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Drought Prompts Study of Gold Medal Fishery near Basalt

This Fall, a local river conservation group is keeping a close eye on the Fryingpan River. This follows last year's drought that brought the levels on the river down. The low flows affected fish, aquatic insects and possibly the local economy. The Fryingpan is considered Gold Medal fishing waters. It draws people from around the world to fly fish there. Aspen Public Radio's Marci Krivonen reports.

This summer Rick Lofaro of the Roaring Fork Conservancy was hearing rumblings in Basalt about poor fishing conditions on the nearby Fryingpan River.

"We just started hearing a lot about it from local fishing guides that they just weren’t seeing the hatches on the river, from local anglers, and even from residents on the Fryingpan," he says.

The problem was the bugs weren’t hatching. The hatches are key to good fishing because the bugs are dinner for trout.

A winter-time phenomenon called anchor ice could be to blame. It’s ice that builds up on the riverbed instead of on the river’s surface and it happens in cold temperatures and shallow waters.

"The river ran at 39 cubic feet per second for almost four months last winter and you probably remember we had a pretty cold winter as well, so there was a lot of concern," Lofaro says.

The Roaring Fork Conservancy is so concerned it decided to replicate a study done following the 2002 drought. This multi-year analysis will examine bugs in the river, take water temperatures throughout the winter and look at the economic impact of a slower fishing season.

Today a team is collecting bug samples from the Fryingpan River as part of the study. Bill Miller is a biologist from Fort Collins. He is carefully moving bugs and mud into a small container. The contents will be taken to a lab and examined under a microscope.

"In a sample like this, there’ll be hundreds of bugs, so we can’t really tell what the diversity is until we get it into the lab and then go through and sort the sample, and get all the identifications and put them in their classifications," he says.

The more diversity and the higher amount of bugs mean the stream is healthy. The team is taking samples from three sites along the river and will compare the findings to previous years.

A few miles downriver, a separate team is decked in waders and spread across the width of the river. They’re slowly trudging upstream and catching fish in nets. 

This is called “fish shocking” but the team isn’t really shocking the fish. They’re dipping long, metal poles into the river that send out an electrical current. The current attracts fish. For the team of ten, it’s hard work.

Fryingpan River Fish Study from Aspen Public Radio on Vimeo.

"It’s a little bit of a challenge sometimes. This is an easier stretch of the stream, walking-wise, anyway. This is kind of a tough, slippery river," says Kendall Bakich.

She's an Aquatic Biologist with the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife. She’s in charge of the effort, which is sort of a fish census of the river.

"We’ll collect species information, identify them, we’ll collect length and weight information and from the length information, we can identify age classes of fish, and from weight, we can look at what their body mass is in relation to their length to determine how healthy they are."

The Division does this every other year in order to maintain a healthy population for the scores of anglers who fish here.

The information this team collects is combined with the bug counting data. But, the results the study yields will only go so far because releases from a dam farther up stream determine the strength of river flows. In a dry year, water-rights holders down-river often request their share. Combined that with a drought and it can spell trouble in the winter. Again, Rick Lofaro of the Roaring Fork Conservancy.

"We’re exploring some short-term solutions in working with existing contract holders who have water, that we might be able to creatively call for a winter release for piscatoral, or the benefit of fish, and the health of the river."

Lofaro says such a call on the river likely wouldn’t be utilized unless there was a long projection of low flows in the winter. This coming winter wouldn’t fit the bill. The Bureau of Reclamation projects flows will be a healthy 90 cubic feet per second this year because of late fall moisture.

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