Yampa River closes to fishing in Steamboat as high water temps threaten fish

As closures become more frequent, anglers shouldn't overlook stillwater options

This popular stretch of the Yampa River sits empty on Wednesday, July 20, 2022, after Colorado Parks and Wildlife instituted a voluntary fishing closure due to high water temperatures.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Colorado Parks and Wildlife is asking anglers to stay out of the Yampa River through Steamboat Springs amid high water temperatures that make it harder for fish to survive after being caught.

The closure — which is voluntary, but generally widely followed — starts at Chuck Lewis State Wildlife Area just south of Steamboat and continues downstream until the Yampa reaches Steamboat’s western city limit at the Steamboat Springs KOA Holiday. The closure went into effect Wednesday, July 20.

“This is kind of the new normal for us and we are used to dealing with it at this point,” said Johnny Spillane, owner of Steamboat Flyfisher. “Obviously, we wish town could stay open, but we totally understand. For us, protecting the fishery is more important than selling a couple extra flies.”

The closure comes as the City of Steamboat Springs shut down the river to commercial outfitters on Tuesday, July 19, due to high water temperatures as well. A voluntary closure is also in effect for tubing, paddle boarding and other river uses as well.

In addition to the closure on the Yampa, CPW also extended a voluntary fishing closure on the Eagle River between Eagle and Wolcott, replacing a previous partial-day closure. There is also a voluntary fishing closure on the Colorado River from State Bridge downstream to Rifle.

“Closures are necessary measures to ensure the longevity of fisheries during times of stress on fish,” said Travis Black, northwest regional manager for CPW, in a statement announcing the new closures. “Low flows and high temps put the fish at risk, so we are asking everyone to help conserve these valuable resources for today and future generations.”

This year’s shuttering of the river comes nearly two weeks later than it did last season, when high water temperatures triggered the same closure on July 8. When water temperatures rise above 70 degrees, there is less dissolved oxygen in the water, which makes it harder for fish to breathe.

Signs in Chuck Lewis State Wildlife area alert anglers to a voluntary fishing closure on the Yampa River that went into effect on Wednesday, July 20, 2022.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

In these conditions, often fish will school up in deeper pools that make them easier to target for anglers and the battle of being reeled in alone can kill a fish, even if promptly and carefully released.

“(The closure is) a good thing,” said Scott Norris, who works in the shop at Straightline Outdoor Sports. “It’s a little later than it was last year and I would anticipate it will be probably until late September.”

Both Spillane and Norris said while the closure isn’t ideal, there are still places to fish throughout the Yampa Valley.

“We’re fortunate here that there’s a lot of options,” Spillane said. “Especially if you get up in elevation a little bit, water temperature dropped considerably.”

Norris said with the Yampa closed in town, a lot of the focus has switched to the Elk River, which flows out of the Zirkel Wilderness in North Routt County. Popular access points are Christina State Wildlife Area along Routt County Road 129 and at spots along Seedhouse Road north of Clark, he said.

While fly fishing is generally thought of as a sport done in moving water, Norris said as these closures become increasingly common later in the summer, anglers should be adding stillwater tactics to their arsenal.

“We always try hard to educate people about the prospects of stillwater fly fishing and it’s always met with somewhat reluctance,” Norris said. “But there are so many stillwater options around here for those that will try it.”

Scott Norris, who works in the shop at Straightline Outdoor Sports, recommends a leech pattern with a chironomid fly tied below it when trying stillwater fly fishing.
Dylan Anderson/Steamboat Pilot & Today

In north Routt County, Norris said Steamboat Lake, Hahns Peak Lake and Pearl Lake are all good options. South of Steamboat, there is Stagecoach Reservoir as well as several lakes and reservoirs in the Flat Tops. The rig in stillwater is generally different than when water is moving, with the mainstay Norris recommends having a leech pattern with a chironomid fly tied about two feet below.

Norris said stillwater generally means less retying of flies and more work finding where the fish are.

Fish can generally be found about two feet off the bottom, which makes fishing from a boat ideal. If anglers don’t have access to a boat, Norris said shore fishing is generally more successful in the evenings when fish move in to shallower water.

“As these summers continue to be like this, stillwater fly fishing almost has to become part of a full-season angler’s repertoire,” Norris said.

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