By Bill Cooper
As usual summer recently roared into our lives with temperatures in the nineties. Alas, humans are not the only creatures to suffer. Trout in our Ozark streams begin to suffer from oxygen depletion as water temperatures rise.
Summer heat brings a rise in water temperatures in our spring fed creeks and rivers, causing a corresponding decrease in the amount of oxygen in the water. As water warms up the “saturation concentration” of oxygen gets lower. Plainly spoken - the warmer the water, the less oxygen it can hold.
When water warms up in our Ozark streams, trout face a double hazard. Both warmer water and low oxygen levels increase their susceptibility to fatigue and resulting stress. During these lower water flows and warmer water temperatures it is paramount to the heath of the fish that we as fishermen adjust how we both fight and handle fish.
Most fly fishermen love to use the lightest tippet possible. It definitely increases the challenge of landing a fish, which is one of the thrills of fly fishing. On the flip side, however, light tippets equal longer fights, which in warmer weather is deadly to trout.
Increasing the tippet size by one or two sizes allows anglers to land fish quicker and reduce the amount of stress imposed on the caught fish. Warmer water with less oxygen and a prolonged fight are a deadly combo for tout. Without question, landing them as quickly as possible is the responsible thing to do.
There are times when it is simply too hot to fish. Doing so will cause the untimely deaths of a great natural resource. Perhaps the late great Fly fisherman Lee Wulff said it best. “Gamefish are too valuable to be caught only once.”
Responsible anglers are concerned about mortality and realize that during hot weather the best way to reduce trout mortality is to keep the fish in the water. However, with the advent of digital photography and cell phone cameras, everyone wants to get a photo of their catch. The responsible way to get that much desired grip and grin photo is to keep the fish wet and very close to the water. Snap the photo quickly and return the trout to the water. A matter of seconds in warm weather can be the difference in life and death for the fish.
The bet photo setups include water dripping from the fish, which indicates that it is fresh out of the water. Do remember, however that holding a fish out of water is much like holding you under water. Neither can breathe. An alternative is to hold the fish slightly under water. Under water photos are spectacular and with the right angle you can still get the fish and the angler in the same frame.
Caution is equally important when releasing a fish. Remember, the fish is already stressed to a degree by being caught. The extra stress of being thrown back into the water is often more than a fragile trout can withstand. Many succumb minutes later, after having been handled in such a rough manner.
To make the best effort at making sure your catch survives, gently hold the fish in the current faced upstream. This allows water to enter the mouth and flow over the gills, thereby refreshing oxygen levels. Don’t swish the fish back and forth quickly. You can easily damage the gills.
Make sure the fish has regained its strength before releasing it. The assistance which you provide is paramount to its survival. Compare your efforts to that of proving CPR to a human. You wouldn’t want to shortchange the individual of a few minutes of resuscitation efforts before calling it quits. Do the same for the fish you catch and release. It should be able to swim out of your hand when it is fully revived.
When fishing shallow waters, pay particular attention to water temperatures. They can skyrocket as the day progresses. You may hook a fish in deeper water, but reeling it into shallow, warm water can quickly stress a trout to the point of no return. Exercise esteem caution when fishing under such circumstances. Make every effort to bring the fish to hand quickly and in water with sufficient oxygen and cool enough temperatures to insure its survival.
Fish deep riffles and fast water, which is often found the head of pools. There the elevation drop is often the greatest thus creating current that will work oxygen into the water.
Exchange your usual monofilament leaders for fluorocarbon while nymphing. The fluorocarbon leader is smaller in diameter, which will allow your tippet to sink quicker. It’s also stronger and less visible, which will allow you to land a trout as quickly as possible, reducing stress in warm weather and warmer water.
Use of a rubberized net will reduce handling and shorten the fight. Avoid fighting a trout long enough to bring it to hand. Such handling techniques will increase the mortality rate considerably.
Our Ozark steams are an incredible natural resource, and those that support and sustain either rainbow or Brown trout are gems indeed. We owe it to the resources and future anglers to do our part to insure the survival of as many of these precious fish as possible.
There is a great personal satisfaction that comes with having fooled, hooked, landed and released a trout from a cold water stream in the Ozarks. It truly is a beautiful experience in a world full of ugliness. Go fish.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Bill Cooper is an award-winning outdoor writer and member of the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame and lives in rural St. James. He is host of “Outside Again Adventures TV-Online” and “Wild at Heart” on ESPN 107.3FM in Rolla. You can follow Cooper at www.facebook.com/OutsideAlways, www.aoutdoorstv.com and www.espn1073.com.