Weather Report

Glacial runoff, Hood River, Oregon

by Scott Sadil

Startling and unprecedented heat has left anglers throughout the Pacific Northwest wondering the worst:  Is this what the future holds?

For three successive days, temperatures in Portland, Oregon, for example, rose to heights never before recorded in the city’s history, each day hotter than the other – 108, 112, 116°F.

This data goes back to within a decade of the Civil War.

(I’m not referring to the football rivalry between the University of Oregon Ducks and the Oregon State Beavers.)

Record heat was also felt from California to British Columbia, from the coast to the Continental Divide.

It’s hard not to be alarmed.  Western summers are hot – but the Northwest, especially west of the Cascades, generally enjoys the cooling effects of the nearby Pacific. 

Those record-setting three days gave the impression, however, that the Pacific was on a different side of the planet, while also posing the question, “What about the fish and fishing?”

Runoff, of course, can be a problem for anglers throughout the West any time in spring and early summer, especially on rivers and streams flowing free of dams.  Snow melt increases and rivers rise.  Where I live, glaciers turn waters off-color, often an opaque milky green or, in the worst heat, a turbid silty muck the color of a triple-shot latté.

Do the fish mind?

Obviously, they’ve been through this before.  Yet at some point, silt loads from melting glaciers, especially in drainages severely compromised by wild fires, can reach limits that affect the capacity of fish gills to remove oxygen from the water.  Coupled, during intense heat waves, with increased water temperatures, which restrict the amount of dissolved oxygen available to fish, and conditions such as those found recently along rivers and streams in the Northwest bring into question whether anglers should continue to target cold-water species such as trout or steelhead, especially if anglers intend to, or are required to, release fish.  Already stressed by the severe conditions, a fish forced to “fight for its life” can easily fail to recover, even when carefully freed from a fly hook and returned gently to the water.

During a serious heat wave, in other words, trout and steelhead anglers, at least, have to ask themselves:  Should I even go fishing?  Meanwhile, wildlife agencies and outfitters alike will often urge anglers to do their part to help protect both fish and themselves by following a few recommendations: Fish only during the cool of the morning.  Skip the photo ops.  Free the fly without touching the fish.  Hydrate.  Wear a hat.  Seek shade.

And let’s face it: The best tip sometimes is to get off the water and go do something else.

Harsh, I know.  But didn’t somebody somewhere say something about the bitter and the sweet?  And what’s it mean, anyway, when an all-time high temperature record is broken three days running?  (Remember: these weren’t records for specific dates; we’re talking the three hottest days in recorded history.)

Yikes.

The good news is that where I live, at least, a glance at conditions on the neighborhood river makes it easy to decide to wait for the weather to change.

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Gray’s angling editor Scott Sadil fondly recalls the strong impression it made on his father when they visited Oregon one summer from southern California and saw a fellow mowing his lawn in the rain.