A Native Odyssey Blog Post 5: Colorado Part 1

Public Land:

Rocky Mountain National Park.

Brett and Jacob look out on Timber Lake. 

Brett and Jacob look out on Timber Lake. 

     Established January 26, 1915, Rocky Mountain National Park was the 10th recognized National Park in the United States. It is the best place in the county for visitors to experience alpine landscapes and tundra. Driving in from Denver (just 2 hours away) allows for visitors to see numerous summits, 78 of which exceed 12,000 ft. elevation. The eastern and western slopes of the Continental Divide cut directly through the park’s 265,461 acres. The northwest region boasts the headwaters of the Colorado River, and this provides anglers the perfect location to pursue Colorado River cutthroat trout. For more information about Rocky Mountain National Park visit https://www.nps.gov/romo/index.htm.

-       Matt Crockett 

Spotting fish in Rocky Mountain National Park. 

Spotting fish in Rocky Mountain National Park. 

Native Trout:

Colorado River Cutthroat Trout.

Jacob releases a gorgeous Colorado River cutthroat. 

Jacob releases a gorgeous Colorado River cutthroat. 

     Colorado River cutthroat trout are one of Colorado’s three native trout species. They are known by the orange or red slash under their chin and their large gradient spots. On the mature fish, bright red flanks are found as well. Colorado River cutthroat trout are a beautiful species that are historically bound by the perimeter of the Escalante River to the west, San Juan to the south, the Continental Divide to the east, and the Green River to the north. Throughout this area, their historical distribution is discontinuous because of warm, large, and sediment rich waters that inhabit the Colorado River basin.

     Populations of Colorado River cutthroat were originally spread out across the Colorado River. An assortment of factors led to the dispersion and lack of connection amongst this species. The issues breaking up Colorado River cutthroat include isolation management, the intrusion of invasive species, and the poor management of land and water. Currently, Colorado River cutthroat trout inhabit small headwater streams and high-elevation lakes.   

     Colorado River cutthroat were believed to have 361 conservation populations that inhabited a total of 2115 miles of stream. As a result of a restoration project gone wrong, Colorado River cutthroat inhabit much more water than studies initially showed. Due to strong similarities in appearance and genetics, Colorado River cutthroat were mistaken for Greenback cutthroat trout. This is good news for the Colorado River cutthroat, but a sad realization for their sister species.

-       Heather Harkavy 

Brett holds his prize from Timber Lake. 

Brett holds his prize from Timber Lake. 

Our Experience

Alpine Angling. 

Proper planning leads to great days chasing fish. 

Proper planning leads to great days chasing fish. 

     For me, the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park serves as a depressing reminder of a place that was once plentiful and true. I can’t help but feel a slight melancholy jab every time I glance upon the headwater meadows of the mighty Colorado River, knowing it will never again complete its journey to the Sea of Cortez. Compounding my melancholy feeling is the fact that whenever I fish in these headwaters I yield nothing but invasive brook trout, as opposed to a once bountiful supply of native Colorado River cutthroat trout.

     When I heard that the “Native Odyssey” trip would be trying to conjure a native cutthroat out of the west side of the park I immediately became apprehensive and wary of new challenges. Although I grew up in Colorado, I never ventured to fish the west side of the park more than I had to, for fear of annoyingly hard to dodge brook trout in once fruitful native trout waters. I knew it would be a challenge finding a Colorado River cutthroat trout haven in this hell of invasive species and mis-managed cutthroat populations. With much work to do in order to find these natives, I immediately gave a call to Rocky Mountain National Park. The park staff pointed me towards a few options, and I ultimately settled on Timber Lake and Timber Creek, which serve as a tributary to the headwaters of the Colorado River.

     Fishing in high mountain lakes is a game of cat and mouse, where the mouse most often eludes the cat. A variety of factors contribute to whether an alpine lake will produce worth-while fishing opportunities. These factors can include ice-off timing, weather, elevation, insect life, and lake depth. Basically, multiple things have to come together perfectly in order to have a good day of high-elevation fishing.

