Yampa River fishing has started off good. What could it look like later this summer?
Keith Hale thinks fishing in the Yampa Valley has started off different this year. Normally, the river is higher as the snow rapidly melts, making it cloudy and difficult to fish.
“It is usually chocolate milk out here,” said Andy Best, a fishing guide at Steamboat Flyfisher.
Initially, as the snow in the valley melts, the water gets cloudy, but that was back in March. Hale, also a guide at Steamboat Flyfisher, said now the water is more ice tea colored because it is getting colder at night, and the snow high in the mountains is taking longer to melt.
That is good for fishing right now Hale said, but he is worried about what will happen later in the summer. He recalled there used to be an afternoon shower every day, but it seems like years since that has happened.
Two of the last three years, anglers have been asked to stay out of the river later in the summer, in part because it puts too much pressure on the fish. Outlooks for this summer indicate it will likely be both hotter and drier than normal.
Anticipating a potentially tough summer, the Steamboat Springs Parks and Recreation commissioner has opted to limit the number of outfitters permitted to guide on the Yampa to seven.
As trout are a cold-water species, they thrive with water temperatures below 65 degrees, said Patrick Gamble, a guide with Straightline Sports in Steamboat. Warmer water has less oxygen, and the warmer the water, the higher the mortality rate is for fish that are released.
“For the long-term health of the river, to keep those fish alive, we back off of them once water temps exceed that critical threshold,” Gamble said. “I’d argue that the Yampa River fish are pretty darn resilient.”
Hale said another metric they look at is the flow of the river. When it gets below 85 cubic feet per second, it puts a lot of extra stress on the fish. Trout generally feed in moving currents of about 2 to 4 feet deep, but they rest in deeper pools where they don’t have to fight the current.
“There is no place for them to hide when the water is so low,” Hale said. “Everyone knows they are in that deeper pool, so if they kept the fishing going, those fish would get beat up.”
Water flows, water temperature and the oxygen level in the water are the three things Gamble said he looks at when considering river flow.
Usually, the city of Steamboat Springs will halt commercial fishing and ask recreational anglers to voluntarily stay out of the river, if those metrics start looking concerning for the health of the fish Gamble said.
Right now is a time when anglers need to be ethical and mindful about how they are fishing, Gamble said. This is because rainbow trout, which are one of the dominant species locally, are spawning and wading in the river can ruin a spawning bed.
With water levels high, it is often dangerous to be wading in the river right now anyway, and Gamble said it is a good time to be in a boat.
Later in the summer, when the water temperature starts to approach 65 or 70 degrees, Hale said it is harder for fish to revive. Generally, the water will be cooler earlier in the day, before noon or at higher altitudes.
“When you catch them, they are going to fight for their lives regardless,” Hale said. “When you try to let them back in the water and the water is warm, they are gasping for air. It is like an asthma attack for a fish.”
Hale recommended people try to fight fish quicker and limit the amount of time handling the fish, trying to keep them in the water as much as possible. Best suggested people rope up, which means to use stronger line so anglers don’t have to land fish as methodically.
Ideally, the days and nights will stay cooler, slowing how long it takes for snow to melt in the Flat Tops, which feeds the Yampa. John Duty, who owns and guides for Bucking Rainbow Outfitters in Steamboat, said it is too early in the season to get worried about a potential river closure.
“It doesn’t mean you can’t fish, it means you can’t fish where the water temps are unsuitable,” Duty said. “There is always places to fish, but any time you have a closure in town, it kind of gives people the idea that you can’t fish anywhere.”
Duty said they have a lot of spots, especially above Stagecoach Reservoir, where they fish later in the summer. Hale said that is when he likes to fish lakes and reservoirs when the river is too hot. Either way, Duty said he thinks fishing in and around Steamboat Springs is some of the best in Colorado.
“Our little fishery here is a tremendous fishery,” Duty said. “I would put it up against anything in the state.”
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