A sigh of relief from fly shops following a summer of high water temps

As summer fades, fishing guides and fly shop owners hope the worst of this year’s drought is behind them and efforts to sustain Colorado’s trout populations have not been in vain.

“It was really tough all over the state, some of the guides in the Roaring Fork were seeing fish floating belly up fairly early in the season,” said Jon Spiegel, manager of Front Range Anglers in Boulder.

But Colorado’s trout populations appear to have fared well despite the abnormally high water temperatures that have plagued the state since mid-June, conditions that have not been seen, at least, since the drought of 2002. Now many people in the industry are attributing that survival to well-educated anglers, as well some timely action from water management agencies.

At Frying Pan Anglers in Basalt, Manager Will Pulliam said the cooler nighttime temperatures and added rainfall of the past month has everyone looking forward to a big fall season.

“Fishing in the fall here is wonderful,” said Pulliam, noting water temperatures on the Frying Pan, a tailwater below Reudi Reservoir have remained cool through the summer. “We’ve still have a lot of hatches coming off.”

For fly fishing guides and shops it has been a summer of informing their customers about the consequence of those low water volumes and resulting high temperatures, which alone can kill trout and certainly can thwart the efforts of the best-intentioned catch-and-release anglers. The Colorado Parks and Wildlife Division quickly increased efforts to protect the trout fisheries in early June, enacting voluntary stream closures and quickly getting the word out on how to decrease fish mortality. That message, echoed by fly shops across the state, was to avoid fishing in the heat of the day, and to land any fish quickly without removing them from the water.

“You just got to know where to go (to avoid stressed trout populations),” said Thomas Schneider, owner of Sunrise Anglers in Golden and the 2011 winner of the Orvis Guide of the Year. “In some ways the news was alarmist, we’ve never skipped a beat, but we also need to keep getting more flow in the rivers during the fall or we will be in trouble.”

Even in an extremely low Roaring Fork, Schneider said, floats were possible by raft, though wooden boats were susceptible to damage. On float trips, he said, the drought concentrated the fish in areas where oxygen levels remained high, sometimes making it easier to guide trips.

Among fish species, trout fare especially poorly in warmer water, which decreases the amount of dissolved oxygen available. Water temperatures approaching 70 degrees can spell a quick end for hooked trout, and prolonged exposure to those temperatures alone can kill trout.

Beginning in June, the Wildlife Division enacted voluntary closures on the White and Yampa rivers, as well as Bear Creek in Jefferson County and Tomichi Creek near Gunnison, said spokesman Randy Hampton.

Across the state, some anglers avoided fishing altogether, or hiked their way up to high-elevation lakes, though shop managers and guides said business was not noticeably decreased. Fishing tailwater below dams, which usually release water from the cooler levels in the bottom of the reservoirs, was also a tactic, though some tailwaters, such as the Big Thompson, also saw high downstream temperatures.

Schneider credited state and federal water agencies for moving to protect aquatic resources early in the year. For instance, the Colorado Water Conservation Board and Colorado Water Trust, working with the Division of Wildlife, released water into the upper Yampa and White Rivers, representing the first use of a drought-response law crafted after the drought of 2002.

“The streams are still low,” Schneider said. “And now is the time we might be in trouble if we don’t keep getting water.”

Concerns are also still high in Vail Valley, where the Eagle River and Gore creek reached almost epic temperatures, said Matt Bowman, the shop lead for Cutthroat Anglers in Silverthorne. On the Blue River, where the shop is located, conditions have remained fairly consistent thanks to the tailwater flow, but on the nearby upper Colorado, conditions are still spotty.

“The rains helped, but we are still advising anglers to take temperature readings and take care with the fish they hook,” Bowman said. “Any time you are dealing with fish in water that is hotter than 68 degrees, they are under significant stress.

“This should be a wonderful fall season, if we continue to have good flows,” he said. “Conditions have improved and there are still some good hatches out there.”

Still shop managers, guides and wildlife officials, along with a number of educated anglers, are still casting a weather eye, Hampton said.

“This year we’ve been fortunate because we have good water storage and most rivers have some storage in that basin,” he said. “But if this weather pattern holds and we end up in a multi-year drought that will change the equation.”

Glenwood Business Journal
J.D. Thomas