Aside from two boat inspectors on duty, Elkhead State Park was nearly empty Thursday afternoon. The inspectors had good ideas as to why.
“It’s too windy for boats today,” inspector Maureen Underhill said of the strong autumn winds that pushed through the Yampa Valley.
“September (attendance) always drops off because of school and hunting,” inspector Stacy Kapferer added.
Thursday was one of few slow days the park has had in recent months. Park officials released Thursday statistics for the summer that revealed increased attendance.
“(It was) a really good season at the lake,” park manager Ron DellaCroce said.
“We’re pretty close to 80,000 visitors this summer. We’re up 32 percent over last year, which is pretty big with the economic times the way they are.”
DellaCroce attributes favorable fishing conditions to the park’s busier season.
“The draw is our warm-water fishery,” he said. “People just absolutely love the smallmouth and pike.”
Word has spread of the good fishing at Elkhead, DellaCroce said.
“We’re definitely seeing more people coming out to the reservoir, and we’re seeing more than just our local contingent,” DellaCroce said. “We’re seeing a lot of folks from the Grand Junction area and Rifle. Even some of the Denver folks are coming up.”
The rise in newcomers to the lake also means an increased risk of nuisance species, the park manager contends.
“The biggest change in the management makeup of the reservoir is … aquatic nuisance-species, like zebra mussels,” DellaCroce said.
DellaCroce said the invasive mussels have been found in lakes in Utah and the Front Range. The species are known to destroy habitats and foul up boats and equipment.
“(Zebra mussels) would ruin the reservoir,” Kapferer said.
“It’s critical that we keep these (species) out of the lake,” he said. “And that’s why we do our boat inspections.”
Boat inspections take place at the Elkhead boat ramp seven days a week.
“This summer, we inspected over 3,500 boats between Memorial Day and Labor Day,” DellaCroce said. “Of that 3,500, we decontaminated 13 boats.”
Underhill said the inspectors have a portable decontamination trailer to deal with dirty boats.
A boat is subject to decontamination if it has standing water in the bilge or livewells, if the hull is obscured by dirt or growth, or if the boat has been in “positive water.”
“In other words, (if the boat has) been in a lake that’s definitely infested,” Underhill said.
The process for decontamination is simple, Underhill said.
“You pretty much wash the boat with really hot water.”
The efforts of the inspectors are paying off, DellaCroce said.
“We’re looking really good,” he said. “The U.S. Division of Wildlife is monitoring the reservoir, and we have been negative.”
Summer statistics also revealed that there were no boating accidents at Elkhead during the 2010 season.
“We consider that a successful boating season,” DellaCroce said. “Everybody went home happy and healthy.”
DellaCroce plans to close the boat ramp Oct. 1.
The park will remain open afterward to hand-launch boats, hiking and fishing, and camping will be available throughout the hunting seasons.
In the meantime, the boat ramp remains open and inspections will continue to take place seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
On Thursday, standing near an empty parking lot by the lake, Kapferer sighed.
“It would be nice if it was busy,” she said.