Essay by Melissa Alcorn
Snow sparkles on ground that has not been exposed for decades. A resurrected river runs a twisting path over a rock bed channel drowned in 1965 as the gates of Blue Mesa Dam closed. The Gunnison River that was lost is reemerging, striking fear and awe. Other reservoirs around Southwest Colorado look similar, rivers rising from silty mud basins. These most obvious signs of ongoing extreme drought were once great fishing rivers, lined with resorts and stories, but they became our water storage. Mixed emotions flood the angler who lives in this changing environment. A stream reborn, water too warm, less to drink, will there still be trout and kokanee—so much to ponder while praying for snow.
The 2018 Colorado fishing season was dominated by extreme drought. 2017 was dry, but it was the lack of snow last winter that set us up for exceptional issues. It wasn’t good for our ski season, but we shuddered to imagine the impact on fishing. Spring sunshine came out strong, but the melt was pitiful. Rivers did not roar, and the reservoirs marginally rose. Worse, the rains of summer never materialized, and the heat turned up. Colorado had its fourth driest summer and its third hottest. Water started to disappear and with it the fishing season went into survival mode, particularly in the Southwest. The Gunnison, San Juan, Uncompahgre, Animas, Rio Grande all became slivers of themselves. Wildfires threatened the health of streams. The drought maps spelled doom and gloom, and fish shaming ensued.
Rather than wallow in the scary unknown, I recently asked two Colorado Parks and Wildlife fish experts to join me for coffee. I had questions and they possessed wisdom with access to data that I craved. Over a communal Palisade peach scone and three Americanos we, surprisingly, discussed reasons for hope.
The rivers have buffer systems, thanks to a generation of dam building—words I swore I would never use. Irrigation call-outs and endangered fish pacts mean that cold water is routinely released into the Gunnison, the Cimarron, and the Uncompahgre. Wading within those clear stretches you do not believe there is a possible crisis. Go fish downstream where irrigation water returns to the system and it is a different story. Returning irrigation water enters rivers superheated from flowing through shallow ditches under hot Colorado sun. The fish push up to the tailwater to find more hospitable pockets, leaving the appearance of trout rapture, gone but not dead by the shore. This answered my puzzlement of why we were not seeing carcasses.
Our coffee conversation turned to the extreme adaptability of fish. They run on primal impulses—eat, breathe, procreate. They self-regulate to maximize efficiency. Fish respiration and metabolism–both regulated by temperature–are challenged in a drought-stricken water supply. The permeable membrane within the gills that exchanges oxygen is temperature sensitive. The warmer it is, the less efficient it is. Add in the fact that warmer water carries less oxygen and the fish are in trouble. They’ll stick their noses in the small rifles to breath but that takes tremendous energy. Metabolism speeds up the warmer they are. A hot and bothered trout wants to eat but can’t breathe. The only thing for a fish to do is look for the coolest spot it can find and sit still until some darn bug slaps it in the face. It is a challenge for both angler and fish in that scenario.
We abandoned plans to fish the Lake Fork of the Gunnison this summer. I hoped to explore stretches of the old Trout Highway, the abandoned bed of the Durango and Rio Grande Narrow Gauge Railway that ran next to both forks of the Gunnison prior to the reservoir. The drought was extending the fishable terrain I could access with bike and waders. Reports circulated that anglers were being hassled and shamed along the Lake Fork. We wanted nothing to do with that vibe and waited until the temperatures of fall removed the issue.
On a cool, caramel-hued morning we finally went to the river and found it deserted and dropped well below the driftwood line. The CPW signs were still posted asking anglers not to fish during the heat, which seemed odd given how bundled in layers we were. The river was shallow, the fish were invisible, and no one taunted us for trying to lure trout out of hiding spots. It was a good experience despite the low water.
We feared most for our small streams. Those gems meandering through mountain meadows. Reliant on natural springs and snow, the creeks risked complete demise. The canary in our creek lineup was one that locals refuse to mention by name and cherish because it always yields handfuls of exquisite native trout. We were compelled to check on it. The hike in revealed dried up meadows where profuse flowers normally obscure the path. Water skimmed through the creek bed, but it barely moistened the rocks in places and the edges were not as protected as they should be. The fish were hunkered in plain sight within teal pools, but we cast our flies with breath held, fearing we would hook a struggling trout and hasten its end. For the first time I wondered if this sport was appropriate in a summer such as this.