     Luckily for us, everything decided to come together. After our group’s 4.8 mile hike up to an elevation of 11,040 feet, I was a bit depressed to see dirty mounds of snow, swampy shores, and long ice sheets. Usually this signals that the lake is still in thaw mode, and that the fish aren’t as active. For a while this held true as we had only netted a couple of small Colorado River cutthroat, and hadn’t seen any trout cruising the shore in search of a meal. A bit out of sorts, we decided to have lunch, which consisted of turkey wraps and granola bars. Post lunch time took on a Thanksgiving afternoon vibe, as everyone but Andrew and I decided to take a nap on the warm rocks adjacent to the lake.

     As everyone else took a snooze, Andrew and I started working flies along the large ice sheets which still hovered over the lake’s surface. Before I knew it, Andrew had hooked into a decent native, which we netted, photographed, and released. Suddenly, morale shot up, as we had figured out how to conjure these elusive natives out of the depths. With the rest of the group still happily napping, Andrew and I continued to work our small streamers along the thick ice until we had netted and released six gorgeous Colorado River cutthroat. The day had suddenly gone from abysmal to killer. To me, there is absolutely nothing cooler than sight fishing to ruby red native trout, having them chase down your fly, and then watching them swim back to their ancient home. Unfortunately, once everyone else woke up from their siesta, the fishing was not as great and shortly we were prompted off the mountain by an afternoon thunderstorm. The hike back is always a little bit easier when you’ve had the satisfaction of bringing a few native trout to hand.

     What I once viewed as a depressing and melancholy expedition turned out to be an eye opening experience. Having the pleasure of catching, photographing, and releasing Colorado River cutthroat trout in their ancient ancestral home is truly an awesome experience that makes you feel connected to the land. The fact that these fish have an isolated stronghold high up in the mountains gives me solace, as I know the native trout will keep on chugging away at life with little interference... that is, except for the occasional hook I hope to plant in their jaw.

- Jacob Lacy

Another fine Colorado River cutty. 

Another fine Colorado River cutty. 

Valle Vidal: A Native Odyssey Experience

Located in Northern New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the Upper Rio Grande River Basin, Valle Vidal lies within the Carson National Forest. Meandering its way through Valle Vidal, Comanche Creek is one of the last refuges for Rio Grande cutthroat trout in the state of New Mexico. This extensive project addresses the environmental issues that have stemmed from heavy land use activities prior to the USFS acquiring the land from Pennzoil in 1982. Large-scale mining, logging and grazing operations left the watersheds within the Valley Vidal unit in less than ideal condition for native Rio Grande cutthroats.

Currently, Valle Vidal is managed by the USFS for multiple use and sustained yield via the Multiple Use-Sustained Yield Act of 1960. This means the USFS is required to manage this public land for the sustainable production of timber and multiple use of range, water, recreation, and wildlife. A recreational catch and release fishery for Rio Grande cutthroat trout is one of the uses that draws in visitors from across the country.

U.S. Forest Service Fisheries Biologist Michael Gatlin (Left) and Trout Unlimited Staffer Toner Mitchell (Right)

U.S. Forest Service Fisheries Biologist Michael Gatlin (Left) and Trout Unlimited Staffer Toner Mitchell (Right)

U.S. Forest Service Fisheries Biologist Michael Gatlin and Trout Unlimited Staffer Toner Mitchell took the Native Odyssey crew to multiple sites around the project area to see the issues they are facing and the techniques they are using to achieve their restoration goals. We started our tour by looking at the terminal fish barrier that was recently completed. Similar to other fish barriers we have seen during our first three weeks, this large concrete structure prevents the upstream movement of brown, brook and rainbow trout into Rio Grande cutthroat territory.

Rio Costilla Terminal Fish Barrier

Rio Costilla Terminal Fish Barrier

Throughout the day, Michael and Toner informed us on the importance of treating erosional headcuts, increasing baseflow, and restoring degraded wetlands. Never had I considered how essential wetlands are to native trout in the West. Coming from East Tennessee, wetland restoration is not something that usually comes up in conversation when talking about stream restoration for native trout.

