Back in the swim of things
Local fisheries rebound in wake of last summer's fires

Mitch Wilkins, of Mongtomery, Texas, points out a trout surfacing toward his fly on the Animas River near Santa Rita Park on Tuesday. Although low water levels, high water temperatures and suffocating debris flows killed off area fish last year, numbers have rebounded and local fishing is said to be better than ever. /Photo by Todd Newcomer.

Aftermath from wildfires made last year a tough time to be a fish in Southwest Colorado. But despite high water temperatures, low water levels and suffocating mud and debris flows, the outlook for local fisheries is surprisingly good – particularly for the Animas, where trout survived and are keeping fishermen happy.

“The Animas through town, in my mind, dodged a real bullet last year,” said Buck Skillen, president of the local chapter of Trout Unlimited. “It’s as healthy as it’s ever been.”

Skillen said the trout had to survive flows as low as 111 cubic feet per second following the fires, and that water temperatures reached the mid-70s. Then came September rains and accompanying flash floods, which killed most suckers, sculpin and some trout from Stevens Creek to the northern city limits. Skillen said a friend that lived near 32nd Street phoned him during one downpour to say he could see fish jumping out of the mud-filled water, gasping for air.

But a late-November electroshock survey of the river conducted by the Division of Wildlife found the river to be healthy, Skillen said.

“ What this tells us is, the trout are very resilient,” he said. “The fish found a way to survive.”

The next test

This resilience is what makes Mike Japhet, an aquatic biologist for the Division of Wildlife in Durango, think the trout in the Animas will be able to withstand what is probably their next major test: the Animas-La Plata project. While many in the fishing community are concerned that diverting water to levels as low as 125 cfs in the winter will deplete the fishery, Japhet said he is “cautiously optimistic” that the section of the Animas River will retain its “Gold Medal” status. He said the Division of Wildlife’s Gold Medal classification mandates 60 pounds of trout per surface acre of water. Last November, after all the challenges the fish faced, the Animas held 130 pounds of trout per surface acre, well exceeding the minimum standard.
Not everyone is as positive.

“ I think most fishermen have strong concerns about how A-LP will affect our trout fishery,” said Tom Knopick, owner of local fly fishing shop Duranglers. Knopick said a primary concern is the low water levels that will be permitted, especially 125 cfs.
“ The longer the river runs at that level, the less food, the less habitat and less fish,” Knopick said.

The A-LP won’t pump below 125 cfs December to March; 225 cfs from April to September; and 160 cfs in October and November, according to Ken Beck, A-LP Public Outreach Team Leader.

Skillen said his group’s members also are concerned over A-LP.
“ Obviously, that’s an issue,” Skillen said. “It’s not going to be healthy. I’m not a biologist, but I can imagine what it’s going to do.”

Skillen said a depleted fishery could negatively impact the Southern Ute Tribe as well, since fishing licenses on tribal lands are popular – and lucrative, at $15 for a two-day pass, $20 for a five-day pass, and $40 for a season.

“ I don’t think the tribe will look at that as being in their best interest,” Skillen said.
He said he hopes there will be some mitigation of the drainage “so the river doesn’t get blown out,” or clouded from high turbidity.

Return of the natives

One subject everyone seems to view positively is the decreasing incidence of whirling disease in local trout. The disease, which is caused by a fatal parasite that causes infected fish to “whirl” in circles, was identified in the Florida, Dolores and Pine rivers in the mid 1990s, and in the Animas River’s Durango hatchery in 1997. All of the fish in the hatchery were destroyed, and the hatchery was cleaned in 1998, Japhet said.

“ The sportsmen, through their hunting and fishing licenses, paid for the clean up of our hatcheries (in Colorado),” Japhet said. “Our Durango hatchery was the first.”
Now the hatchery uses spring water instead of river water, since once the parasite is introduced in a river it is impossible to eradicate. Sixty fish from the hatchery are sacrificed and tested for whirling disease each year to help ensure that the DOW is stocking disease-free fish.

Knopick said whirling disease doesn’t seem to exist locally, even though he knows it technically does.

“ You don’t see it in many fish – period,” Knopick said. “To me, it’s a nonissue. I’d be hard pressed to say I’d seen it in the Animas, though the Animas does have that parasite.”

Another DOW effort for local fisheries is focused on the Florida and Pine rivers, which experienced more mudflows than the Animas following last summer’s fires. Japhet said the Florida was hardest hit and “almost wiped out.” The Pine saw heavy fish kill as well; in some places, brown trout have been reduced to 90 percent of former numbers.

As a result, the DOW is turning the fish kill into an opportunity to restock native Colorado River cutthroat trout in the Florida and Pine rivers. Next month, about 10,000 of the fish will be reintroduced in each of the rivers. Additionally, the Florida was stocked July 11 with around 800 native cutthroats.

“ The Florida got a little bonus,” Japhet said.

While the Florida River has few non-native fish like browns and rainbows to compete with the native cutthroats, the Pine is another story. Japhet said there is some concern that the browns, which are known to prey on other trout, will eat the native fish. But, he said that with so few browns among the 10,000 cutthroat, the cutthroat may be able to survive.

“ It’s a stocking trial – nothing with a guaranteed outcome, but a chance worth taking,” Japhet said.

He added that the “cutthroat experiment” will have a better chance of success if property owners along the river cooperate by not stocking browns or rainbows for the next two to three years. To help the cutthroats survive, fishermen should keep rainbows and browns that they catch, while releasing cutthroat back into the rivers, especially on the Florida, Japhet said.

Jeff Babcock, a Durango native with 10 years’ experience as a fishing guide, said the restocking project is a good idea.

“ I think it’s going to be great to have a native fish back in our waters,” Babcock said.
Babcock said current fishing conditions are great, a sentiment with which Knopick heartily agrees.

“ Everything has been fishing really well,” he said. “Most people who enjoy fishing with a fly have been taking advantage of it.”

Japhet said that before it rains enough to raise water levels and therefore lower temperatures, people might want to leave the Animas and fish at higher elevations places like Hermosa Creek. He said when water temperatures rise above 70 degrees – where the Animas is hovering – it puts stress on the fish, and even catch-and-release fishing is inadvisable because it is possible to remove protective mucous from the sides of the fish, making them susceptible to infections. Japhet said he recently saw a few trout floating in the Animas, which he assumed had been “handled roughly.”

“ Give the fish a break,” Japhet said. “The fish feel the heat as well as we do.”
Skillen said his group is concerned with people fishing during spawning seasons –spring for rainbows and fall for the browns.

“ A lot of folks would like to see people leave them alone – they’re vulnerable,” he said. “If people want a trophy, take a picture, measure the length and girth, release the fish, and a good taxidermist can do a better mount.”

In the meantime, Knopick has advice that is easy to follow:
“ Fishing conditions now are excellent on all our waters,” he said. “People should get out there and enjoy it.”







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