The Truckee River is Sick.
We all love the Truckee and it doesn’t take a physician of ecology to realize the river is ill. All it takes is some personal observations to realize the river hasn’t been it’s usual vibrant self. Diminished flows mean diminished health of a river. Water is the essence of the river. The more water, typically the healthier a river system is. Less water simply means less river. All the rivers systems rely on the flow of water. When those flows are reduced systems start to shut down or go into sustain mode rather then thrive mode. As stewards of the river it’s our responsibility to realize when the river is sick and take care of it as such.
The ocean is the generator of most weather on this planet. In many ways, the oceans can be equated to the heart of the planet. Rivers are the life blood of this planet. They can be equated to organs or veins feeding water to the ocean or other large bodies of fresh water. As with all living organisms these systems can and will fluctuate in health.
Droughts are no stranger to the western United States. We’ve experienced periods of droughts and periods of great precipitation for thousands of years. Nature has ways of dealing with droughts. It also has ways of dealing with floods. The rivers and fish suffer but they always come through. Or else they would not be here today. But in today’s modern times we put an excess stress on the rivers and their systems, making it harder for the natural systems to adapt quick enough.
Fishing aside most of the stress we place on the river comes from the demands of development. Increased demand on water supply for off channel uses including agriculture, municipalities, and landscaping contribute to greatly reduced flows from the “old” average. The systems of the river typically end up in sustain mode by mid to late summer on an average year these days. If you add a severe drought then we find ourselves in a sustain or even shut-down mode in some cases…and summer has hardly started!
“Dry years can be a great time to do stream restoration work!”
The Fish Are Affected
The most obvious limitation of diminished flows is usable habitat. Fish need water! That’s the simple truth. Less water mean less hiding spots to spread out to or feed in. The trout populations get condensed into the few remaining deep holes. This makes them more susceptible to predation by both human anglers as well as birds, otters, snakes, raccoons, mink and other terrestrial anglers. When condensed they also have to highly compete with each other in close quarters for limited food resources. This adds additional stress on the remaining fish.
In the old days, fish that inhabit the Truckee used to have the ability to travel back and forth into and out of Lake Tahoe and Pyramid Lake. This is one of the factors leading to some of the largest trout in the world. They had a refuge to go when times got tough in the river. Now they can’t reach either. All the other lakes in the system are also man made and blocked from the main stem river by huge chunks of concrete. Therefore the fish that inhabit the river have nowhere else to go.
It’s a known fact that wild fish in the Truckee have adapted to migrate up and down the river system quite a bit making use of the best habitats at different times of the season. If there’s a big flood year they can move up river closer to the tail water sections to avoid huge muddy water. As the season goes on and water gets lower or warm they can move down the river to find deep water. Fish in the Truckee also have the ability to utilize several tributaries to find colder spring fed and snow melt water and or spawn at different times of the year. Diminished flows make it impossible for fish to migrate into these tributaries and or make a full migration up or down the river.
There’s also increased pollutants from auto, industrial, household and recreational uses such as golf courses and the such. Diminished wet lands and meadows that act as filters and natural water reservoirs also come into play. All these factors contribute to the overall health of a river. When there’s more water in the system it’s easier for the river to flush out pollutants and clean it’s self. With diminished flows the river begins to stagnate in places. Algae and mud begin to build up clogging the river just like the veins of an unhealthy person who fills their body with contaminates. This clogging so to speak decreases the usable habitat for bugs, which affects the web of life all the way up through the fish to the birds to the shore dwelling mammals. So now the fish have less food to go around. Once fish populations start to diminish into a level the river can naturally sustain it can take a few good water years for those populations of wild fish to recover.
What’s the Good News?
Is there a bright side to drought years? Well if there is some foresight, which luckily there has been on the Truckee, then yes! Dry years can be a great time to do stream restoration work! The Truckee River Watershed Council and Chapter 103, The Truckee River chapter of TU have a couple great in stream restoration projects set for this summer on the Little Truckee and Prosser Creek as well as a couple of the other smaller tributaries. Low water makes it much easier to pull off this kind of in channel work while disrupting less of the river ecosystem as possible. If you underestimate the value of these type habitat restoration project you need only look at the work the Nature Conservancy has done on the main Truckee below Reno. The few miles of restoration work they have done on their land has done wonders for the lower river. For the past several years the fishing down there has gotten better and better. They repaired several miles of diminished in stream habitat and replaced it with a network of living working aquatic habitat that provides habitat for trout and bugs as well as a myriad of other wildlife. These are the types of projects we need to be supporting in the watershed as well as the organizations like Cal Trout, TU the Nature Conservancy and so on.
Should you be fishing the Truckee with indicators and nymphs and catching as many fish as you possibly can? Well that’s up to you. For me fishing is both about the personal satisfaction of solving a puzzle and getting a fish to bite, but it’s also about connecting to the river on a deeper level. Do I need to fish to do that? Not always. A good swim, a walk along the banks or sometimes even just a good nap on the waters shore can lead to a healthy connection.
My suggestion is that if you love the river make your decisions as such. Be mindful of temps, fishing pressure and other stressors of the fish and just the river ecosystem on general. Also think about conservation of water and making lifestyle decisions that promote conscious use of water throughout our community. This can be done at home and also in the brands and activates you support with your consumer dollars. If someone you love is ill you typically give them a break and or take steps to nurture them until they are healthy again. Might be a good year to go fish some lakes in the area or think about re connecting with some of your other hobbies you’ve been neglecting or meaning to get to.
Mikey lives a double life, which probably explains how he has twice as much fun as everyone else. Sneaking away from his career as pro snowboarder, Mikey spent summers chasing trout, eventually becoming a full-time fly fishing guide. And while he still rides and guides, as the founder of Burl Productions, he’s fully immersed in the creation of Soulful Fish films.