The Cascading Effects of a Changing Angling Season


By: Stacie Sullivan

Photo by Jeremiah Watt

Climate change is not only having a cascading physical effect on the outdoor landscapes we love, but also on the tourist communities that rely on a healthy snowpack for viable recreating opportunities year-round. Our friend, Steve Hemkens, Vice President of Fly Fishing, Wing Shooting and Dog Wholesale at Orvis, has spent his entire professional career working in the angling industry and has watched firsthand skyrocketing temperatures and how an unstable climate can affect these vulnerable towns that rely on recreational tourism.

Like many of us, Hemkens wants to protect our outdoor playgrounds. He uses his platform at Orvis to lobby and creates meaningful climate action at both a local and federal level. At the end of 2021, Hemkens attended the Federal Reserve Roundtable as a representative from the outdoor industry for a conversation about the impacts climate change is having on these vulnerable tourist communities that rely on consistent seasons for outdoor recreation. 

The Federal Reserve isn’t just about finance, monetary purposes and dolla dolla bills, ya’ll. It’s actually much more multi-dimensional and it’s crucial that the Federal Reserve members understand the waterfall effect climate change can have on these communities. “It was interesting and eye-opening for me, as a citizen and business person, to learn that the Fed has a responsibility to tackle climate issues in vulnerable communities and geographies and provide them consumer protection,” said Hemkens. 

The Waterfall Effect on Communities 

POW Athlete Alliance Member, Hilary Hutcheson | Photo by Hewitt-Packard

While lobbying in DC with POW, Hemkens had the opportunity to meet with POW Athlete Alliance Member and fellow angler, Hillary Hutcheson, and discuss her own town of Columbia Falls, Montana, just outside of Glacier National Park. Hutcheson’s town has been deeply affected by wildfires and rising water temperatures. Due to these environmental facorts, fish and wildlife agencies placed fishing restrictions on popular angling destinations. In a town where many livelihoods rely on a busy fishing season, these restrictions made many families in the community unable to pay rent, buy food and simply provide for themselves. “That’s a very singular and real example of what impacts climate change can have on these communities,” said Hemkens.  “It can be at the level of a community because of a fire, river closure or a mudslide and the result can have a profound impact on the people that live there.” 

Community impacts are one reason why it’s incredibly important to have the right level of awareness at the federal level and have relief mechanisms, like FEMA, in place for when there is a natural disaster or recreational closure that impacts a community. Last summer Colorado experienced a historic drought and water temperatures in many popular fishing areas, including Steamboat Springs, rose to seventy degrees. This is a critical threshold for trout because oxygen increasingly dissolves at high temperatures. In the southern part of the state, near Gunnison, the Crystal River tributary was experiencing mudslides. Both of these popular fishing areas experienced major fishing closures, leaving these towns in a vulnerable place without the added tourism from anglers. “Mechanisms will need to be put in place to help the people who live in these towns survive and get through those hard times, said Hemkens.” 

“Everyone needs to educate themselves on climate issues, understand what’s happening within their own communities, mobilize around climate and get involved.”

Steve Hemkens

Hemkens encourages people to help these communities by getting involved politically and having conversations around climate change. “This is just the beginning of the diminishment in quality and sustainability of some of these activities that we love without inserted broad base action around energy policy, delivery and rapidly reducing carbon emissions,” said Hemkens. “If the water temperature, quality and ecosystem health aren’t there to support abundant aquatic life and the desire for people to visit these communities to recreate, then it’s going to have a cascading effect on peoples ability to live in these towns that rely on recreational tourism”

Fish Habitats are also Being Threatened

Let’s start with the basics. Each species of fish has different thresholds in terms of what they can tolerate. In the Pacific Northwest, migratory fish like salmon and steelhead experience thermal dam issues because of changing hydrologies with less water and deforestation creating the fish’s inability to travel through certain corridors. When this happens, the fish are unable to reach watersheds to spawn and make their way back to the ocean. “Those logistics of the fishes’ ability to flourish and go through their natural rhythms from a migration and reproductive perspective is determining whether or not there is going to be an abundance of fish to sustain an angling season,” said Hemkens.

Photo by Jeremiah Watt

Fish aren’t the only organisms affected by a changing climate. Warming temperatures have changed the dynamics of micro invertebrates that fish rely on for food, including bugs and aquatic organisms. “In many rivers, bugs that used to hatch in a particular section have migrated or aren’t as abundant as they once were,” said Hemkens. “That changes a lot of different dynamics in these complicated ecosystems around the nutrient loads, water quality and fish abundance.”

As these ecosystems change and warm, they also become threatened by invasive species. For example, small-mouthed bass are aggressive predators that will compete with the native indigenous fish and diminish their populations. “With even just, a slight change of a healthy habitat fish and wildlife agencies will begin placing interventions on these areas that say when you can and cannot fish for the species that’s being affected,” said Hemkens.

A Changing Angling Season

Rising temperatures are causing how people fish to change. In some cases, seasons in the Rocky Mountains are becoming longer due to warmer temperatures and a lack of snowfall. In the desirable summer months, however, is when water levels are lower, and temperatures are higher causing stress to the fish. These changes are causing voluntary and involuntary closures on rivers during peak season, but they could become more widespread if fish habitats don’t improve.

Photo by Adam Clark

“In the future, these closures could become state or region-wide,” said Hempkins. “Consumers look at the news, and if an area is on fire, covered in smoke, or has fishing limitations in place, people are going to be making decisions on whether or not they’re going to travel to these communities to recreate in real-time.”

Additionally, much of the cold water fishing happens in mountain towns or rural areas which tend to have a summer and winter program. The individuals who work in these towns need to be versatile, and the wage workers that support the local economy need to patch jobs together. In many circumstances, you will see people finding jobs at local ski areas in the winter, and as fishing guides in the summer. “Snowpack, water temperatures and fires are all interconnected,” said Hemkens. “All those things are the effect of a warming climate and the consequences on these fragile ecosystems is impacting the seasons and viability for operators, guides, fly shops, hotels, restaurants and the employees that rely on peak operating seasons.”

How We Can Help

Photo by Jeremiah Watt

From a scientific perspective, changes in climate are happening quickly and the long-term outlook without fundamental change isn’t good, which is why it’s important to have these conversations not only at the local level but federal level too. “Everyone needs to educate themselves on climate issues, understand what’s happening within their own communities, mobilize around climate and get involved,” said Hemkens.

Hemkens explained that there are so many ways and access points for people to get involved in climate action on a personal level. He stressed that being a good steward to the spaces we recreate in is important since thriving natural ecosystems are inherently better for us and the climate. “To help fly fishing specifically, habitat restoration like planting trees is key,” said Hemkens. “Things that are good for trout from a habitat and resilience perspective, are also good climate solutions from a mitigation perspective.”

For outdoor enthusiasts who feel overwhelmed by climate change, Hemkens encourages people to join Team POW, which will not only support POW in creating real climate action but also give you the knowledge and tools to better understand solutions and ways you can get involved in climate action on a more personal level. “If you’re an outdoor enthusiast who has been affected by climate change in terms of consistency, predictability or snowpack then we need to be having conversations one on one within our own communities, and joining POW is a great first step,” said Hemkens.

Stacie Sullivan

Author: Stacie Sullivan

Stacie always knew she wanted to pursue a career in the ski industry from a young age, having first clicked into skis at the age of 4 and writing her 8th grade career project on being a professional skier. While her dreams of becoming a professional athlete didn’t quite pan out the way she planned at […]