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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.

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Water Education Colorado

Fishing in the Cold: Improving winter habitat makes for healthier fisheries

By Ken Neubecker

Fish looking for a home in the cold waters of Colorado’s high mountain streams are having a tough time, especially in the winter. However, as river recreation and fishing become more important to the economy and lifestyle of mountain communities, rehabilitation projects to improve fish habitat are increasingly popular. What proponents have found is that designing river habitat to help fish through the long winter months is good for the trout, and good for business.

Winter is a lean time for Colorado’s rivers and streams. Flows and temperatures drop to the lowest levels of the year as the water supply is locked up in the deepening snow pack. Groundwater seeping quietly into the riverbed may offer the only source of replenishment to the stream. Only spring will herald the release of built-up stores when snow melts and the loud voice of Colorado’s rivers returns.

Yet winter life for fish and aquatic insects is not as dire as it may seem. Adapted over thousands of years to the annual cycle of spring floods and winter lows, many cold-water river residents thrive in this icy environment.
Ultimately, fish survival in the winter stream depends not so much on water temperatures, but on the complexity and diversity of their stream habitat and the shape and variation of the river channel. Deep pools where the water runs slower and where there is abundant protective cover from stream bank vegetation provide ideal winter fish habitat.

And despite the cold, insect food for the fish is often abundant throughout the winter. Fish behavior in cold-water streams also changes. They become less territorial and more gregarious, gathering together and resting in the deeper pools.

However, habitat degradation and low flow conditions in the stream can make winter a difficult time for fish and insects. Many of Colorado’s high country streams have been damaged by human activities, past and present. Runoff from mining, agriculture, highways and development can fill the river’s pools and riffles with sediment. Diversions of water out of the stream for snowmaking, irrigation, or drinking water, for example, can reduce the high-velocity flows necessary to create the deep pools and open channels fish need to survive. Diversions have also diminished the total volume of water in Colorado rivers at certain times of the year. Before reservoirs and diversions, river channels were wider to accommodate floods and greater surges of water. But in modern-day rivers with lower flows, in some cases the result is a dispersed shallow river with few pockets of deep habitat to hold over-wintering fish.

In degraded river channels, improving fish habitat during wintertime low flow conditions can be critical to the year-round health of the fishery. Recent river restoration projects on the Blue River through the town of Silverthorne focused on re-tooling shallow gravelly channels to provide more deep pools linked by fast flowing riffles.

Although releases of cold water from the bottom of Dillon Reservoir helped turn the Blue River into a Gold Medal fishery, low flows—particularly during drought—were slowly degrading the resource.

To mobilize a restoration effort, Trout Unlimited, the town of Silverthorne, Denver Water and many other agencies worked together to raise money and resources. Andy Gentry, president of the Gore Range Chapter of Trout Unlimited, was instrumental in building momentum for the project. “It was a broad-based community effort,” he explains.

“Everyone recognized the importance of the river and pitched in, from all the governmental agencies to non-profit organizations and private business. That’s what made it such a success.”

Collectively the community raised over $90,000 to match a $94,750 grant from the National Forest Foundation. The town of Silverthorne organized the various partners and developed a restoration plan. Denver Water provided additional funding and access to key portions of the river for the restoration work.

Large boulders were used to vary the depth and sinuosity of the new channel. The old wide riverbed was then left as floodplain, where high flows can spread out, dissipating energy and watering the newly planted riparian vegetation.

According to Troy Thompson of Ecological Resource Consultants, Inc., who led the design and construction of the Blue River project, “As more and more people look at doing projects like these they are realizing the importance of planning and building for winter habitat.” He adds that many high country streams are challenged to maintain ecological balance because “the reduced flow of today is struggling within a channel made by the much larger flows of the past.”
Winter fishing had always been pretty good on the Blue River below the dam, but the restoration work “definitely improved the fishery,” according to Barry Kirkpatrick of Cutthroat Anglers in Silverthorne.

Despite common misperceptions about barren winter streams, fishing is a year-round activity in Colorado and rivers like the Blue River below Dillon Reservoir are often open throughout the winter. And despite the cold temperatures, many high-country fly fishing shops and guides remain busy throughout the winter.

Bill Perry of Fly Fishing Outfitters in Avon opened his shop 10 years ago as a year-round fly fishing store, one of the first in Colorado to do so. “Lots of people who come out to ski are surprised to find out that Colorado has year-round fishing,” says Perry, who adds that he has guides on the river with clients every day of the year. “Maybe they can’t go skiing, so they go fishing. Besides, there aren’t many other fishermen out so it’s a great time to go.”

Helping the rivers and the fish during the lean winter months also helps Colorado’s economy. Fishing alone was worth $1.6 billion dollars annually and employed over 15,000 people in Colorado in 2001, according to a study by the American Sportfishing Association.

Low flow conditions, whether caused by drought, diversion or both, are now fairly common in the headwater rivers and streams of Colorado. At the same time, the value of our rivers for fishing and recreation is increasing. River rehabilitation projects like those on the Blue River are working to meet not only the changing ecological needs of these unique streams, but also the changing social and economic demands of the communities they support.

Editor’s Note: Ken Neubecker is the west slope organizer for Colorado Trout Unlimited.

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