The Good Old Days Are Now For The Colorado River
It’s tempting to think that things used to be better in the past than they are now, that if we could only step into a time machine and emerge back into 1969 or 1955 or 1928 or whenever, the world would be a much better place than it is now. For some aspects of life, that might well be true. But for one vital resource that’s near and dear to my heart, the Colorado River, I’ve begun to think that the Good Old Days are right now, and not in some distant past.
This is now my thirteenth year of living beside what I like to call the “Lower Upper” Colorado River, and I’ve never seen the river in better shape than it is now. Thanks to a wet spring, the reservoirs on the west slope are all full, as are the ones on the Front Range, so water that might have gone east under the Continental Divide are in their rightful watersheds instead. Also, this spring we’ve been catching more rainbow trout than I’ve seen in over twenty years, due in part to Hofers that were planted upriver several years ago and above Dotsero in September of 2012. Many of the ones we’ve been catching are either the same size as those planted or even smaller, which means these are wild fish, and not pellet-fed hatchery stock.
The third factor which is making me happy these days are the bugs. In the last week or so since the runoff ended, we’ve been having caddis hatches like here like we haven’t seen since the big water of 2011. Since that high water year, the caddis have been around but in much reduced numbers. We might have a couple of days of hatches around in May, but would then see hardly any for the rest of the summer. Previous to 2011, the Lower Upper was wonderful caddis water. Like most fly fisherfolk, I prefer to catch a trout on a dry fly to any other method. As much fun as it is to watch a rainbow come up and hammer a hopper pattern, or it is to see an aggressive, hormonal brown streak out of its hole to chase a streamer, there’s just nothing like seeing a trout come up out of nowhere to sip a well-drifted fly that is connected to your rod. It is the essence of what makes fly fishing as addictive as it is. And of all the hatches one can be on the water to witness, caddis hatches are my favorite. A fish can be fooled on a dead drift with a caddis, but sometimes its putting a little action into your fly that elicits the strike. A caddis will sometimes work better if its dragging or skating across the seam, like a female caddis laying its eggs. Sometimes they even work better after they’ve sunk. Since they are so busy and float se well, even a beginner with little concept of line mending can find success fishing a caddis pattern. I’ll often recommend to clients that when they are ready to lift the fly off the water to make their next cast, they should lift it slowly and then accelerate their lift, instead of just yanking the fly out. It’s often just as they begin to pull it out that the fish moves in to strike. And if there are small mayflies such as BWOs or Tricos hatching as well, a caddis makes a great top fly to keep track of the smaller mayfly attached to the bend of its hook. Seeing as many caddis back on the river as we’ve had, with plenty of water to supply our needs for the rest of the year, is making me hopeful that 2016 has the makings of an epic year!
I’m a relative newcomer to our fair State, having only moved here thirty years ago in 1986. This was just after Windy Gap Reservoir went online, and long-time locals will point to that as being the main cause of the degradation to the Upper Colorado River that followed. The reservoir created a shallow 400 acre lake which warmed the water and cut off the connection of the river to the waters above and below. In addition to diverting water east that should have flowed west, it also had a significant impact on the macro-invertebrates in the river and by extension, the fish who rely on them as a food source. Windy Gap has had a negative impact on the Upper Colorado, but the good news on that front is that Northern Water has agreed in principal to build a bypass around the fetid reservoir, pending studies that show it to be viable and the money found to build it. As for the Lower Upper, that is the Colorado River below Kremmling, we’ve been somewhat immune to the compromised water that the upper river gets thanks to the added flows of the Blue, and of Muddy Creek below Wolford Mountain Reservoir. The beneficial effects of the cold, clear water of the Blue River below Green Mountain Reservoir are well known. Less appreciated are the positive effects that Wolford Mountain has had on the Lower Upper Colorado River. Wolford acts as a huge sediment trap for the turbid waters of the aptly-named Muddy Creek. Since the dam was finished in the late 1990’s, it’s had the effect of a much clearer river below than there used to be back in the “good old days”. There’s also one more bit of good news this year related to Wolford Mountain. A couple of years ago, it was noted that the Pritchard Dam (which created the impoundment) had shifted more than its engineers had anticipated. A concern arose that if the dam ever failed, it could result in the greatest “natural” disaster Colorado has ever seen, as a huge wall of water would roar down the Colorado and take out everything west of Dotsero with it. My house would probably end up somewhere in Westwater Canyon, or perhaps Lake Powell. However, this year an independent study was done that concluded that amount of shifting the dam has done was within safe amounts, so perhaps there is one less thing to worry about after all.
So in July of 2016, there is nothing but good news to report from my perch here beside the lovely Lower Upper. I don’t have a crystal ball, and can’t predict what kind of summer it might be in terms of weather (of course even people who are paid to do that sort of thing can’t). But I can visualize a day a long time from now in the future, when Elon Musk’s Tesla Time Machine Inc is doing a booming business, when someone steps into a little capsule with a fiber optic fishing rod and types “Summer 2016” into the control panel for a visit back to the “Good Old Days”!