October 11, 2004

Two years after drought and wildfires left their devastating marks on the state's forests, reservoirs and streams, fishing conditions in most parts of the state have improved in time for fall angling, said Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW) aquatic biologists.

In 2002, some fishing enthusiasts kept their lines dry due to drought-related restrictions at lakes and reservoirs, but conditions improved last year and this year and anglers have started streaming back to state fisheries. Statewide, stream water flows are running about 75-80 percent of normal, with sufficient water to sustain fish and other aquatic wildlife, biologists said.

"This year, many of the state's streams have better flows and reservoirs have higher water levels, which should translate into better fishing overall," said DOW Sport Fishing Coordinator Robin Knox. “So don’t put away those rods just yet.”

In Colorado, fishing is a top year-round outdoor activity, crossing all socioeconomic and cultural lines. A report on the economic impacts of wildlife-related activities concluded earlier this year that the fishing industry generated some $460 million in direct revenues for the state economy in 2002, a figure that was lower than expected due to the drought. Last year, the DOW sold 698,580 fishing licenses, up from the 660,477 it sold in 2002.

Although Colorado experienced a wetter than expected summer and precipitation has been good this fall, the effects of several years of punishing drought and wildfires still can be felt around the state. South of Denver, aquatic biologists continue to monitor streams and evaluate fish populations in the Hayman wildfire area, where ash sediment has been a concern. Meanwhile, water levels remain low on the Rio Grande River, and in northwest Colorado low flows in a critical habitat area on the Yampa River recently prompted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to initiate water releases from Steamboat Lake to enhance flow for endangered species.

Over the summer, water levels remained below average at state reservoirs, ranging from 37 percent to 89 percent of normal, and aquatic biologists said fisheries could be at risk next year if Colorado experiences less than normal precipitation this winter.

Summertime water levels were low at Rio Grande, Sanchez, Continental, and Santa Maria reservoirs in the San Luis Valley. John Martin, Jackson and Prewitt reservoirs were low as well, and there was a fish kill at NeeSoPah Reservoir in the Great Plains system due to drought conditions. Antero and Tarryall reservoirs in Park County remain closed for maintenance, but biologists said Tarryall—where dam repairs are underway—could be refilled and restocked by next spring, depending on water supplies.

Despite these and other challenges, DOW Senior Aquatic Biologist Greg Gerlich said Colorado fisheries continue to offer high-quality opportunities to anglers, especially in autumn.

"Overall fishing conditions related to water level supplies are better," he said.

In fact, autumn traditionally provides Colorado anglers with some of the year's best fishing: Stream and lake waters clear up; summertime crowds disappear; hillsides are covered with amber and rust-colored leaves; and when temperatures drop, several varieties of trout rise from their shady depths to begin fattening themselves on mayflies flitting on surface waters.

This fall, aquatic biologists are recommending that Front Range anglers focus their efforts on some of the region's larger impoundments before water temperatures fall below 50 degrees. Cherry Creek Reservoir has a good walleye population, rainbow trout and some wipers up to 18 pounds "if anglers are willing to spend some time going after them," Gerlich said.

At Chatfield Reservoir, walleye, smallmouth bass and rainbow trout are on the move. Aurora Reservoir offers good rainbow and brown trout fishing, as well as walleye and largemouth bass in the back coves. Walleye populations are good at both Standley and Boulder reservoirs.

Gerlich also recommended angling on the South Platte River from Strontia Springs Reservoir down to Chatfield. He said recent fish surveys indicate a good mix of brown and rainbow trout ranging in size from 6 to 22 inches. Meanwhile, the Waterton Canyon segment from the Marston Diversion upstream to Strontia Springs has a strong brown trout population "and anglers will routinely find trout up to 16 inches there," he added.

Anglers who want the inside scoop on fishing sites along the Front Range can pick up a copy of "Fishing Close to Home" at the DOW headquarters in Denver. The tome focuses on numerous smaller waters scattered across the region, and as far north as Fort Collins.

"It's a great time of year to enjoy fall weather while trying to entice some sunfish and largemouth bass, which comprise the primary sportfish at most of these smaller waters," Gerlich said.

Front Range anglers who want to stay closer to home also can enjoy miles of Gold Medal water on the South Platte River, which runs east out of Spinney Reservoir to Elevenmile Reservoir. It is one of the great stretches of river in Colorado for rainbows, browns, Snake River cutthroats and hybrid "cutbows." Some fly fishermen consider it the best river stretch in the state.

