Sadil knocks on wood every time he heads into a wilderness area with a pack strapped to his aging back.