Lets Talk Fish Kills

I got an alarming text last night. “WTF is up with the Clark Fork right now?” Was the message, from a local angler. I’ve been out of town, watching the news stories of the Yellowstone fish kill and the Tibble Fork dam fish kill in Utah as they rolled in, frantically clicking links and soaking up information. So when a text like that hits the phone, I immediately jumped into full-gear panic mode. I fired off a response, and my boy was already on the case. What looked like some sort of muddy spill was chugging through town, visible for miles. He followed it to the source, and found it to be mud pouring out of the Rattlesnake creek. Most likely, fire fighters creating a fire line to keep the Grant Creek fire in the next valley over from leaping into the highly populated and recreated Rattlesnake valley dislodged mud and dirt high in the drainage and it was traveling the length of the ‘snake before hitting the Clark Fork. (update: a pipeline was being moved, which dislodged the mud.)  Non-toxic, natural mud. Fish can take that.  Panic averted. For now. But spills happen. Parasites and bacteria and infections are very real threats. Fish kills happen. And Missoula’s rivers are not immune to the effects.

Dead whitefish collect in the slow waters on the edge of the Yellowstone, closed for all recreation due to a massive fish kill in the peak of the fishing season.

It doesn’t take a long look back in time to find spills on our area rivers, or infections that threaten fish kills. Some of these things are unpreventable. Accidents happen. Trucks spill over, airplanes crash into rivers (Random, but true.) and bucket biologists drop invasive species into bodies of water they have no business living in for sport. But others are preventable, and we have to do what we can to not be “that guy” on the river. Which includes cleaning gear. Daily, habitually, and especially when moving from one body of water to the next. Following the FWP’s guidelines for “Clean, Inspect, Dry” will help keep these kills to a minimum. Guides get a lot of scrutiny in this area, and often the private angler will point at a grungy guide and think, “They don’t do this stuff, why should I?” Sure, our gear gets battered, grungy and weather-worn. And our boats aren’t always the prettiest. But the working end of those boats? The undercarriage so to speak, those things shine. Guides work hard, we fish all over, and we wash our boats more than we shower. It’s what you do when you’re livelihood depends on the rivers. All anglers should do the same, especially those visiting our state from away, moving from one beautiful river to the next.
We have to do our part, and we have to start acknowledging what science is telling us. The outfitters guides and flyshops in the Yellowstone area all know: Its up to the scientists now to help the Yellowstone recover, and they’ll take what the biologists and others have to say as the gospel. It’s time for a reality check on one of the most iconic rivers on earth.
But there is one reality that we’re going to have to start facing that is changing the frequency of these events, and the latest devastation on the Yellowstone is an indicator that things are reaching a tipping point. Climate change is real. We don’t need to argue who caused it (Note: Probably you. Not me, I’m so chill that I actually cool surfaces I touch.) but we do as anglers need to start talking about it, and talking about it regularly and loudly. Record hot days, record hot weeks, record hot months, record hot years. And we all know how bacteria and other lovely creatures thrive in hot, wet areas. Any climate change denier is welcome to breathe deeply from my wader socks while arguing that these record high temp seasons aren’t having negative effects. The reality these days is we have hight temps, near-record low flows, and no end in sight to these weather patterns. How are anglers going to come together to voice these concerns? Time will tell. But the rivers might not have much time left if we don’t.

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