The high elevation wet meadows and slope wetlands are essential in maintaining stream base-flow and providing cold water for Rio Grande cutthroat throughout the year. The historical land use created issues with soil erosion, increase in sediment load in the stream, increase in stream water temperature, and overall degradation of riparian and wetland areas. Despite the considerable damage that has occurred in Valle Vidal, current restoration efforts are having a positive impact in the watershed.

Wooden post vanes placed throughout Comanche Creek have been utilized to reduce the effect of stream channelization and allow the banks to stabilize with vegetation. Due to the large herd of elk in the area, as well as the grazing cattle in the summer months, exclusion fences are often used to maintain proper vegetation of streamside areas.

The Native Odyssey crew backpack shocking Rio Grande cutthroat trout in Comanche Creek.

The Native Odyssey crew backpack shocking Rio Grande cutthroat trout in Comanche Creek.

At our last pit stop of the day, Michael broke out the backpack shocker for us to try and sample some Rio Grande Cutthroat trout. Michael explained the importance of backpack electroshocking sampling to keep tabs on the populations of Rio Grande cutthroat in Valle Vidal. He also explained how backpack electroshocking is completely harmless to the trout. This proven technique sends pulses of electricity into the water to temporarily contract the fish's muscles until a crew member can scoop them up with a net. After a short safety briefing, we quickly geared up with our new Simms waders and finally got our boots wet. With Michael manning the backpack shocker, we slowly worked through a nice pool where we had seen cutthroat earlier in the day. It didn’t take long for us to turn up about two dozen beautiful Rio Grande cutthroat. We quickly netted the temporarily stunned trout and placed them in a bucket of cold water for a closer look. After some quick pictures, we safely released the trout we collected and watched them swim strongly back to their pool.

A colored up Rio Grande Cutthroat trout (Photo courtesy of New Mexico Game & Fish)

A colored up Rio Grande Cutthroat trout (Photo courtesy of New Mexico Game & Fish)

The success of this project could not be achieved without great partnerships from the Quivira Coalition, Comanche Creek Working Group, Trout Unlimited, Coca Cola, and the Carson National Forest among others. Valle Vidal is a prime example of the benefits a healthy watershed can provide to all its users and the good things that can come when groups with different backgrounds and similar agendas work together. This project also showcases the importance public lands play in the overall role of protecting sensitive species like the Rio Grande cutthroat trout.

-Brett Winchel

A Native Odyssey Blog Post 4: New Mexico Part 2

Public Land:

Carson National Forest and Rio Grande National Forest.

Driving through Valle Vidal. 

Driving through Valle Vidal. 

     One of five National Forests in New Mexico, the Carson National Forest spans 1.5 million acres. Within the National Forest, there are multiple recreation opportunities that visitors can enjoy, from fishing and hiking in the summer to skiing and snowmobiling in the winter. Located throughout the Carson National Forest, there are 400 miles of mountain streams and numerous lakes with fishing access. The Valle Vidal (valley of life) project is one of the main wetland and stream restoration projects that Trout Unlimited, The USFS, and even large corporations like Coca-Cola have contributed to. Revitalizing this stunning stretch of wetlands will produce some top notch native Rio Grande cutthroat fishing opportunities. Stay tuned for an upcoming blog on Valle Vidal.

-       Austin Burroughs

     The Rio Grande National Forest is located in South-Central Colorado. The Rio Grande River begins its epic journey to the Gulf of Mexico within the western portion of the the forest, where snowmelt helps fuel its initial momentum down from the continental divide. Additionally, there are four wilderness areas which attribute to one-quarter of the forest. Along the headwaters of the South Fork of the Rio Grande River on FS Road 360 are multiple campsites with no shortage of river and meadow views. Beyond abundant fishing opportunities, public land users in this area can enjoy off-roading as well as a variety of hikes. The land itself is abundant with life, as several signs bear, deer, and elk were spotted. Land users enjoying this forest will have no shortage of spectacular mountain views.