The Blue River, a little over an hour’s drive on Interstate 70 west of Denver, is another alternative for Front Range anglers who don’t want to stray too far off the beaten path. The Blue gets a lot of fishing pressure, but 7 to 8 miles of riverbank are open to the public and are easily accessible from nine parking areas along Highway 9. It is only one of three major tailwaters loaded with mysis shrimp, the preferred entrée of choice for trout.

Elsewhere around the state, fall fishing conditions are expected to be good at several other reservoirs and lakes, too. Many smaller lakes and ponds scattered across the state have received a portion of more than 300,000 catchable trout stocked in recent weeks by the DOW, which wanted to take advantage of cooler water temperatures. These fish will be available to shore anglers until the waters become ice-covered with the advent of winter conditions.

Biologists are recommending trout fishing at Steamboat Lake, Wolford Mountain Reservoir, Lake Granby and Stagecoach Reservoir.

"Fall is the season where you are going to catch the big fish," said Jim Melby, a DOW aquatic biologist in southern Colorado. "Reservoirs and lakes cool off at night and that makes fish more active. From September to November, the fishing can be pretty excellent."

Melby said walleyes and saugeyes become much more active in autumn, and wipers hit the surface well into October at Pueblo, John Martin, Nee Gronda, Bonny and North Sterling reservoirs. In recent weeks, Two Buttes and John Martin reservoirs have gained enough water to allow for warm-water fish stocking.

Also in southern Colorado, autumn anglers stream to the Arkansas River to pursue brown trout, which become very aggressive in September and October before spawning. The river offers 150 miles of fishable water, and much of it is accessible to the public. The Arkansas, a freestone river that extends from Leadville to Pueblo, provides some of the best fly fishing in Colorado. It contains mostly browns, but rainbows are a rare treat.

In southwest Colorado, the San Miguel, Dolores, Uncompahgre and Gunnison rivers beckon fishermen who want to snag large cutthroat, brown and rainbow trout. Because it stays clear and accessible year-round, the Uncompahgre at the Pa-Co-Chu-Puk area of Ridgway State Park is a favorite of locals and visitors alike. The stretch of river offers catch-and-release fishing below Ridgway dam, and fall flows are low enough to allow good access to fish.

The Gunnison is the second-largest river in Colorado and aquatic biologists say it has more fish per mile than any other river in the state. There are an estimated 650 fish measuring more than 16 inches per river mile in the Gold Medal waters below the Black Canyon National Monument.

On the Western Slope, autumn insect hatches are stirring up action on the Fryingpan and Roaring Fork rivers. Fly fishing experts say rainbow and brown trout become more aggressive in both rivers as the fish prepare for winter and start feeding in earnest. The Fryingpan is only 14 miles long from Reudi Reservoir to where it joins the Roaring Fork at Basalt, but fly casters are drawn to the region's mild weather and large, shrimp-fed rainbow trout. In fact, experts say fall fishing on the 'Pan is some of the best of the year.

The Roaring Fork, which originates above Aspen near Independence Pass and flows into the Colorado River at Glenwood Springs, features a greater variety of water, dropping more in elevation over 70 miles than the Mississippi River does in its entire length. Seasoned anglers say the river offers up the biggest trout of the year in fall as pre-spawn browns feed aggressively on sculpins, minnows and any insect—real or imitation—they find in the water.

In the north-central and northwest parts of the state, the Colorado, Cache la Poudre, Big Thompson and White rivers offer anglers brown and rainbow trout fishing opportunities. At its headwaters in Rocky Mountain National Park, the Colorado is loaded with brook trout, and it is filled with browns and rainbows where it picks up water from tributaries farther downstream.

Fly fishing pros say fall is the best time of year to fish the Poudre because flows are stable, water is clear and fish are feeding on a wide variety of bugs—from midges to grasshoppers. Those dedicated to fishing these waters routinely catch 3- and 5-pound trout.

Meanwhile, seasoned fishermen say the White River provides some of the best trout fishing in northwest Colorado. Because of its distance from the Denver metropolitan area, fishing pressure is low in this part of the state and there is plenty of public access to the river. Brown trout, rainbows and whitefish inhabit the lower river from Meeker to the White River National Forest, where cutthroats merge into the pack. Fish average 10-14 inches, but some 16-inchers and fish measuring more than 20 inches are not unheard of.

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