CPW maintains Yampa River tailwaters closure amid declining trout numbers

Fishery below Yampa River's confluence with Morrison Creek has seen “population-level” declines

Steve Wyant releases a brown trout he caught in the Yampa River just below Stagecoach Reservoir in May 2021.
Dylan Anderson/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Colorado Parks and Wildlife has opted to maintain a fishing closure at the tailwaters stretch of the Yampa River below Stagecoach Reservoir until April, as officials record declining trout numbers.

The roughly half-mile stretch of the river has frequently been closed in recent years amid low flows in the river induced by historic drought across the West.

While this stretch is a catch-and-release only area, less water in the river concentrates fish in smaller pools, increases stress on them and reduces survival rates when fish are released.

“We are asking for the public’s patience and cooperation,” said Craig Preston, Stagecoach State Park Manager. “It is very important that we do what we can to protect this unique fishery for today and future generations.”

CPW has worked to improve this fishery after whirling disease severely depleted it in the mid-2000s. In 2006, the agency began stocking the stretch with a unique strain of rainbow trout that are resistant to the disease, and the highest density of these fish is in the tailwaters section. These fish serve as the brood source for this strain of rainbows.

In a release Tuesday, Jan. 3, CPW said there has been a noticeable decline in fish populations in this stretch of river since 2020 — a stretch that is one of the most popular for anglers in the Yampa Valley. This decline is attributed to drought, increased use, construction activities and wildfire.

The Muddy Slide Fire burned more than 4,000 acres south of Stagecoach in the Morrison Creek drainage last summer, which CPW says left a considerable “fire scar” that has caused negative effects downstream of where Morrison Creek enters the Yampa. The confluence of these two channels is downstream of the tailwaters section of river.

A fishery survey conducted by wildlife officials in the fall showed “population-level” declines between 44% and 67% below the Yampa’s confluence with Morrison Creek compared to results from 2020. Populations further upstream in the tailwaters section were relatively stable.

“Given the stronghold of these rainbow trout in the tailwaters reach following a decline evident in 2020 compared to 2019, and with recent declines downstream, CPW management feels protections are necessary until more certain outflow from Stagecoach is realized,” CPW said.

CPW has partnered with the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, which owns and operates Stagecoach Reservoir, to make strategic releases meant to improve conditions for fish, and the river in general, in hot summer months.

The ability for releases in winter months isn’t as feasible though, as there is inconsistent water coming into the reservoir that is already at lower levels due to prior releases.

“We now are in the position where recovering the volume stored in the reservoir for use next season is a priority,” said Andy Rossi, general manager of the Upper Yampa District. “Early winter inflows to Stagecoach Reservoir are very uncertain from one week to the next and we will be conserving every drop while keeping a close eye on how our basinwide snowpack develops.”

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