Tuesday, May 26, 2015

A Cure For The Runoff Blues

                  A Cure For The Runoff Blues

  It’s May 26th, and we are officially into the Spring 2015 Runoff. What was looking to be a below-average flow year only six weeks ago has changed dramatically since then.  In mid-April the rain and snow began to fall, and has been falling almost every day since then.  Last week I went up to A-Basin, and since that time it’s only kept on snowing up there.  Their original closing day of June 7th may be getting pushed back, since their base has been growing this spring when it should be melting off.  This is of course a very good thing, because what’s good for Summit County is good for the Blue River, and what’s good for the Blue is good for the Colorado River.  Last time I checked, there was 1500 cfs coming out of the Dillon Reservoir, and eleven hundred coming out of Green Mountain.  By the time this is over, all of the Colorado River reservoirs (and those on Front Range) should be brimming full.

  The exception is Wolford Mountain Reservoir, whose impoundment has shifted more than its original designers foresaw.  Since it was finished in 1995, its moved two feet downward, and eight inches out.  The Colorado River District is keeping a very close eye on it, and has installed sensors on it to monitor movement, so at least if my world disappears under a furious wall of water someday we’ll get enough notice to get to safety.  (Unless I’m already on the river fishing, and twenty blissful miles away from a cell phone signal, that will be some memorable whitewater!) If the dam ever had a catastrophic failure, it would easily be the biggest natural disaster to ever strike Colorado. One estimate I saw guessed that if it ever went all at once, there would be 600K cfs roaring down Muddy Creek into the Colorado just above Gore Canyon.  At 12K, the river runs alongside my house and sump pumps run continually to keep it out. I’ve tried to visualize what 600K would look like, and even my fertile imagination is left wanting.  Such a flood would take out everything along the Colorado River Road, and I-70 from Dotsero to…Utah?  Forget the Union Pacific rail line, and a big chunk of Glenwood Springs, and anything near the river down to Grand Junction.  Sounds like a great premise for a Michael Bay movie. 

  But back to happier thoughts.  All this rain we’re getting should be good for the fish for later this summer.  It has ended what was some pretty decent spring fishing, but I’ll take the short-term hit in exchange for happy trout in August. However, instead of letting everyone know what they can’t do for the next few weeks, I thought I’d mention somewhere that you can go.  My friend and partner Ryan Herbert of Yampa River Anglers tells me the fishing up in the headwaters of the Yampa has been on fire. 

  That area, also known as the Bear River or Stillwater, has become one of my favorite places to fish anywhere in the state. I had heard about it for a long time, but had been living up here for about seven years before I finally ventured up there.  Once I did, I was kicking myself for not getting there sooner.  For years, I’d wondered where the headwaters of the Yampa were, for on any map you don’t see any little blue lines labeled “Yampa” until the town of Yampa itself.  Turns out that “Yampa” is the Ute word for “Bear”, or at least that’s what I read somewhere.  (If there are any native Ute readers who would like to contradict that, please do!).  Stillwater (the name I use for the area) consists of three fairly large man-made reservoirs, the upper two of which feel more like natural lakes.  You are surrounded on three sides by the escarpment of the Flat Tops, including Flat Top Mountain, the highest point around.  In addition, there are some high mountain lakes you can hike to with brookies and cutthroats in them, but if you don’t want to work that hard the lakes below are frequently stocked.  It’s also worth noting that, although impoundments are not high enough to create true tailwater fisheries, with low and stable river temperatures and mysis shrimp, they do provide a clear water refuge during times of runoff in the bigger rivers below.  Of course, there are lots of lakes this time of year that have that, but how many pieces of moving water can you find that do?  Especially ones that are relatively easy to get to, with accessible campsites, facilities and boat ramps.  If you are anything like me, lakes can be kind of boring compared to rivers and creeks.    But the neat thing about this area is the diversity of the water you can fish. Bank fishing on a lake or pond, check.  Want to fish for the big ones from a boat, and cover more water? Check.  Fishing your three weight (or Tenkara) on a small stream, check.  Want to cook a guilt-free put and take stocker rainbow on a grill only a short walk from where you caught it?, check. For those of you who have seen the powerpoint presentation I give, and have been interested in Derby Creek but don’t want to make the 4WD trip up to it, the Stillwater area is very similar but with far easier access.  Of course, with good access comes more people, especially in the summer, but this time of year the crowds are still somewhere else (and so are the mosquitoes).   

