Steamboat Springs — The voluntary ban on fishing in the town stretch of the Yampa River that lasted for 72 days has lifted with the arrival of September and a taste of autumn.
Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife fisheries biologist Billy Atkinson confirmed Friday afternoon that his staff would begin taking down the signs that warn river users about the ban and fishing would resume Saturday morning on the stretch of the Yampa from the Chuck Lewis State Wildlife Area downstream through city limits.
He urged anglers to fish conservatively and with conservation in mind.
Atkinson said he made the decision after consulting with reservoir managers and water districts upstream from Steamboat and in light of the fact daily high temperatures have moderated. Fishing in town is by flies and lures only, and all fish must be returned unharmed to the water.
“Given the improvement, certainly with water temperatures and with dissolved oxygen levels, and what look to be sustained (river) flows for the near term, we’re going to lift the closure,” Atkinson said. “It’s still possible, depending on what happens with flows in the next month, that we may feel it necessary to impose restrictions if we do get to some very low levels.”
The river was flowing at 90 cubic feet per second at the Fifth Street Bridge on Friday afternoon and at 98 cfs below Soda Creek. The median flow for this date at Fifth Street also is 98 cfs.
Atkinson urged anglers to return to the river lightly and remember that the fish are coming out of a period of stress and need to regain weight and energy before late autumn at a time when the number of invertebrates they rely on for food is in decline. He suggested anglers who have observed someone heavily fishing a particular hole give it a rest themselves.
The voluntary fishing ban went into place June 21 with streamflows at the Fifth Street Bridge of 81 cubic feet per second that were alarmingly low for that time of year. Voluntary tubing and swimming bans were instated by the city at the same time.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife Area Wildlife Manager Jim Haskins said at the time that the prognosis for the Yampa looked bleaker than it did in the drought year of 2002, when the river eventually dropped to 17 cfs in July and the combination of high water temperatures and low oxygen levels led to fish kills.
“You just wake up every day wondering what this is going to be like because we’ve never been here before,” Haskins said in June. “You think back to 2002, and you wonder how you can go through that again.”
As it turned out, Steamboat would endure extreme drought throughout much of the summer, but Haskins’ worst fear didn’t materialize.
The Colorado Water Trust came to the rescue, negotiating a temporary lease of 4,000 acre feet of water from Stagecoach Reservoir with the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District that released another 26 cfs into the Yampa. And the Catamount Homeowners Association came through with more water from Lake Catamount.
On July 3, the Yampa’s flows jumped to 75 cfs, largely because of the releases from Stagecoach.
“We’re very grateful for the cooperation form the Colorado Water Trust the Upper Yampa Conservancy District and the Catamount metro district, and Parks and Wildlife greatly appreciates the public’s cooperation on the fishing ban,” Atkinson said Friday.
He observed only spotty fish kills of a handful of trout on the Yampa this summer. The biggest loss was a half-dozen already stressed brown trout that went belly up in Butcherknife Creek after a storm washed silt into the creek. He observed silt in the gills of the dead fish, Atkinson said.
Despite the increased river flows bolstered by dam releases, the water temperature rose as high as 79 degrees in late July and early August — too warm for cold water species such as trout. The dissolved oxygen content of the water goes down as temperatures climb, and that meant the fish still were under stress.
At about 6 p.m. Thursday, Colorado Parks and Wildlife employees recorded temperatures of 68 degrees at the Tree House Bridge and 70 degrees at the James Brown Soul Center of the Universe Bridge at the west end of town.
“We’re not seeing temperatures much above 72 degrees,” Atkinson said.
September can bring a period of cloudless high-pressure to the Yampa Valley, or by mid-month, it could bring the first snow to Storm Peak, signaling a gradual melting of snow in the mountains that would flush the streams and rivers with fresh flows of cold water.