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Colorado's public lands are faced with new challenges but water and land management depend on working together. Read about the relationship between water and land in Colorado and how Coloradans are converging to restore Colorado's public lands in the Spring 2018 issue of Headwaters magazine.

Browse articles and find a flipbook of the magazine here.

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Water Education Colorado

Fly Fishing

By Lori Ozzello

To forget everything else.

The paperwork on your desk at the office. The car needs new tires. The bored-till-everyone's-comatose meetings. The commute. The nuclear meltdown your teenager had yesterday or Monday or whenever.

Ask people why they ski or watch birds or kayak or hike or run or hunt and often, the core of the answer is ‘to forget everything else.’ When you ask a fly fisher, she'll explain there's an art and science to the forgetting.

‘You can do it by yourself,’ says Karen Christopherson, a native Coloradan, geophyscist and Webmaster of www.coloradofishing.net. ‘It's one-on-one with nature.

‘I'm looking at the water, the fish, the wind. When you're on a river, you get exercise at the same time. I don't know about everyone else. For me, when I'm out there, I forget everything else.’

Christopherson isn't alone in her love for the sport.

In 2003, the most recent year the American Sport Association conducted a survey, its economic analysis showed hunting and angling—they're grouped together—had a $1.3 billion impact in Colorado. In retail alone, people spent $6.9 million on gear and boats.

Add in the cost of guides, hotels, food and fuel, and it's not just a pastime.

A 2002 Colorado Division of Wildlife report stated that virtually all of Colorado's 64 counties reap benefits from wildlife-related activities, which support more than 20,000 jobs around the state.

Outfitting for learning and visiting fishers is one facet of the industry. Anglers, along with the state's own Division of Wildlife, are also involved in protecting rivers, lakes, streams and wetlands.

Trout Unlimited's intent, for example, is to protect and restore fisheries and watersheds. To that end, the organization, founded almost 50 years ago in Michigan, employs lawyers, lobbyists and other professionals to work with lawmakers at the state and federal levels. Its chapters are also active in conservation issues and work to influence water policy around Colorado.

‘Water management can be obvious,’ Christopherson says. ‘On the Dolores River below McPhee Reservoir, it's gotten down to low flow. That used to be an incredible fishery. Irrigators were pulling water and the fish died. When you go there now the flow is low and there are practically no fish.

‘Because of things like this, TU is working with organizations like Denver Water, so we maintain flows for wildlife and people.’

Water quality issues may have slowed development on the Arkansas River, says outfitter Greg Felt. But after a mine waste clean up and improvements, fish are living longer and the Arkansas has become a popular spot.

‘The Arkansas is a fishery on the rise,’ Felt said. ‘There are other marque rivers in the state. As fly fishing became more popular, people ventured further afield. The Ark has 140 miles to fish, healthy brown trout and a lot of public access.’

All of the outfitters and anglers talk of their concern about maintaining flows and water quality.

The issues, says Felt, are worrisome.

‘You feel like you're always losing this battle of a thousand nicks, you lose a little here, a little there and you wake up one morning and it's all gone,’ he says.

Caring for the rivers and passion for the sport go hand in hand.

‘You're immersing yourself into the (river) system,’ Colorado Trout Unlimited Executive Director David Nickum says.

‘You're no longer a spectator.

‘There's an emotional connection. When you're out there on the water you get so focused on every ripple, every bug, that setting, that place. ’

Shane Birdsey agrees. A third generation resident of Mineral County, his dad and granddad taught him how to wet fly fish on the Rio Grande when he was 13.

‘Fly fishing is not just throwing a worm on a hook,’ he says. ‘You have to read the water, check the wind, keep the fly drag free, mend the line. If you're tuned in, everything goes away. I tell people who really want to get into this that you gotta pay. They ask how much. I tell them: Time. You have to pay in time. It becomes almost an addiction.’

If it's an addiction, it's one that's paying dividends to Colorado in more ways than one. Outfitters and long-time enthusiasts have perspectives on the current and future state of angling.

Birdsey owns the Ramble House, a sort of general department store for Creede—everything from hand-tied flies to souvenirs to housewares—along with Creede Guide and Outfitters. Located in Mineral County, the former mining town sits in one of the least populated counties—831 permanent residents—in the state. More than 90 percent of the county is publicly owned.