  Oh, one other thing that’s memorable about the Stillwater area is wildflowers.  If you’ve ever been to the Bear in June, you would wonder why the columbine (Colorado’s state flower) is protected.  If never seen a place with more columbines, they’re like dandelions in the front yard of a repossessed house.  If you have a spouse that’s not so much into fish abuse but likes them so amazing flower displays, take them to Stillwater in June.  They might be so distracted by the flowers, that they might not notice the fact you’ve been fishing for the last seven hours (works with my wife, but your results may vary).

  So if you want to check it out with a guy who knows it better than anyone else, give Ryan at Yampa Valley Anglers a call at 970-819-4376, or email at yampavalleyanglers@gmail.com .   If you go up there and see an old 4Runner with a huge rocket box up there, stop by and say “hi”, that’ll be me getting in my licks before I start taking all of you out onto the Colorado River.  If you have beer I might even tell you about a good spot or two. (Ryan knows way more good spots than I do, but he prefers cash or credit card).

   There’s one nice thing about having a decent runoff – the longer it lasts, the hungrier the fish are once its starts to come down and the water clears.  That’s when you’ll get your next email from me, right after the peak of the flow.  Until then you’ll find me either at A-Basin or Stillwater with a big smile (that rocketbox holds a lot of fun gear!)

                                      Jack Bombardier



Sunday, May 10, 2015

Early Runoff This Year

                             Early Runoff This Year

  The spring runoff on the Upper Colorado River began on May first, a couple of weeks early.  Considering that the river ice melted off five weeks earlier than I’d ever seen it, a slightly premature runoff probably made sense. 

  But oh what a great few weeks it’s been for the snowpack and river systems of Colorado!  A month ago, the snowpack was looking pretty low and having much of a runoff at all was in doubt.  In mid-April, I attended the Colorado Trout Unlimited Rendezvous in Redstone, and that was the week if finally started to snow and rain again.  Some of the attendees had some difficult driving conditions to get there.  But after a dry month, seeing all that beautiful white snow on the ground was nice.  Unfortunately, it came too late for late-season skiing, as most areas including Vail and Aspen closed that very weekend.

  There were several talks and presentations given that day in Redstone, given in the local chapel.  It was a strange juxtaposition between what words were passing through my ears, and the images my that my brain processed.   Experts were talking about how dire the current and future water situation is, while the view outside the soaring chapel windows were filled by quarter-sized flakes of snow slowly wafting down.  An 1815-type Currier and Ives scene, during an April day in Colorado, circa 2015.

  Later that evening, there was an awards ceremony and I got one for The Guide Least Likely To Drown A Client (or something).  I got to say a few words, and started by thanking CTU for all the good things they do for Colorado rivers in general, and the Upper C in specific.  I finished by noting how wonderful it was to see the snow that afternoon falling, and how most normal people would hate the associated hassles with that, like difficult driving.  But I was in a room full of folks who could appreciate how precious each and every flake was, for in a drought every drop of water is important.  And most everyone there also seemed to love that fact that it was snowing, finally. 

  That was a month ago, and how things have changed, and almost all for the good.  I skied the last weekend at Beaver Creek, and then at Vail, and have been to A-Basin twice in that time.  The ski season ended strong, and A-Basin is looking great.  As I write this, it’s Saturday May Ninth, and the mountains and foothills are getting up to 20 inches of snow this weekend!  Down here on the Colorado River at 6,200 feet, its mostly just dark and gloomy, with an occasional drizzle.  But all the good stuff is falling upstream, and will flow past my door sooner or later.

  On Tuesday last week, I had the honor of speaking to the Cheyenne Mountain Chapter of Trout Unlimited.  They are pitching in to help preserve the last remaining native habitat of genetically pure Greenback Cutthroat trout, so cheers to those guys!  On the way home that night, I decided to take I-25 north to I-70, instead of my original plan to go through South Park.  One of the nice things about my 4Runner is the huge rocketbox I have mounted above it, which has gear for fishing, skiing, camping and other assorted tools and conveniences.  Instead of fishing the Dream Stream, I was going to do some hands-on snowpack inspections the next day, otherwise known as alpine skiing, A-Basin style.  Heading west on I-70, I noticed how bright the moon was shining through my glass sunroof. It occurred to me that we were in the middle of some pretty mile weather, but that there had been two feet of snow in the central Rockies over the past week or so. 

