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Fly Fisherman Throwback: Memories of Acid Rain

Becoming "do-it-yourself breathers of life" into our beloved creeks, rivers, and lakes.

Fly Fisherman Throwback: Memories of Acid Rain

These writeups originally appeared in the May 1987 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine.

2023 Editor’s Note: Remember acid rain? It was yesteryear’s climate change crisis. Thanks largely to 1990’s Clean Air Act, we don’t hear much about acid rain anymore. Let this great success inspire us that there is hope for our “beautiful blue orb,” as Steve Ramirez puts it. We cannot give up if we want to fish, or want our kids and kids’ kids to fish. As the wonderful Jane Goodall says: “If we lose all hope, we’re doomed.”

Below are a couple of short writeups from the May 1987 issue of Fly Fisherman. Note then-editor John Randolph’s words: “I shall become a do-it-yourself breather of life into my brook.” Let’s all become DIY breathers of life into our beloved creeks, rivers, and lakes this Earth Day, and everyday. 

Editor's note 2: will periodically be posting articles written and published before the Internet, from the Fly Fisherman magazine print archives. The wit and wisdom from legendary fly-fishing writers like Ernest Schwiebert, Gary LaFontaine, Lefty Kreh, Robert Traver, Gary Borger, Joan & Lee Wulff, Dave Whitlock, Vince Marinaro, Rene Harrop, Doug Swisher & Carl Richards, Nick Lyons, and many more deserve a second life. These articles are reprinted here exactly as published in their day and may contain information, philosophies, or language that reveals a different time and age. This should be used for historical purposes only.

Click here for a PDF of this compilation of articles about acid rain.

Acid Rain: My Brook

When I was a boy there were sheep in the pastures behind my home in the Berkshires of Massachusetts. Trucked to the mountains by my uncle each spring after shearing, the bleating ewes and rams arrived when the pastures were greening, when the orchards were white with blossoms and the brooks had just retreated from the winter-shabby meadows to narrow runlets that knifed through sod banks.

It was the best time for exploring downstream with a rod and a worm. On the little brook I learned to extend my arm out as I lay on my stomach with the worm dangling above the brook. I learned to hold the rod steady and to judge the wind so the bait dropped between the banks and hit the foamy little waterfall that made cheerful gurgles deep in its throat. To the tug-tugs on the line I responded with a wild upsweep of the rod and usually the trout came flying from the water and sailed back onto the grass, where I pounced on and subdued it.

Illustration of a brook trout underwater, near the streambed.
(Rod Walinchus illustration)

I could work my way down through the pasture and into the hemlock woods, catching trout from each pool and run. In the woods I could crawl to the streambank and peek from behind a tree trunk to watch the brookies fanning in the pool below. If I moved my head, the trout would dart for the cover of rocks or banks. And then I could reach my hand down into the cool water and grab and tickle for them. The feel of slippery trout sides has lingered in my hands.

The sheep, whose anxious bleating I listened for as dog alarms in the nights, are gone, vanished with the hill farms that gave them pasture. And the trout that made the little brook a boy's questing place have disappeared, too. Oh, there's an occasional relic fish, but the life has gone from him. It's as though he knows his kind is done for. The 15-trout mornings are a remembrance: The brooks of my childhood no child will know; the trout of my youth no boy will see again.

I did not–could not–overfish the little trout stream. It simply produced new trout faster than a few boys could catch them out. Truly, the little brook was unfished after I departed for college and adulthood. Yet, while no one fished it, the laughing brook with its myriad of wriggling, silver trout became deserted. And as the trout disappeared so did the children who would have haunted its banks had the fish been there. Brooks, trout and boys are companion-pieces.

In my thirties I discovered acid rain in the writings of fishermen. The fish were disappearing, they said, from their Adirondack lakes. No one seemed to know why the trout were gone, but there were suggestions that the rain and snow in that neck of the woods carried man-made acid. In the spring, when the snow melted and unlocked the water in a rush, the run-off water was too acid for trout. Vinegarlike water filled the brooks and lakes and killed the young trout. A few years later someone discovered that the acid unlocked aluminum in the soil and carried it into the streams and lakes, where it killed the fish.

The destruction of the soil's capacity to buffer the acid is progressive, the scientists learned. My trout stream has been destroyed forever–beyond all hope of restoration. They said it was done to produce cheap electrical power so the Midwest could remain competitive in world industry. They said the acid came from electrical-generating stations that belched high-sulfur smoke from their stacks in America. They said the President of the United States was against doing anything to clean up the air and that without his leadership nothing could be done. Everyone had an answer. Everyone knew something. No one had an answer. My brook is dead.


My brook is not dead. I refuse to pronounce "dead brook" over my water. I shall become a do-it-yourself breather of life into my brook. I shall haul limestone chips to my brook. I shall place them in filter pipes; I shall lock them there with chicken-wire mesh so that freshets will not carry them away. I shall "buffer" my brook with man-made chalk percolators. I will gentle its acid waters with healing limestones.

Don't tell me that it cannot be done. I do not want to hear it. Nor do I care that the President has no heart for my brook and its trout. I will do this all on my own, and I shall restore my little brook if I must line it from top to bottom with limestone-a mile of stream. I will do it. And if I fail, my son and daughter will take up the limestoner's burden after me. This, then, is my declaration to my uncaring Congress and President: "Go your own way. Leave our skies full of acid and our streams empty. Because you have abandoned me, I will remake my own land and my own water, on my own, without your help. You have bigger fish to fry, I guess. Good luck to you."

~John Randolph

Acid Rain in Yellowstone Park

(Bruce Woodward illustration)

Highly acidic rain has fallen on Yellowstone National Park and park scientists are watching for damage in some high mountain lakes.

A monitoring station at Tower Ranger Station, in the headwaters of the Yellowstone River, has measured rain with a pH value as low as 4.4, according to park officials. That level is considered highly acidic.

However, the average pH of rain in the park is 5.6, the same as for normal rain. The lower the pH, the higher the acidity. Some high-country lakes in Yellowstone may be susceptible to episodes of low pH, park researchers suspect, and they are watching the acidity of several lakes scattered around the park. "We've had studies to identify what lakes would be most susceptible," said Ron Jones, a fisheries biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "We haven't noticed any changes. Acid rain doesn't seem to be serious yet," Jones said.

Some of the lakes considered to be particularly prone to acid rain damage are High, Obsidian, Trilobite, Ice, Mount Everts, Wrangler, Summit, Shelf, Ranger, Forest and Robinson lakes.

Only two of those–High and Trilobite lakes in the northwest corner of the park–contain fish, according to Bob Gresswell of the Fish and Wildlife Service. High Lake holds cutthroat and Trilobite has brook trout.

Research has shown that most lakes are generally barren of fish when the pH of their water drops below 4.8. Aquatic insects, a large part of many fishes' diets also disappear at a pH of 5 or below.

Gresswell said, however, that acid rain would probably have a minor effect on the fisheries in the park because most of the susceptible lakes are fishless anyway. The park's goal is to keep its resources in a natural state, he added.

Researchers think the acid rain in the park may be caused by prevailing winds carrying acid-producing nitrate or sulfate particulates from the industrialized southwestern United States, said Jana Mohrman, who monitors the pH of precipitation at the Tower station. The park may receive a federally funded station to monitor particulates in the air, she said, which may give scientists a better idea of the source of the acid rain.

A growing problem in the East, acid rain and snow is just beginning to be found in the West, especially the Rocky Mountains.

~Eric Wiltse

Illustration of a fly angler landing a trout.
(R.K. Kaiser illustration)

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