Yampa River below Stagecoach goes under emergency fishing closure | SteamboatToday.com

Yampa River below Stagecoach goes under emergency fishing closure

Flows coming into the reservoir dropped below 14 cfs over the weekend

Angler Eric Rehnberg of Yampa battles the wind on May 8 while fishing the Yampa River just below Stagecoach Reservoir.
Dylan Anderson/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Colorado Parks and Wildlife has instituted an emergency fishing closure on a popular stretch of the Yampa River below Stagecoach Reservoir.

The closure — a measure that has become an annual step in recent years — went into effect Wednesday, June 1, to protect fish in the heavily fished section of the river amid low flows.

Flows into the reservoir over Memorial Day weekend dropped to below 14 cubic feet per second.

“We’ve been in discussions with the water district for the last several weeks, and they hung on through the busy Memorial Day weekend,” said Bill Atkinson, CPW’s area aquatic biologist. “When that level drops to 20 cfs, you’re shooting fish in a barrel.”

This closure is about a week later than the closure enacted last year on May 25. That stretch of the river did not reopen to anglers until Nov. 1.

This time of year, the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District that operates Stagecoach Reservoir is required to release at least 40 cfs of water or the equivalent of the inflow, Atkinson said.

This means if inflows are less than 40 cfs, the outflow can be as well.

On Wednesday morning, flows into the reservoir were around 30 cfs and about 35 cfs out. Atkinson said this increase in flows from the weekend is due to recent rain and is expected to taper off in the coming days. Furthermore, Atkinson said several irrigators above the reservoir have not opened their head gates yet, and when they do, the inflows will likely decrease even more.

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“In years when the reservoir is only down a couple of feet and we’ve got good snowpack, you’ll get a pulse of water — 150, 140, even 100 cfs — that give those fish a refuge for a little while,” Atkinson said. “All through the spring we never got above 40 cfs, so they’re very catchable and there was a tremendous amount of fishing pressure this spring. That parking lot was full all the time.”

The Yampa River below the Stagecoach Reservoir Dam. On Sunday, the reservoir was discharging water at a rate of about 40 cubic feet per second, while water flowed into the reservoir at about 75 cf/s.
Dylan Anderson/Steamboat Pilot & Today

While this stretch of the river is catch and release, about 4% of all fish caught still die. This area gets so much fishing pressure, Atkinson found multiple trout with hooks and leaders still in their mouths during a fish study earlier this year, he said.

This section of river is also home to an important subspecies of Rainbow Trout that was almost wiped out by disease in the early 2000s, Atkinson added.

“If you allow continued fishing pressure and you have high mortality on your fish … it takes a couple years to regrow those,” he said.

Another factor is the reservoir is lower than it was this time last year, which puts more pressure on the Upper Yampa water district to fill, Atkinson said. At the start of May, the district had hoped to increase the water elevation of the reservoir by 4 feet, though that would still leave Stagecoach about 3,000 acre-feet of water short of being full.

The reservoir is lower now in part because of environmental water releases into the Yampa River last summer. These releases — a partnership between Upper Yampa, the Colorado Water Trust and the Colorado Water Conservation Board — are planned to continue again this summer.

“Timing (of environmental releases) is critical to the health of the river system,” said Andy Rossi, general manager of the Upper Yampa district, in a statement. “We manage the reservoir and collaborate with our partners to ensure that water is available and legal mechanisms are in place to release water when the river needs it most. Unfortunately, flows are already low, but hot and dry summer months are still to come.”

Atkinson said the stretch of the river could reopen if flows were to exceed 40 cfs, though that doesn’t seem likely. He added that the river wouldn’t simply open if those flows were achieved. Rather, there would have to be that much water for a sustained period of time.

“I can’t say it’s not going to happen,” Atkinson said about the river reopening. “I can’t predict the weather, but I can say it’s going to take an awful lot for those flows to come up.”

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