Birdsey offers beginning and intermediate fly fishing lessons, float trips and ladies-only clinics. His fly fishing school season starts at the end of June, just after runoff peaks on the Rio Grande and its tributaries.

‘Fly fishing is a challenge,’ Birdsey says. ‘You're one-to-one with the fish.’

In beginning classes, Birdsey's company provides all the equipment. Instructors familiarize students with equipment, show them how to get set up to fish, demonstrate basic knot tying and introduce the biology of fly fishing. They talk about where the fish hide out, which insects there are and why each species is where it is.

That's the morning.

Next, says Birdsey, come casting lessons. Then the students spend 2-3 hours on the river. Out of the beginners' classes, he says, a handful of people get hooked, continue and invest in their own equipment.
The place he's seen the increase, though, is among women in their 40s and 50s.

‘It used to be a man's sport, but not anymore,’ Birdsey says. ‘A lot of women fished with their husbands. Their husbands tied the flies and did everything for them. Not anymore. The women learn and they do it themselves.’
Felt's seen the same trend, and says that in some says, women are easier to teach because they tend to be better listeners and more receptive to suggestions for improvement.

Christopherson caught on to the sport when she was in high school in Boulder. A self-described tomboy, she enrolled in a fly tying class and added fly fishing to the sports she enjoyed. Her profession keeps her outdoors most days where she spends ‘a lot of time waiting for helicopters.’ She fishes while she waits, no matter the time of year.

‘It used to be I'd see three women in a season,’ Christopherson says. ‘I fish almost every day. Certainly, you see more women now. More classes are available through DOW, and there's the national program, Women Afield.

‘And, you see some of the gear, waders and boots are made for women. It's a gradual thing.’

While retailers target a new sports market, she says, women are coming around to the idea of the sport's attraction.
Another Mineral County rancher and outfitter, Billy Joe Dilley, takes summertime guests into the high country to fish in remote streams. His dad gave him his first fishing pole when he was 5. On one of the trips Dilley offers, he and his guests climb down into a pristine canyon on the East Piedra River, the same place his dad taught him to fish and the same place he's fished nearly 50 summers since.

‘They'll be 30 or 40 fish in the river and they don't run,’ Dilley relates. ‘It's like when the mountain men were first here. The fish've been there for years. They don't know what you are. They haven't seen people so they don't have that fear.‘ While Birdsey, Dilley and Felt are guiding and teaching, they're also paying attention to the state of the river, the fish and their surroundings.

‘Mining and drought have had a major effect up here,’ Birdsey explains. ‘Float trips will be limited this year because we just haven't had the snow. It will have an effect on insect reproduction, too.

‘In 2002 when it was so dry, we asked people just to fish in the morning. By afternoon, the water temperature in the river was up to 70 degrees. Even if people were doing catch and release, the stress could cause fish deaths. The water right now in late winter is 32 degrees. That's a big difference. The increase in temperature also means an increase in bacteria in the water.’

Dilley is adamant about preserving the water and land by teaching Colorado residents and out-of-state visitors alike to have as little impact as possible.

‘It's here for all of us to enjoy,’ says Dilley, ‘but people 50-75 years from now need to enjoy it, too.’

Fishing doesn't have to be elaborate or epic, though, or even particularly expensive. Several years ago, the Colorado Department of Wildlife identified a need in the state—to successfully get youngsters involved in the outdoors one of their parents had to be into, too.

Fishing, observes Nickum, often ‘gets passed from generation to generation’ and there are concerns about the sport's decrease in numbers among the young.

Birdsey takes students as young as 8 in his fly fishing clinics. Christopherson notes that anglers would ‘love to have more kids involved,’ especially considering that many people's fondest memories ‘are of going fishing when they were kids.’

Felt says if you want ‘to get kids interested, you can't get impatient or mad. You have to focus on having fun.’
Christopherson says she fishes throughout the year.

‘You can always fish the tailwaters because a dam keeps the water a certain temperature and the fish like that,’ she says. ‘They can feed year around and be happy. And, there are some streams that don't freeze up totally, like some parts of the lower Poudre and the lower Big Thompson. I went up in late January to Buttonrock Reservoir on a warm day. The fish are still there. It's a little more challenging, and the weather's colder. Or, you can fly fish for the warm water species, like wipers or bass.’

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