-       Jacob Lacy

Campsite view of the sun setting on the South Fork of the Rio Grande. 

Campsite view of the sun setting on the South Fork of the Rio Grande. 

Native Trout:

Rio Grande Cutthroat.

Heather with a nice fish about to be released. 

Heather with a nice fish about to be released. 

     Cutthroat trout are the most diverse species of trout in North America, as they cover more waters in the Western Hemisphere than any other trout species. There are fourteen different subspecies of cutthroat, including the Rio Grande. Rio Grande cutthroat trout are a strand representing the southern end of the cutthroat species. This species is located in mountainous headwaters and small streams. They are pursued in New Mexico and Colorado on the Rio Grande, Pecos, and Canadian Rivers, as well as in the Guadalupe and Davis Mountains of Texas.

     Rio Grande cutthroat trout have a distinguished look and can be identified by an assortment of characteristics. Behind the dorsal fin there is a cluster of irregular shaped dots, and in front of the dorsal fin the dots are much more dispersed. Their coloring is light brown, highlighted with pink gills and fins.

     With habitat and population decline, less than 10 percent of their preexisting habitat is now occupied. Currently, the majority of the Rio Grande cutthroat populations have moved from the large rivers they once occupied, to small, high elevation tributaries. This species is now at higher threat from environmental factors such as wild fires and drought, due to the small sections of streams they inhabit, and the lack of room for escape.

     75 percent of the Rio Grande cutthroat population remains genetically pure. Non-native species, such as Rainbow and Brown trout, pose a cross-breeding threat to the remaining genetically pure cutthroats. In order to prevent a mixed-up gene pool, measures have been taken to guarantee their isolation from this threat. Barriers have been created to secure a stable and exclusive location, but in doing so, these barriers have also prevented Rio Grande cutthroat from following their historical migratory patterns of time spent in large rivers.

     In order to properly separate this assortment of trout species, common practices such as electrically shocking fish and placing them in their rightful locations. Michael, with U.S. Forest Service, explained that this practice is also the best way to take fish samples. This science is beneficial because it is efficient, does not cause harm to the species, and leads to unbiased sampling of all the fish in that area.

If you are interested in learning more about Rio Grande cutthroat trout, you can read more about them by following this link. http://www.tu.org/stateofthetrout

-        Heather Harkavy 

Jacob sends back a nice Rio Grande cutty. 

Jacob sends back a nice Rio Grande cutty. 

Our Experience:

High elevation still water.

Just below our campsite at Rio Del Norte National Monument. 

Just below our campsite at Rio Del Norte National Monument. 

     Arriving at camp after the sun goes down always provides a little extra incentive to wake up early the next morning to check out our new surroundings. Our campsite at Rio Del Norte National Monument was no exception. We crawled out of our tents the first morning and were greeted by a jaw-dropping view of the mighty Rio Grande River flowing through an impressive gorge. After a quick camp breakfast of Clif Bars and coffee, we shot up to the small town of Costilla, New Mexico to meet up with TU Staffer Toner Mitchell and USFS Fisheries Biologist Michael Gatlin for a tour of Valle Vidal. Stay tuned for another blog post highlighting our experience in Valle Vidal.

     Per Toner’s recommendation, we woke up the next morning to go fish Columbine Creek to try and check Rio Grande Cutthroats off our list. We hiked roughly 3 miles up the trail searching for smaller water and some relief from the high flows that were ripping through the lower section of the creek. Unfortunately, we didn’t have much fishable water to work with and the Rio Grande cutties eluded us. With high water surrounding us in New Mexico, the decision was made to shoot up to Southern Colorado in search of Rio Grande cutthroat.

     Following a 3-hour drive, we found ourselves smack dab in the middle of the coolest campsite I have ever experienced in the heart of the Rio Grande National Forest. Nestled at 11,000 feet, our site was in the middle of a large meadow with the headwaters of the South Fork of the Rio Grande meandering behind us. With departure the following afternoon, we had a tight window to cross the Rio Grande cutthroat off our list. Our final morning, we decided to hike up to what we thought was a remote lake high above the valley where we set up camp. Turns out, this “remote lake” is Poage Lake, and is managed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife as a Rio Grande cutthroat trout fishery. Unaware to the fact that a forest access road led directly to the lake, we pushed through some of the toughest terrain I have ever experienced. We followed a creek up the steep mountainside that flowed out of Poage Lake and two hours later, we finally made it. Never have I fly fished still water for trout, so the learning curve was steep.

