Making Lemonade



In the above photo you’ll see two good dudes drinking two good beers. One black lab doing needy lab stuff. There’s a tiny cloud threatening to do the impossible: Fill the reservoir. It’s a false front, as has been the case for several years now in the West – particularly in California and Nevada. On a good year where this picture was taken would be about 10-15 feet under water right now. The reservoir sits another 30 feet below our feet.

This was the day last week when the Boca dam was plugged. The day that the two hundred yards of the Little Truckee River below it were expunged of water in a rapid fashion and a few folks rescued some stranded aquatic occupants. The day when the Truckee River dropped on average from 400 to 100 cfs in about 45 minutes. The day that many people who are actively connected to the river began to see the reality of the drought sink in, no pun intended. The past few days have brought some light rain and given a slight boost to the watershed, but it’s not going to affect much in the long term.

I’ll give you some advice – don’t sell your fishing gear, don’t curse the watermaster for doing his job, or get into a shit-fit about things you can’t control.


The history of the Truckee River watershed is fascinating, from Fremont’s journal of the first recorded contact with the watershed at Pyramid Lake in 1844, to a chronological history of the watershed’s development. There are other chronological accounts but I’ll let you find them on your own, because I like to make you work for it. For those of you who have already studied the history of the Truckee – what a contentious and amazing story from Fremont to the present day. But one thing lacking in all of these different accounts is solid hydrological data.

Aside from tree rings from old growth timber and geological evidence there isn’t a lot of data on the historical water conditions and drought cycles of the Truckee Meadows pre-settlement. The 170 year post-Fremont history of the area is the only slice of time we have to judge the climate conditions in a modern recorded sense, “modern” and “recorded” being loose terms. In the first 60 years post-Fremont the data is anything but concise or even in existence. In 1909 University of Nevada, Reno professor Dr. James E. Church turned snowpack measurement and spring runoff forecasting into a true science. On the slopes and summit of Mt. Rose he pioneered much of the field and some of his techniques are still used to this day. His contributions were the first solid data on historical snowpack and water content in the Truckee Meadows.

I’ll use modern numbers here to spare you from a Dan Carlin-esque ramble on the local climate of the past 105 years. Recently the river was lower than it is currently in 2009 and 2004. With only 3 years of above average precipitation in the past 16 it’s safe to say we are in a drought cycle. Although this may be one bump in a very long road, the road may be getting ever bumpier due to climate change.

So the drought isn’t new, it’s just more pronounced at this point. What is new is the amount of anglers and angling pressure, and conversely the amount of people who care about the state of the watershed. As most of you know fly fishing has gained an almost rabid popularity in the past few years. At the same time the Truckee River and Pyramid Lake fisheries have gained steam and become world-class fisheries in their own respective rights. A lot of folks don’t know what it was like beyond a couple of years ago, and expect a 24″ brown or a 20+ pound cutthroat to be the (almost) norm. This hasn’t always been the case folks. Due in part to better management of flows and allocations from the 2008 Truckee River Operating Agreement, the efforts of conservation groups like Trout Unlimited and The Nature Conservancy, and the successful reintroduction of the native Lahontan cutthroat strain back into Pyramid Lake the past few years have been a bonanza for both fisheries in terms of quality fish and wild fish, in both size and numbers. We’ve been treading on felt and rubber through the land of milk and honey.

As with everything in life there are ups and downs. During this current drought crisis we’ve seen a lot of overdramatic reactionary rhetoric spouted from fisherman, farmers, and river lovers alike. Despite what they say this isn’t the end of life as we know it on the Truckee River watershed. The pronounced doom and gloom from some people is reasonable, but not justified.. yet. These fish are survivors, battlers, and they didn’t get so large and numerous in this mean of a watershed without those things. The conversation should switch from “how horrible it’s going to be” to “how can we make the best of this?”

There are a few things we as anglers can do to help out. One thing is to avoid fishing the river when it’s hot and the flows low – unless you’re going for carp. Carp are plentiful east of Reno, and believe you me, they might make you forget about trout fishing altogether. Stronger than bulls and smarter than your girlfriend AND her lap dog, those smelly butt lipped bastards will stretch your gear and shake your beliefs in what fly fishing is so often overly romanticized to be. Give ’em a shot. You won’t be sorry.

High lakes are another option. I’ll say that the ones I’ve recently visited aren’t doing very well either. Some have algae blooms and temps warm enough to comfortably swim in – two things almost unthinkable in these alpine hide outs. These fish feel the rise in temperature a lot more than their lowland cousins, and they go deep and stay there till the leaves start turning. It’s still an option for a fishing fix, but don’t blame me when you hike 14 miles to a seemingly barren lake, get skunked, and have to photoshop something cool for Instagram.

The best thing you can do for the river right now is pick up some trash. You’d be amazed at what filth these low flows have revealed. A go-getter type urban miner could probably put his kid through college on Natty Ice cans alone, and clothe him in freebies as well. This is the best opportunity for a good scrubbing the river has had in years. Take advantage.

Another thing you can do is keep tabs with the Truckee River Keepers. The group is trying to corral the herd of cats that make up our local fly fishing community and get us on the same page for some grassroots protection and conservation. We all love Trout Unlimited, but this group will draw local Truckee lovers together regardless of what zip code or state they live in, and will be small enough to mobilize in a hurry if need be.

Getting on the same page is undoubtedly important. Especially in times like this. A strong front brought together by this current water crisis will make a mark down the road if we all stick together. It doesn’t matter if you’re a fisherman, kayaker, rafter, bird watcher, river lover, or just think the health of the river is important for its own sake. Let’s get together and make the most out of a bad situation.



