‘I consider them friends’: Anglers sacrifice to save trout

Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily/AP/File
A fisher wades into the Colorado River near Burns, Colorado, Oct. 14, 2020. This summer, high water temperatures, along with low flows and oxygen levels, threaten the well-being of fish, so the state is calling for voluntary fishing closures on parts of some Colorado rivers.

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Like much of the Western United States, Colorado is racked by ongoing drought. High water temperatures, along with low flows and oxygen levels, threaten the well-being of fish, especially those, like trout, that thrive in colder waters. Even catch-and-release fishing and handling can tucker out trout to the point of death. And stressed fish may not be able to spawn successfully in the fall. 

That’s why the state is calling for voluntary fishing closures – both full and half day – on parts of some Colorado rivers this summer. It’s difficult to determine the impact of closures, says northwest Colorado’s senior aquatic biologist Lori Martin. But relieving pressure from fishing is one factor humans can control. 

Why We Wrote This

In Colorado, love of rivers looks like restraint. Faced with chronic drought, anglers pause short-term interests with the hope of long-term payoffs.

Drought-related fishing closures aren’t new, but they’re happening earlier than usual this year. And while the closures affect local fishing businesses, they’re willing to make the sacrifice.

As Lee Pillaro, sales manager and fly-casting instructor at the fly-fishing outfitter Duranglers Flies and Supplies, puts it, “Everybody that’s in the fly-fishing community and industry, I think we all have a healthy respect and love for the fish and don’t want to do anything that’s going to cause them any harm.”

To Lee Pillaro, trout are more than slender freshwater fish with minuscule scales.

“From our business standpoint, we view those trout as business partners,” says the fly fisher. “Personally, I consider them friends.”

That’s why Mr. Pillaro is joining other anglers and guides respecting voluntary fishing closures throughout the drought-parched Colorado Western Slope. By adhering to requests from the state, they look at short-term sacrifices as helping the long-term benefit of fisheries.

Why We Wrote This

In Colorado, love of rivers looks like restraint. Faced with chronic drought, anglers pause short-term interests with the hope of long-term payoffs.

“I think we’ve always had good compliance,” says northwest Colorado’s senior aquatic biologist Lori Martin. She credits strong partnership and communication with local recreationists.

Fish stress

Colorado, like much of the Western United States, is racked by ongoing drought that scientists say is worsened by climate change. Ms. Martin and her team at Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) are trying to reel in drought effects on fisheries – especially since these areas include fish like trout that thrive in colder waters. 

High water temperatures, along with low flows and oxygen levels, all threaten their well-being. Under these conditions, even catch-and-release fishing and handling can tucker out trout to the point of death. And stressed fish may not be able to spawn successfully in the fall. 

That’s why the state is calling for voluntary fishing closures – both full and half day – on parts of some Colorado rivers this summer. Given that many variables affect fish stress, Ms. Martin says it’s difficult to determine the impact of closures. But relieving pressure from fishing is one factor humans can control.

Even though most waterways are untouched by these closures, “it’s not an easy decision to restrict anglers from fishing opportunity. We take it seriously,” says John Alves, senior aquatic biologist for southwest Colorado. The state encourages recreationists to seek opportunities in cooler waters, such as on early-morning excursions or at higher altitudes.

For Roaring Fork Fishing Guide Alliance President Kyle Holt in Basalt, compliance has meant offering shorter tours. 

“I’m pretty sure that most of us have sacrificed a little bit of business,” and customers have also sacrificed, says Mr. Holt, a guide himself. “It’s just something that we need to do ... for the future of the fishery.”

Mr. Holt brings along a hand-held thermometer in his boat, and says he was testing water temperatures before the state called for a voluntary closure on part of the Roaring Fork River last month. Though he’s been able to resume full tours since the state lifted the half-day pause on Aug. 10, he says he’ll continue to monitor water temperatures himself.

Eleven of these voluntary fishing pauses are currently in place. Besides weather forecasts, CPW considers these potential triggers before calling for a closure:

  • Daily maximum water temperature is hotter than 71 degrees Fahrenheit 
  • Stream flows are less than or equal to half their daily average 
  • Fish appear to be “visibly deteriorating” 
  • Daily dissolved oxygen is less than 6 parts per million 
  • Other factors disrupt fish habitat (like fire, for instance)

Communities can also implement their own recreational or commercial closures, and CPW can mandate fishing pauses if conditions turn dire. One state closure on the Yampa River has been mandatory since May, meaning people caught angling can be fined and accrue points toward a suspension of fishing privileges. 

Voluntary closures are “a better opportunity for outreach and education,” says Holly Loff, executive director of the Eagle River Watershed Council based in Gypsum.

Her nonprofit plays a role in that education, by publishing a daily email with local water temperatures and tips for responsible fishing. Similarly, the Roaring Fork Fishing Guide Alliance posts river updates on social media. 

“When you explain things to people in a way that it makes sense to them, they’re like, ‘Oh, yeah ... we’re all in for that,’” says Mr. Holt.

Based on what wildlife officers have observed, CPW biologists report that the public is largely complying with the fishing closures.

“I think with the ongoing drought, people are becoming more and more aware of what is happening with our rivers ... and having to understand the balance of being able to enjoy them, but also being able to protect and conserve them,” says Ms. Martin. 

Other Western states, including Oregon and Montana, have also enacted fishing closures – sometimes called “hoot owl” restrictions. Faced with an imperiled salmon population, California wildlife officials have held off releasing over 1 million young fish into the wild until river conditions improve, holding them at hatcheries instead, reports The Associated Press.

“Healthy respect”

For Mr. Pillaro in Durango, mandatory closures might be better for getting more tourists to comply. But overall, he reports good compliance among fellow anglers and guides, from his vantage point as a sales manager and fly-casting instructor at the fly-fishing outfitter Duranglers Flies and Supplies.

The state called for a half-day closure on roughly 12 miles of the Dolores River for the first time this year. As of the morning of Aug. 17, this area recorded a flow of 4.7 cubic feet per second – 93% less flow than its historical average, according to state data. While Duranglers leads trips in other locations as well, Mr. Pillaro says the company has lost some business by avoiding that troubled area.  

Drought-related fishing closures aren’t new, but the timing has changed. “Really the only surprising thing this year was how early in the year [the state] had to do it, because the flows were so low,” says Christopher Myrick, professor of fish biology at Colorado State University. 

In the worst-case scenario, the state could restock fish-depleted rivers from hatcheries, he says, but it would “take years.” Plus, the state hatchery system doesn’t raise all the species currently found in the wild.

In the meantime, Mr. Pillaro says he’s trying to educate customers about the importance of pausing plans when river conditions are subpar.

“Everybody that’s in the fly-fishing community and industry, I think we all have a healthy respect and love for the fish and don’t want to do anything that’s going to cause them any harm,” says the angler.

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