     Sight casting to cruising cutthroat was the name of the game. However, after some difficulties spotting cruising cutthroat, I decided to hedge my bets on a midge dropper beneath a large hopper pattern. It didn’t take long for my foam hopper to twitch in the calm water, indicating a trout had taken my midge pattern below. Seconds later, my first Rio Grande cutthroat was in the net and the pressure to catch this native species had subsided. By the skin of our teeth, we squeezed by and all caught our Rio Grande cutthroat, the most challenging native trout thus far.

-        Brett Winchel

 

Brett eyes a good one at Poage Lake.

Brett eyes a good one at Poage Lake.

A Native Odyssey Blog Post 3: New Mexico Part 1

Public Land:

Ben Lilly Campground, Gila National Forest

Elk stand out among charred skeletons of Ponderosa Pine. 

Elk stand out among charred skeletons of Ponderosa Pine. 

     Gila National Forest lies in the heart of Southwest New Mexico. This wilderness is home base for one if it’s native inhabitants, Gila trout. The terrain approaching Ben Lilly Campground is rough, but the views are breathtaking. The forest is filled with an assortment of wildlife such as huge herds of Elk and Deer. Ben Lilly Campground is a quaint and ideal spot, located directly on Willow Creek. Fishing aside, Gila National Forest has an assortment of other activities including hikes through the wilderness grounds, Cliff Dwellings National Monument, and accessible trails at the Catwalk. Forest fires create a massive threat to the environment in this area, and the majority of the fishing grounds are encompassed in burnt, fallen, and dead trees from previous fires.

         - Heather Harkavy

Native Trout:

Gila Trout

Brett and Jacob doubled up in a section of Willow Creek. 

Brett and Jacob doubled up in a section of Willow Creek. 

     Native only to the Gila River Basin in western New Mexico and a single drainage in Central Arizona (Verde River), the Gila trout is one of the three native trout species that call the Southwest home. Reports of Gila trout have been recorded as early as the 1800s, but were not described as a unique species until 1950. They can be identified by their golden tones on their sides, darker copper colors on their gill plate, small spots throughout the upper half of their body and a yellow cutthroat slash mark on their lower jaw.

     Gila trout have specifically adapted to survive in the extreme climate of the Southwest, where floods, droughts and wildfires are commonplace. However, recent environmental disturbances have turned up the heat on Gila Trout. In 2012, the Whitewater Baldy fire tore through the heart of the remaining Gila trout range burning over 300,000 acres of the Gila Wilderness area along the way. High intensity fire paired with significant flooding events nearly decimated the remaining Gila trout populations in the Gila Wilderness Area. Toxic ash flows are a serious threat after high-intensity wildfires that often result in fish kills. Evacuation of Gila trout from streams threatened by wildfires is a common practice. Gila trout were evacuated from three streams following the devastating Whitewater Baldy wildfire.

     Of the three native trout species to the Southwest, the Gila trout is the most imperiled. Currently, they occupy only five percent of their historical range. Low population numbers warranted a classification to the Endangered Species List in 1966. After four decades listed as “Endangered,” the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reclassified Gila Trout as “Threatened,” despite their current population numbers. This reclassification was brought on by intense stream restoration efforts. Fish barriers have been utilized in many streams to prevent nonnative rainbow and brown trout from invading the same streams as native Gila trout. With support from the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Western Native Trout Initiative, and New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, a large fish barrier on Willow Creek was completed in 2016 to provide refuge for Gila Trout above the barrier. Stocked rainbow trout threaten the genetic integrity of Gila trout, due to the risk of hybridization with pure strains of Gila trout. Removal of introduced brown trout is another key to the recovery of Gila trout, as they often outcompete Gila trout in these small mountain streams. Hatchery supported stocking efforts have made a huge impact in helping restore Gila trout to some of the streams they were historically found. The large wildfires do provide some benefit in restoration efforts by clearing out non-native trout from streams and allowing crews to reestablish populations of Gila trout via stocking efforts. For more information on Gila trout, follow this link. http://www.tu.org/stateofthetrout

-       Brett Winchel 

Our Experience:

The Fishing was on fire.