I raised this issue with my coffee buddies. They admitted a viable solution for overall fishery health was to keep what you catch and not worry about the release. I just haven’t developed a taste for rainbow, let alone any trout that must be cooked without a backcountry campfire during burn ban summers. I needed answers about letting them go. They advocated for carrying a thermometer and not dipping a fly if the water is seventy degrees Fahrenheit or higher. If the need to chase fish cannot be ignored at that temperature, then the next thing is to take all measures to avoid playing the fish out—barbless hooks, get them in fast, handle them efficiently, skip the pictures, and get them back to water.
Without a reel, reliant on a dance of line and battle of wills to bring the fish to net, can tenkara remain compatible in that scenario or does it have an upper temperature limit where the right choice is to find cooler water? It seems like a question each tenkara angler should ask herself and the community needs to consider.
Looking back on our little struggling creek experience, we felt guilty pursuing cutthroats during the heat of the summer day and opted to spend the time listening to the water instead. Crisp morning temps the next day momentarily restored our desires, but our hearts were not in it. The stream will be fine, and the trout too, but our ambitions to fish it dissolved in this season of nonexistent rain. We didn’t need a thermometer to tell us the odds were not in the favor of fish and our creek rods were shelved for the rest of the summer.
The lakes near tree line felt like fairer play. Our choice for alpine adventure was the trifecta of Missouri Lakes, Treasure Vault Lake, and Fancy Lake in the Holy Cross Wilderness. The water level in the lakes was lower than prior years, but still robust with happily feeding trout. We fished for three days and enjoyed the relief from drought-induced angst with our activity. As I stood next to Fancy Lake and watched Stephen catch one last trout, the first snowflakes of a changing season landed gently on our shoulders. My thoughts turned toward winter–shallow lakes, almost nonexistent streams—what was going to happen to our fisheries when the season transitioned for good?
As our coffee cups drained down like Ridgway Reservoir, I asked my pals for winter survival prognostication. Both think we will come through winter just fine. Fish needs are so much less when it is cold. Stream-based fish will find a hole to hide out in and be fine. Most lakes and reservoirs are sufficiently deep enough to have a layer of open, oxygenated water. Smaller lakes may see fish kills. The drought has allowed vegetation to grow at the edges which lowers the oxygen levels in the water, and the depths are shallow enough to freeze solid or sufficiently solid to leave nothing for the fish. This is the scenario for a few of the lakes on Grand Mesa.
An additional concern is fish parasites, such as gill lice, that thrive in low-water environments. When appropriate fish habitat is compressed, parasites spread more easily, like virus in a daycare. And overall health of the population can decrease with such stresses. Winter fish survival, however, remains one of nature’s puzzles, and chances are they are hearty enough to weather what we hope is a very stormy season. The last sips of coffee chased down a communal sigh of relief around the table—chances are good that our fish will be fine.
I relished fishing a stretch of the Gunnison well into Iola Basin that has been under the lake for decades. The only thing I pulled out was my husband as he sunk into a patch of quicksand near the river’s new edge. The water was clear and ran swiftly toward the west to find the retreating edge of the lake. A fellow angler enjoying this resurgent stretch of river was enthusiastically pulling rainbows out of the stream. The trout were thriving in this new habitat. Drought gives us a unique chance to experience historic fisheries. While that is intellectually rewarding, modern life in the West is at odds with such delights and most of us will be doing our snow dances and incantations for a winter that can start to restore the water supply.
I went into the coffee conversation thinking drought had made a massive negative impact on Colorado fishing. I feared there would inevitably be fewer native fish next season. I was wrong. Our fish and fishy places are adapting and surviving. What is true, however, is that we need an epic snow pack. We need to rebuild the reservoir supplies that kept us going this summer. We need to restore the alpine lakes and little streams meandering the high country. And we need to have the moisture to prevent wildfires. Without that, we will start seeing losses next summer. As we tie flies and dream of the season ahead over the next few months, let’s be sure to lace up our snow dance boots for some regular jigs, and take a jog to the store for thermometers to add to our fishing kits. We’ll be in better shape from all the dancing to enjoy the reinvigorated places we love to fish next season—when temperature appropriate.
Melissa Alcorn is based in Colorado, where her and her husband Stephen spend all their spare time playing in the outdoors. Drawn to tenkara as backpackers, they have stayed due to its simplicty and beauty. Instagram: @melissajalcorn
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2018-19 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.
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