  It occurred to me that it had been some time since I had skied in the moonlight at Loveland Pass, and this might be a perfect night to do so. But by the time I would be getting to Loveland Pass, it would be about one am, and who but tanker truck drivers would be going over at that hour? I decided to take Loveland Pass anyway, since I would be sleeping in the back of my 4Runner in the A-Basin parking lot.  Then as I approached the tunnel, a large CDOT message board said, “Rollover Accident in WB Tunnel – use US Highway 6 Loveland Pass As Alternate Route”, and I thought, “This is my lucky night!” Instead of practically no traffic going over Loveland Pass, 100 percent of little traffic there would be would be going that way! 

  I parked at the bottom of the switchback to where all trails off Loveland Pass lead, put on my ski gear, and walked over the outside of the turn. I stuck my skis into the snowbank, looked up into the still night air, and waited for a car.  Within minutes, a pair of headlights was coming up the road, and as they rounded the bend I was caught in their headlights.  The first car started to slow, but the second one closed in on his bumper and they sped back up again. A half-minute later, another set of headlights approached, and this time they pulled up right beside me.  I had been hitchhiking for perhaps a minute and a half.  It was a new Tacoma, and I pantomimed just hopping into the back to its driver, and he nodded.  So climbed in back, knocked on his back window and gave him a thumbs up, and soon we were climbing up into the sky.  On the way up, I was able to scout some good lines from the top of the ridge, and could see several options.  It was a waxing moon, perhaps three or four days shy of being full, and the landscape was as easy to see as it would have been at noon.

  At the top of the Pass, 12,990 feet, I climbed out, thanked him through his driver’s window, and set off for the top of the ridge.  Its possible to simply put your skis on at the road’s edge and ski from there, but that means either doing a long boring traverse or dropping into some trees.  Bright as it was in the open, it was pitch-dark in the trees so that wasn’t an option. If it were the brutal weather that could often be found here on the Continental Divide, on the very spine of the North American continent,  I might have opted for the traverse of to the bottom of the bowl, with a run out back to my truck. 

  But on this night the weather was perfect, with the sky almost cloudless and the air very still.  So I hiked up to the top of the ridge, the night quiet except for the crunching of my feet and the sound my own deep breathing.  I took my time, just putting one foot in front of the other and tried to think of nothing else but that next step, and the one after that, and so on. Sooner than I would have I imagined, I was on top of the divide, able to see forever even at 2:30 in the morning.  I couldn’t have imagined a more beautiful spot to be on earth than where I stood. Not knowing what to expect on top, I had dressed with an extra layer and laid down in the snow on top, warm and snug.  I watched electric white clouds drift past, looking like horses, then poodles, then lizards.  It was so clear that even the stars were very bright, despite the moonlight.  It was so high that there was very little atmosphere for the moon to illuminate. 

  Finally I clicked my boots into my skis, and began to slide down the hill.  I sank a little deeper into the snow than I expected, so I went a little faster to plane up.  Once I did it was effortless, and I glided across the blindingly white plane like a low-flying night bird, an owl swooping down to snag an unlucky mouse.  The endless mountains made me feel both insignificant, and intricately tied to everything else all at once. Even as I was living that moment, I wanted to hold onto the way it made me feel forever. If you are reading this during the second week of May, odds are that you’ll able to so this for at least one more phase of the moon this year.  Go for it!

  Since this is ostensibly a fishing blog, I guess I should mention how the river fished over the pre-runoff period. Actually, it was pretty good, especially if you could catch it running clear.  The warm sunny weather in March did turn some of the tributaries muddy, but once ranchers started irrigating, it captured a lot of that silt and the river looked pretty good. 

  But since there weren’t many bugs hatching that early, fishing consisted mostly of running big stonefly nymphs or tossing streamers.  During the clearer waters, watching trout charging out of a hidey-hole chasing streamers is pretty entertaining! I’ve done if for fun with the hook cut off just to watch them do it.

  So it fished pretty well this year, if inconsistent.  We caught a couple of nice rainbows from the Class of 2012, but one was so vibrant it looked like it might have some from a different planet.  Maybe it was some kind of genetic holdover from the pre-Whirling Disease era, some of which have been found on the Gunnison. Epidemics usually don’t kill all of anything, just most, and if you are one of the survivors then perhaps your genetics are superior in some way. This rainbow sure looked like something special, that’s for sure. This was the Angelina Jolie  / Tom Brady of fish. 