9 responses to “Making Lemonade

  1. You’re right. Making lemonade is about all we can do at this point. But of course that’s predicated on the lemon tree’s survival…

    I obviously can’t speak specifically to historic drought conditions/hydrology of the Truckee River (although if I had gotten that journalism fellowship I applied for I’d have made it out there sometime this year, as my chosen topic concerned cutthroats and the Lahontan cutts of Pyramid lake figured prominently in what I wanted to write about), but for example in the near southwest and southern great plains it’s pretty clear, from dendrochronology and ancient pollen analysis (among other pretty amazing “scientist stuff”) that in this region, state-change level drought on a cyclical basis is a historic fact independent of human activity. So basically, at least in my area, human activity on the scale we see now was and is built entirely on an exceedingly flimsy and temporary house of cards, climatologically speaking. Now throw in the monkey wrench of human-caused climate change and well, drinking yourself to death starts to look more and more like a legitimate coping mechanism.

    I’m not by inclination a doom ‘n gloomer, but when doom and gloom is increasingly being backed up by both science and observable fact, even a fount of good cheer such as myself starts to despair.
    Anecdotal evidence is rightly considered scientifically invalid, but let me tell you, observed, anecdotal evidence abounds everywhere I look these days, and it’s screaming “something is changing, doomed human, and it’s changing fast.”

    I guess you have to take a somewhat Buddhist view of things. Nothing is permanent. Historic normal is history. Present normal is fading fast, and of course we have no fucking clue what future normal is going to be. But I suppose we can console ourselves with the fact that, whatever that turns out to be, it will be considered normal to those living in it, at least until it starts pivoting into some new normal. Shifting baseline syndrome on a global scale…

    • Glad I could get you fired up chad! Hahaha

      I agree 100%, and feel the same way. Natural change + man made change + population growth + ever dwindling natural resources = Bulleit Bourbon getting the lions share of my piggy bank.

      The pain of memory is for those that lives it, and unfortunately for those of us who pay close attention our later days may be crippling.

      Always appreciate your insight.

      And what program almost sent you to my neck of the woods? I woulda past the bourbon gladly your way.

      • It was a year-long journalism fellowship through an organization called the Alicia Patterson Foundation. I applied for it, with the cutthroat as a subject I wanted to take a look at (e-mail me and I’ll give you some more info on it). I doubt there was anyone on the judge’s panel who even knew what the hell a cutthroat was, or cared. They did, however, award a fellowship to a couple guys who wanted to write about “The American Buffalo”. Because, you know, there just hasn’t been enough written about the bison…

        Oh, well, whaddya gonna do? I’m still planning on shopping the concept around, because I think the angle I want to take is an interesting and timely one. What I need, what all of us poverty-stricken, frustrated artists need, are wealthy patrons to fund our activities. Hmmm, you think the Koch brothers would fund my journalism like the Medici family used to fund various Renaissance artists? Might be worth a shot, if’n I could figure out a way to make the cutthroat a completely for-profit species…

  2. Great post buddy. High mountain lakes are going to be the focus of me and the boys when we can. But in general it’s about getting the awareness out there for the masses. Imagine if in one day all of the anglers and tubers joined forces with black garbage bags and an afternoon to spare what kind of difference we could make on the mess that is in the river currently.

  3. Love your insight and your proactive, hopeful approach. Plus, you are a dynamite writer. As a lifelong birder and conservationist I have despaired at the current political divisiveness, the lack of action on climate-change and the unceasing chipping away at our laws protecting our national natural resources. I am so glad there are people out there as articulate as you as a voice for our rivers and ecosystems.

    I wish I could be a climate-change denier, stick my head in the sand and stop worrying about melting polar ice caps and the fact that California feels as crispy as a potato chip right now. I just got back from Burney and watched the Eiler Fire rage through the Thousand Lakes Wilderness where not two months ago I was fly-fishing for trout at Eiler Lake. I know forest fires are a fact of life but this historically bad drought sure isn’t helping. But I tend to believe scientists, so I can’t be in denial about our impact. I try to stay hopeful and be involved but sometimes I do want to bury my woes at the bottom of a nice bottle of tequila (I like bourbon but it gives me very bad hangovers unfortunately). Pass the limes…:)

  4. Trying to introduce logic into the conversation? You know we humans thrive on pure emotion and empirical evidence. Talking to my brother about what’s going on out there (who is the most solid, logical dude I know) he’s like, so a tiny portion of the river got shut down, big deal. While it sounds frightening, it really isn’t. You have to remember that outside of brown trout, rainbow and cutthroat trout evolved in the arid west, where drought is a matter of fact. The best we can do (and it sounds like “you” are doing it) is to stay away from the river for now. Hats off to Mr. Zimmerman for putting together a great little video about what’s going on.

    I do find the reaction (via fb) funny, annoying, and satisfying. Really? You want to sue the FWM? Good luck with that. Federal, state, county, Ag, power producers, etc…could give 1/2 a fuck. Instead of being reactionary, lets start to look forward, but that isn’t the American way. I am happy to see that a lot of folks out there whom I never met, are passionate about the river and are being proactive.

    The good thing that hopefully will come out of this, will be that the Sagebrush and Truckee TU chapters will have a mission for the future. Not a knock on either chapter, but so far, the big seller has been river cleanups. Drought education for the public is key. But that ain’t my cat to skin anymore.

    At any rate, I’ll be out your way sometime in September for a week or so. Hopefully we can hook up at some point before you head out here.

  5. Pingback: Rain ,Rain, Don’t Go Away! |·

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