January 31, 2023

This story first appeared in The outsiderJason Blevins’ premium outdoor newsletter.

In it, he covers the industry inside out, plus the fun side of being out in our beautiful state.

As Dave Haeusler and nearly 25 other volunteers ran a 40-mile stretch of the Poudre River and dumped buckets of baby trout in the water, he couldn’t help but think about the future.

After all, these buckets were the future of the river. The tiny fish were no bigger than guppies you would see in a living room aquarium, but with a bit of luck they could grow into a beautiful rainbow trout, a fish as fun to catch as it is to admire.

Of course, not all of the 115,000 juveniles would survive, but enough of them could return the Poudre to its status as one of northern Colorado’s top rivers in five to seven years. For Haeusler and his fellow Rocky Mountain Flycasters, a Trout Unlimited group serving Weld and Larimer counties, those buckets were filled with squirming optimism.

“We had a lot of fun,” said Haeusler, the chapter’s vice president.

A fish and a prayer

But there are also many wishes, even some open prayers, among the volunteers and the Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologists. Mother nature wasn’t too kind to the poudre. Two of the state’s largest wildfires have scorched Poudre Canyon in the past 10 years, including Cameron Peak in 2020, the only fire in Colorado’s recorded history to burn more than 200,000 acres.

The bad thing about wildfires isn’t just their flames and smoke. It’s what they leave behind. Cameron left behind what are known as burn scars, barren stretches of land that meander down into the Poudre. When it rains, the water tumbles down these blackened chutes, devoid of any vegetation, to scatter the debris it collects on its way down the foothills.

Indeed, a year after the fire, a torrential rainstorm created a wall of water in the Black Hollow Creek outflow that swept a cargo of ash, debris, mud and rocks into the Poudre, killing five people.

The impact on the river was about as devastating as one would expect: From the mouth of Black Hollow Creek to 16 miles downstream, biologists found only a lone brown trout. There were trout 20 miles downriver at Stove Prairie, but numbers this year were 80% lower than previous estimates.

The July 21, 2021 storm was certainly unusual, so much so that Kyle Battige, an aquatic biologist for CPW who leads Poudre’s recovery project, called it a “perfect combination.”

The rain was heavy even for the foothills, falling more than an inch in half an hour, and falling directly on Black Hollow, one of the more heavily burned areas and one of the very few moderately sloping drains leading directly to the Poudre , without even a beaver dam or a small valley to slow the water and contain some of the debris.

“The crosshairs hit just perfectly on one of the hardest-hit drainages of this watershed,” Battige said.

But he and others concede that a ferocious storm, especially during the summer monsoon, is not uncommon, and Black Hollow isn’t the only damaged drainage that would cause problems if a storm were to hit it. And in our changing climate of long, hot summers and drought, there’s always a chance of more fires. The monsoons don’t always help either, as they bring lightning with moisture, and lightning causes wildfires.

This year has been a decent season, with storms at times turning the poudre into a milder and more fish-friendly milk chocolate rather than the widespread damage caused by the Black Hollow incident, Battige said. He believes it will take three to five years of similar weather before restocking kicks in and nature replaces enough vegetation to stem the heaviest runoff. Five years, he said, and they’re basically clear.

Meanwhile, Rick Kahn, a member of the Flycasters who volunteered, expects some setbacks. That’s how these projects work, he said, and he knows it, having worked as a conservationist for CPW for three decades. Nature is fickle, even cruel, and humans really never control it. Still, they’ve had a good 2022, and every year they have a decent season, it’s another year that adds to their everlasting optimism.

“To be honest with all the monsoons this summer, we dodged a bullet,” Kahn said. “But conservation itself has to be inherently optimistic or you’d be jumping off a cliff.”

A calculated but risky increase

State biologists with the CPW debated the fact that padding the poudre was a gamble, but after the discussion, it didn’t seem as silly as, say, betting the Broncos would score more than one touchdown in a game.

“There’s certainly some risk,” said Battige, “but it was a risk we were willing to take. It’s a risk, but a calculated one.”

Aquatic biologist Kyle Battige of Colorado Parks and Wildlife explains the plan to restock rainbow trout in the Poudre River. (Provided by Colorado Parks and Wildlife)

Aside from the fact that another event like Black Hollow is unlikely, the state considered two other factors.