  Then things changed in a hurry.  Between last Friday and Sunday, the river went from 1100 cfs to 2200 cfs. Over the course of the last week, it’s risen to well over 3000 cfs, and looks like its not going to go down anytime soon.  In addition to the increasing snowpack, Front Range drainages are already saturated and on the verge of flood, so none of this western water will be needed in their inventory. 

   A river is a very dynamic ecosystem, and one ever-changing variable on the Upper C is clarity, and how it’s affected by river levels. Generally, as the river goes up, it gets cloudier and more opaque.  When it stays at a fairly constant level for a while, it will clear.  If the level drops, it clears much faster.  That’s usually a good time to be on the river!  The worst time is when the level goes up dramatically.  By those metrics, that would make last Saturday the lousiest time to be on the water all year, right in the middle of its doubling in size.  And of course, that’s when I would host a famous fishing writer, during the worse fishing weather of the year.  I’d loved his prose for many years, and was pretty honored to be able to show him my little slice of paradise.  But then the fishing sucked.  He only caught three, though  they were at least spaced out, into an early one, one during the middle of the day, and finally one late.  But still, when two people who know what they’re doing only land three fish all day? We did get really close up to some bighorns, and the weather was OK.  But usually when the river fishes slow, its because its been sunny, and the canyon is so spectacularly colored that you don’t mind not catching that many fish.  When its bright, the canyon scenery and wildlife are reasons enough to be there. Or if the canyon is a bit dull, its because it overcast and its probably fishing great.  But last Saturday was neither, and I could only wish that this person whom I admired could have seen it all in a better light.

  The last time I had a fishing writer on my boat, the day could not have better choreographed by Robert Redford or Izaak Walton.  The weather was great, the canyons colorful, the browns aggressive, and we caught fish on nymphs, dries, streamers, grasshoppers, and a tenkara rod. Just the kind of day you want to have with someone who writes about fishing, to experience in your boat.  Last Saturday was kind of a worse-case scenario from both a fishing and a visual perspective. 

  In addition to all of the precipitation lately,  the news has also been good on the insect front.  Before the water level rose, the temperature had been stuck around 35-38 degrees, and other than some midges and BWOs there weren’t many bugs around.  But few days before the river went up, the temperature rose to 52 degrees. That kicked off caddis hatches that have continued ever since, in the most copious numbers since the pre-2011 high water.  The BWOs numbers also went up, to the point where their dorsal fins could be seen slicing through the foamy eddies where their spinners would finish their watery journey. Once the river starts to come down in a month or so, the grasshoppers will be in play and thus will commence the meat of the fishing season, Hopper/Dropper Time. 

  So that’s the time that Upper Colorado River appreciators need to start thinking about, just after the runoff has peaked, and begins to drop. It should clear quickly as long as it’s not too rainy, and the fish will be aggressive once its clear because they can become efficient predators again.  Hoppers will be out, and fish will be onto the hoppers.  And best of all, at flows above 2,500 the Lower Upper can be a pretty fun stretch to run, with waves you don’t see at lower levels.  If you are a watcher of river gauges, keep an eye on the Dotsero gauge, sometimes listed in places as the Shoshone number.  If you subtract the gauge number for the lower Eagle, from the Shoshone one, it’ll give you a pretty good idea of what’s flowing through the “Lower Upper”, Burns to Dotsero. (The Kremmling gauge upriver is also a good resource, but is so far upriver that it usually under-reports the flows between Burns and Dotsero).

  The main message is, we’ve got more water and snow now than we had a month ago. If the Front Range gets through it without any flooding, than that’s a very good thing.  Things are looking rosy for the summer of 2016!

    I’ll be watching those gauges very closely, and when they start to drop you will get another one of these, (unless you choose to Unsubscribe at the bottom). I’ll try to keep the next one shorter, at least to where you can read it in one bathroom visit).

                              Tight lines,

                                   Jack Bombardier

                                   2015 CTU Award Winner;
                                       Guide Most Likely To Not Kill You

14503 Colorado River Road
Gypsum, CO 81637

To Unsubscribe, Reply with Unsubscribe in the Subject line and I’ll have one of my many underlings carry out the task