As I write this I’m looking out my office window at a light dusting of snowflakes, mesmerized – and distracted – by how lazily they carousel to the ground. The flakes are just part of the umpteenth snow storm this winter – a winter of almost more snow than I remember.
My whole life’s been in Utah. I grew up on the side of a mountain in a rural part of the state. This was a place where orchards, ranches, and farms were the way of life, a far cry from the Silicon Slopes of northern Utah County today. Being right on the mountain, the snow always fell thick and fast, burying our small town in an endless deluge of ice that never truly melted until April or May.
So I never really paid attention to the winters growing up. Our town had enough snow, natural springs, and a creek, that having enough never became an issue. It was only when I started skiing during my sophomore year of high school that I paid attention to the snow.
Of course, I only paid attention to base totals at any given resort and where the latest powder dump had happened. I didn’t care, or even know, about total snowpack relative to a drainage’s water usage in the summer. I certainly knew far less about the impact a good winter has on trout streams, speaking in both terms of amount of water and temperature.
Then I started fly fishing and, as one is wont to do when fly fishing becomes a lifestyle and not a hobby, I became that much more aware of my surroundings.
The first time I really noticed the effects of a bad winter was my senior year in high school. The local stream in town sprang crystal clear from the ground some untold miles up the canyon. The water was always cool, but that spring as I hiked into the stream’s upper reaches (instead of spending time in pre-calculus like I was supposed to) I saw something that damn near made my heart stop.
The series of beaver ponds – five of them, to be precise – that I’d fished for years were no longer ponds, but trickles of running water. The deep pools and hidey-holes the wild rainbows lived in were dry, baked to a crisp by the sun.
And the fish? Well, they were still there. Clumped together in bunches, skinnier than I’d ever seen them, lethargic, and generally sickly-looking. These were trout that, though they rarely exceeded twelve inches, always sported plump bellies, bright colors, and more spunk than you’d expect. That year they were as listless as a giant brown trout immediately following the spawn.
Since that year, the stream’s never really recovered. The pools filled again, but nowhere near the levels I was used to. The fish grew plump, though noticeably not as so as they’d been before. And nearly every other stream where I regularly threw flies showed the same signs of wear through the drought.
A few years later, after high school and at the beginning of what I’ll humbly call my fly fishing career (which only began when people decided my musings on the subject were worth money, mind you), another favorite stream saw the ravages of drought.
The stream, even during peak runoff, runs shallow and warm. It’s always been that way, though apparently it’s not too warm to support a population of big cutthroat and rainbow trout. Rumors abound, as they always do, of true giant cutthroat in the most inaccessible reaches of this stream, though I’ve yet to tape one over 20 inches myself.
It was early June, just after runoff ended and the summer heat was beginning to set in. I hiked a few miles down the canyon and began fishing my way back up to my car.
The water was warm enough I should’ve wet-waded – and this is at an elevation of nearly 9,000 feet which, even in early June, should still sport very chilly water – and the pools low and slow enough I wondered if there was even enough oxygen to support a trout population.
I caught a few fish that day, one of which was ironically a large cutthroat, but driving home my mind wasn’t on the fish. It was on the stretches of river that were no longer river but barren rock, the dried moss crusted and flaking off in a slight breeze. It was on the warmth of the stream and the little fight given from any of the fish I caught.
Now as we’re in the midst of the best winter I’ve seen since I was a child I hope to see full pools in the beaver dams and water over those barren rocks once more. I’m hopefully – perhaps naively optimistic – that nature will right itself as it so often has.
We play a role in that process, though. We always have, but with more of us on this earth now our role is more prominent. After years of observation and thought, I’ve come to the conclusion that being a good steward of the land and water with which we’ve been blessed is less about focusing on what we shouldn’t do, and focusing more on what we can do.
The true spirit of conservation isn’t rallies at state capitols and vitriol-filled articles. It’s about doing your part to ensure the bit of land you value most is as healthy as possible.
Imagine with me for a moment just how different this world would look if we, as a sporting community, took that approach to conserving and protecting what we have.
I’d wager things would be even better than they are now.
Spencer is a novelist, outdoors columnist, and sports writer from Utah. Connect with him on Twitter/Instagram @Spencer_Durrant.