Record temps, fishing closures mark unusual summer in Colorado’s High Country

Chris Bartsch, a guide with Adventures Whitewater in Kremmling, prepares to unload rafts at the Pump House put-in on the Colorado River in Gore Canyon.(Photo by Hart Van Denburg/CPR News)

It’s been a hot summer across Colorado — and while usually residents can escape to the many streams or lakes to cool down, this year is different. When the water gets hot, it’s hard on the fish and fisherman.

Record warmth in the Yampa and White river basins in northwest Colorado is stressing out fish and creating concern for the anglers, rafting outfitters and environmentalists who call the region home. Both basins feed the Colorado River, which has had a tough summer as well.

“This is just I think about the hottest year we’ve seen, worst stream temperatures, and the most amount of fisherman,” said Kirk Klancke, president of the Colorado River Headwaters Chapter of Trout Unlimited.

Fisherman come from across the state and the world to fish trout in Colorado’s premiere streams. Mix that burgeoning popularity with the severe drought, lack of monsoon moisture and prolonged heat and you have a bad combination for fish in Colorado’s high country. When rivers run low, higher water temperatures choke off oxygen for fish and helps disease spread.

That’s why Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials have fishing restrictions in nearly half a dozen rivers across the state.

Lori Martin, an aquatic biologist with Parks and Wildlife, said the scope and length of the restrictions are unprecedented. There have been smaller scale voluntary closures before, but “not to the geographic extent that we have in 2018,” she said.

Along the Yampa River in downtown Steamboat Springs, the majority of fishermen follow the 2 p.m. to midnight closures. Johnny Spillane, owner of Steamboat Flyfisher, guides clients to other stretches of the river without restrictions.

“We’re lucky up here because we have a ton of other options,” Spillane said. “But if you’re reliant on one section of river for your whole business, yeah, that’s a problem.”

The hit to Spillane’s business so far this season has been small. But for Pete Van De Carr, owner of Backdoor Sports, it’s been more significant.

Yampa River restrictions from July 9 to Aug. 17 prevented him from selling tubes to visitors. That tanked his business by half, he said. The good news is he finally has the OK to start selling inner tubes again to visitors.

“It drove me a little stir crazy to sit around and explain to people all day why they couldn’t go on the river,” Van De Carr said.

Record warmth in the Yampa and White river basins in northwestern Colorado is stressing out fish and creating concern for the anglers, rafting outfitters and environmentalists. (Photo by Hart Van Denburg/CPR News)

Now he has a new challenge: He can’t find workers to help manage the new influx of business. Van De Carr’s summer workers either found other jobs, or headed back to school. This summer’s drought and river conditions made him an outfitter without a river.

“I tell this to people all the time, if we have one 90-degree day throughout the course of a summer, it’s a hot summer in Steamboat Springs,” he said. This year has been a “pretty darn warm summer” with multiple days in the high 80s.

Steamboat Springs town leaders use a Yampa River health assessment and management plan to guide their closures and other management decisions. As water and air temperatures rise, that means there are local strategies to protect fish habitat. Few other mountain resort cities have such plans.

The low flows have other river outfitters in across the state groaning. Along the Colorado River in Kremmling, Adventures in Whitewater owner Justin Scheible said traffic this year wasn’t the issue. It was the quality of the whitewater rafting experience.

Scheible can get rafters on the river, but the wild bucking bronco ride that adventure seekers crave just isn’t there this year.

“Shoving people over rock bars on your rafts is not what I consider quality,” Scheible said.

Especially on the Colorado. Scheible said water diversions to Front Range cities make the problem worse, lessening already depleted stream flows. He worries the Colorado River will continue to wither away as temperatures reach new highs, and as the Front Range population grows.