The first factor is also the most obvious: it takes time to build a good fish population. High school freshmen will graduate before the fish are ready to spawn, and it takes them even longer to reach a catchable size. These juveniles are the future, not the present, although CPW stocked a few bigger fish to give a thrill or two to campers who dot the river in the summer.

The Poudre was never a gold medal fishery, not like the Arkansas rivers or the Frying Pan or the Roaring Fork, but it was a good local spot that took the pressure off of nearby famous areas like the Big Thompson.

Waiting three years, enough time to give the slopes time to grow some vegetation, would be safer, Battige said, but it would also result in many wasted summers.

“The alternative is we wait three years and nothing happens and then we kick ourselves in the ass,” he said. “Three years is a long time”

It’s at least in human years. Nature doesn’t really work on our timeline: scientists believe the first dinosaurs evolved more than 250 million years ago. It may take a few years for the area to truly recover from the Cameron Peak fire, but it’s actually taking much longer. The area of ​​Larimer County that was burned by the 2012 High Park fire, then the third-most destructive with more than 85,000 acres charred, is really coming back right now, Kahn said.

“These things don’t recover quickly,” Kahn said.

Until then, areas like Big Thompson are at serious risk of overfishing, Flycasters anglers said.

“Mulching is expensive at $3,000 an acre, and that’s not really the overall answer,” Haeusler said. “We have to let nature take its course, but we tend to be impatient.”

The other factor has to do with the species of trout that the state wants to spawn. Brown trout have dominated the Poudre in recent years because vortex disease almost wiped out the rainbow population in the 1990s. There’s nothing wrong with brown trout, but rainbows are more fun to catch because they bite more, and they’re beautiful, Battige said. Brown trout are finicky fish that present a difficult challenge.

“Rainbows get caught a lot more often,” Battige said.

When CPW attempted to replenish rainbows, the browns would either eat them or compete with them, or both, and their size advantage was difficult to overcome. Black Hollow’s mud has smothered both species of trout, so CPW is essentially starting from scratch. This gives the state an opportunity to reestablish a dominant rainbow population as it was before vortex disease, with up to 70% rainbows and 30% browns. CPW does not fill in brown and lets nature take its course.

“That was another important reason to push the limits,” said Battige. “The longer we wait, the more time the brown trout have to take over again. There will still be sections (of the Poudre) that are 90% brown if you are looking for that challenge.”

Hard work hauling buckets of hope

The tiny trout are no bigger than a pinky — some even refer to fish this size as “fingerlings” — but they can be heavy when there’s a bucket of 500 of them. Otterbox and The Nature Conservancy volunteers and more than 20 Flycasters from across northern Colorado towed these buckets on a hot morning and rainy afternoon.

All of this, of course, was the endgame of her rearing at the state hatchery in Glenwood Springs from eggs and semen collected from wild stock resistant to vertebral disease. And they still have a few years to go before they become catchable fish and of course those who make other fish themselves.

“That’s assuming we don’t have another Black Hollow event that resets everything,” Battige said.

Or another fire?

“Yes,” Battige said. “Or another fire.”

Cache la Poudre River near Poudre Canyon Chapel. (Provided by Colorado Parks and Wildlife)

Sisyphus also probably thought it was a lot of work to push the boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down, and Battige admits that another event that would have undone all their hard work would be “devastating”.

“That would bring us back to square one,” he said. “But it would be more heartbreaking than a backbreaker. We could continue this work and continue the progress.”

CPW plans to prioritize the Poudre for a few years, Battige said, meaning they’d likely just try again next year if another severe storm dashed their efforts, though he warns there are limits to what To equip poudre with resistant rainbows for vertebral disease.

“It’s a unique operation to get them and make them,” Battige said. “But we will continue to evaluate that need across the state. It is a priority and will continue to be a priority.”

The Flycasters who worked on the project can’t help but be optimistic, and so is Battige. But they don’t expect things to go perfectly either. Nature doesn’t work that way.

“Further fires will have an impact,” said Kahn. “As users of nature, we simply have to accept that. These fires are becoming more common and we need to adapt. When they occur, do what you have to do. You have to convert and fill up.”

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