Fires raged as we made our way to the campground. 

Fires raged as we made our way to the campground. 

     We arrived at our camp long after dark, following a gorgeous drive ascending a few thousand feet in elevation on a forest “road.” During our drive we had come across numerous herds of Elk, one of which decided to run along with the trucks through a meadow before cutting us off and sprinting across the dirt road. This experience was nothing short of breathtaking. Afterwards, it was quickly apparent that we were headed towards a forest fire, the orange glow and billowing smoke both visible from a few miles away. Darkness was falling as we came to what we later learned was the first of two forest fires being controlled by the U.S. Forest Service. From a safe distance we were able to snap some photos and record video footage. This was the closest any of us had come to elk, much less a forest fire. To see both in one day at such short distances was both awe-inspiring and humbling.

     The next morning was our first day fishing for Gila trout. In a matter of minutes all of us had successfully put one to hand. The fishing was excellent, as our team leap-frogged up Willow Creek. The trout that inhabited the stream were eager to come up to large hopper patterns, as well as take nymphs. We discovered ample amounts of food available, finding hundreds of caddis, mayfly, and stonefly nymphs. Willow creek was heavily covered with Stinging Nettle and other dense underbrush along its banks. Fires had already come through the area, and charred tree trunks surrounded us as we continued up the valley.

     The fires continued to burn during our entire three night stay in the Gila National Forest. Our campsite was nestled in a valley between the flames, an oasis from the smoke and heat. While we played Whiffle ball and ate tacos around the fire, forest workers labored to keep the fires from spreading. We met with a trout unlimited volunteer named Jeff Arterburn, who was very knowledgeable about some of the conservation efforts focused towards the Gila trout that occupied the area. We fished with Jeff and learned a lot from him. He also turned us on to a local lake that supposedly had a large population of Common carp. This instantly intrigued Brett and I, as we love to chase carp with fly rods.

     We arrived at Snow Lake with smoke drifting across it. The crew strung up the 7 wts. and we were off, planning to catch them on large buggy nymphs, like we do back in East Tennessee. I fished for about half an hour, but poor water clarity and rising fish convinced me to switch to a hopper pattern. I found a pod of feeding fish, and with the crew watching me I hooked up on a nice common that sipped my hopper. This quickly changed everyone’s tactics. Heather was comfortable with this style of fishing, making long casts with heavier tackle. She was able to get two to the net, and Brett got himself one as well. All the carp were caught on hoppers, something I have fantasized about for some time now. We never expected that New Mexico would be filled with such unique experiences.

-       Matt Crockett 

Carp eating on top at Snow Lake. 

Carp eating on top at Snow Lake. 

A Native Odyssey Blog Post 2: Arizona

Public Land:

Mt. Baldy Wilderness Area, Apache National Forest. 

Entering the Mt. Baldy Wilderness Area.

Entering the Mt. Baldy Wilderness Area.

            The Mt. Baldy Wilderness, in the Apache National Forest, is easily accessed at the Sheep’s Xing parking lot. From there, hikers, campers, and fishermen alike can follow the Little Colorado River that parallels the main trail. As one gradually climbs higher in elevation, beautiful meadows break up the mountainous terrain. Paper Birch trees stick out like sore thumbs against the dense Ponderosa Pine forest. There are many backcountry campsites just off of the trail, and it is not hard to find a spot protected by tree cover right beside the stream. This wilderness area is teeming with wildlife, and elk can be seen in large numbers throughout the forest. Native to Arizona, Apache trout thrive in the high elevation water that the Little Colorado River provides.

-       Matt Crockett