Zombie Trout?

Big Hole cutthroat

by Scott Sadil

Granted, it has a nice ring to it. 

What could be better for catching readers’ attention than a name that brings to mind a wave of dystopian or post-apocalypse aquatic creatures, distorted by horrific disease, wandering about one of our once-pristine Western trout waters, a river of so many fly fishers’ dreams?

Fish populations on Montana’s fabled Big Hole River, reported Jim Robbins, in a New York Times story published last month, are on the verge of “total collapse.”  Worse, specimens appear ravaged by an unidentified disease, strange and revolting, “brown trout blind, and still alive.” 

As luck would have it, a week after this dire report I visited the Big Hole, thanks to Matt and Sarah Cornette, managers of the Complete Fly Fisher lodge, near Wise River, Montana.

My take?  For three days I caught trout, not in bunches but enough, browns and rainbows and a couple of the river’s seemingly misplaced West Slope cutthroats—about what I would expect in low clear water under bright September skies, the early fall light performing its magic against the yellowing leaves of towering streamside cottonwoods.

Big Hole River

Which isn’t to discount Mr. Robbins’s report, much of it gleaned from insights offered by Wade Fellin and his father Craig, who, for the past four decades, have operated the Big Hole Lodge, another of the river’s iconic outposts.  A three-day visit is but a snapshot, a tiny window that reveals only a glimpse of any watershed—although a lot more, I would argue, than you can gather from a newspaper story or even an impressionable blog.

Still, it’s worth noting that one of my guides at the Complete Fly Fisher, Max Lewis, who has worked on the Big Hole for more than two decades now, stated his clients this season had caught only one trout marred by the sort of lesion that would signify a disease rather than an attack from an osprey or bald eagle, a common enough disfigurement anywhere anglers catch and release their trout.

But don’t get me wrong: I’m not here to argue that the Big Hole, or any other Western trout river, isn’t facing serious challenges, many of them brought on by our changing climate.  Montana, says the science, has warmed up 2.7°F since 1950. Warmer temperatures, less snowfall, warmer water, lower levels of dissolved oxygen, yadda yadda yadda.