Notes from the Field: On the Gardner River

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Yellowstone National Park.  The Gardner River is a beautiful little stream that flows entirely within Yellowstone National Park.  It heads at Joseph Peak in the Gallatin Mountain Range and then quickly dashes through a series of boulder-strewn rapids and grass-lined flats before arriving at its juncture with the Yellowstone River less than a mile east of the town of Gardiner, Montana.  The Gardner River and Gardiner, Montana, are named for the same person – 19th century fur trapper Johnson Gardner – who trapped beaver within what is now Yellowstone National Park back in the early 1830s.  Why Gardiner, Montana, is spelled incorrectly is anyone’s guess.  It’s just one more oddity in a state (Montana) full of oddities.

A few miles before the Gardner reaches its mouth, it passes beneath a huge mountain, located on the northeast side of the river.  In the early morning, before sunrise, the mountain resembles a dark, solid monolith, towering over the tiny Gardner River at its base.  By mid-day, the sun reveals the mountain’s intimate details.  Ridge lines, outcroppings, sheer cliffs, erosion lines, and small, stunted pines are visible along the length and breadth of the mountainside.  Also visible, at the foot of the mountain, are narrow, deep arroyos.  The arroyos look like jagged, ugly gashes through stone and gumbo.

In July 2009, I fished the Gardner over the course of several days.  During that time, I caught dozens of brown, rainbow, cutthroat, and cuttbow trout, many between 13” and 16” in length.  The fish looked healthy, strong, and fat.  Not always a believer in “catch-and-release,” I kept and killed a few of the rainbows.  To my pleasant surprise, the fish had a sweet, sagebrush flavor.  Not coincidently, sage grows in abundance on the rolling plain located south of the river.  Gardner River trout possess the flavor of the land that feeds them.

Unfortunately, the river and trout of 2009 are gone.  The Gardner River trout population has collapsed.  At present, only a smattering of tiny trout live in the stream.  In the second week of September 2013, I fished the river hard for two days.  I caught a total of two trout, neither exceeded ten inches in size.  While wading, I only saw a handful of fish.  In 2009, I caught fish behind boulders, in fast runs, and in flats where the water slid close to overhanging grass.  This year, there were no fish to be found in those places.

What happened to the Gardner?  Climate change has hammered it!  In 2011, record amounts of water descended the river, the result of a heavy snowpack over the winter months and torrential rains in the spring and early summer months.  The power of the high water entering the Gardner completely remade the stream’s morphology.  Deep holes filled in with gravel and silt, denying resident trout the safe havens they need to survive avian predation.  Muck, brought down by the flood, covered traditional spawning beds and insect-rich riffles. The high flow year of 2011 was followed by a low flow year in 2012.  The drought of 2012 hindered the growth of vegetation in the Gardner River basin and within the river itself.  Vegetation is crucial to insect propagation.  Basically, the drought of 2012 starved the Gardner River trout of aquatic insects (such as stone flies), and terrestrials (such as beetles and grasshoppers).  Last year, the fish went hungry.

The river suffered additional body blows in 2013.  Drought continued for a second year in a row.  Low precipitation and high temperatures killed the sage and buffalo grass growing on the environs of the river.  When rains did come this year, they came in downpours.  With so much of the upland vegetation dead, there was nothing to slow the movement of runoff into the river.  That runoff carried with it tons of gumbo.  Gumbo silt further filled in the Gardner’s holes.  Slimy mud also coated the stream’s riffles, cobblestone flats, and large boulders, killing still more of the river’s already diminished aquatic vegetation.  Without aquatic vegetation, there are no hatches and no food for fish.  The Gardner River’s bed is now a pale, lifeless grey.  Wading in the river, looking at its ashen, mud-covered stones, it’s hard to imagine when the Gardner River trout fishery will bounce back.

The weather phenomenon (drought, torrential rains, excessive heat, and a record snowpack) that has been so detrimental to the health of the Gardner River trout fishery are the result of climate change.  And climate change is not going away.  Thus, the prognosis for the Gardner River is not good.  I fear to think that the Gardner River’s current condition – with its emaciated trout fishery – is the future of the West’s trout streams.  The Gardner River could be the “canary in the coal mine” – the beginning of the end of the West’s fabled trout fishing.

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