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A River's Last Chance

By Jason Hartwick

For many of us, fishing is about getting into the outdoors and connecting with mother nature. For some, it’s more about catching fish or escaping the realities of society and our everyday lives. And for some of us it is a part of our everyday lives. As a fishing guide, people hire me to take them on the river fishing, have an enjoyable day in the outdoors and get them into fish. Getting on the river and having a good day is always part of the experience; getting into fish however, is not always consistent and seems to be a lot harder these days than ever before. As our climate changes, the environment and landscape around many of these places we go fishing is changing: warmer, more inconsistent weather, less water, and in many places declining runs of fish. It doesn’t seem to matter the species, from freshwater to saltwater, we are in a downward trend and if something is not done, we could lose some of these places in mother nature we love to visit and go fish.

My name is Jason Hartwick and I have been a fly-fishing guide in Alaska and California for the last 11 years. In my 36 years on this planet, I have been fortunate enough to experience many great places, rivers, and fish runs around the world. I was lucky to grow up on the banks of the Sacramento River where, as a teenager I was able to catch my limit every day in a matter of hours. It only took a matter of years before the runs of Chinook on the Sacramento collapsed and rivers were closed to fishing, commercial salmon fishing shut down, and all signs were leading to a complete collapse of Chinook salmon in our state. Notable rivers such as the Eel and Klamath would close to fishing and it seemed one of the only places left to be able to fish and harvest Chinook Salmon was in Alaska. While Alaska still hosts some of the best King runs in the world, many of its notable rivers have been in decline and collapsing.

As a fishing guide, there is no doubt I utilize and have an impact on natural resources where I work and fish. We are running gas engine boats in the river, treading through wild landscapes, and catching fish from their native environment. The rivers and the environment around them is what I consider home as well as my office. I am lucky enough to get to spend so much time on the rivers and get to see everything they have to offer. As a salmon and steelhead guide, I am utilizing this natural resource and have a little effect on the rivers and runs of fish we target. While we do practice catch and release, we do keep the hatchery fish we catch not only for food but so they do not impact the runs of wild fish we have.

A few years ago, my good friend and filmmaker Shane Anderson asked if I was willing to help out on a film project on the Eel River, a river where I lived and guided. I was more than happy to help as the Eel River means a lot to me and has the best potential at salmon recovery of any river in the world due to its characteristics, wild genetics, and no presence of hatchery fish. The Eel is a unique watershed, the third largest in California, and once hosted runs of salmon and steelhead into the millions. Chinook salmon were the largest run on the river and in the late 1800’s, the run was around 800,000 fish. It has also been through a whirlwind of economic booms and busts which have all contributed to declining runs of salmon, steelhead, and Pacific Lamprey to name a few species. Every part of the cycle from commercial salmon canneries, to logging the redwoods, the 1964 flood, and recently cannabis cultivation have all played a part in the declining runs of salmon and steelhead. The film tells a story about the river and the wild runs of salmon that have a chance at recovery even in this changing climate.

For two years, I guided part time to work on this documentary and tell a story that needed to be told. I was fortunate to see many sides of the river that not many people get to see. I learned the history of the river, its people, and the impacts we have on a watershed. It made me realize how little I really knew about this precious resource I guide on and called home. But most importantly, I felt I was doing my part to give back to a river and community that supports my work, bringing attention to a special place that most people that live in California even know about.

I am so happy to be a part of “A River’s Last Chance,” and to be able to tell a story that can relate to any river ecosystem across the world. We can all affect change, whether if it’s in your backyard or on your favorite river far from home. If we want to have some of these places around for future generations, we need to do our part.

​Click here to watch the full film, A River's Last Chance.

about the author

Jason Hartwick is California native and was born and raised in Sacramento, CA. Jason grew up on the banks of the Sacramento river fishing for Chinook Salmon as a kid and chasing trout in the summer months. After attending the University of Texas and a short stint as a professional golfer, Jason moved to California’s North Coast and began guiding salmon and steelhead. Jason is the owner and head guide for Steelhead on the Spey Guide Service, specializing in steelhead fly-fishing on the swing with two-handed Spey rods. Most of his fall is spent on the Klamath/Trinity rivers and winters are spent guiding the Smith and Eel River drainage. In the Summer months, Jason guides for Chinook Salmon on the Alaska Peninsula.