Conducting a Successful Women’s Seminar

Join TU volunteer Lindsay Agness on Tuesday, Oct. 8 at 8:00 p.m. Eastern time to learn how easy it is to conduct a successful Women’s Two-Day Seminar. Lindsay started her first TU Women’s Seminar in 2006 on the Salmon River in upstate New York. Since 2006, she has hosted 11 fly fishing seminars and educated over 187 women in fly fishing and TU’s coldwater conservation mission. In 2013, the program was expanded to additional locations in New York and now includes the Tug Hill-Black River, Lake Champlain & Iroquois chapters. Lindsay will show us how to run this program for $50 per student and explain the process of training the trainer so your chapter can expand its women’s outreach efforts. To register for this important training, e-mail or call TU’s Volunteer Operations Coordinator, Rob Keith at 703-284-9425.

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Weminuche Wilderness: hidden lakes, adventure and teamwork

A typical brookie from the lower of two hidden gem lakes. . .

by Kevin Terry

Colorado is blessed by an abundance of public land and spectacular mountain landscapes. This is the reason many of us live here to begin with. A significant part of this public playground is preserved by designation as wilderness.

In southern Colorado, the Weminuche Wilderness is the state’s largest at 487,912 acres. First designated in 1975, the Weminuche lies in the San Juan Mountains and houses the headwaters of several of the West’s most notable rivers, including the Rio Grande, and the San Juan. The Continental Divide splits the Weminuche, separating these rivers and creating the boundary that separated the Rio Grande Cutthroat from the Colorado River Cutthroat in evolutionary time.

I have had the privilege to explore this area on both sides for almost a decade. The diversity of fishing opportunities is incredible, and there is always a new adventure awaiting. A few years ago, I was playing around with my mapping software, planning a three-day backpack trip for my wife and me. I decided to go for a loop hike in the headwaters of the South Fork of the Rio Grande with lakeside camping both nights. The first lake was just as expected, right off the trail and packed with Brookies. The second night was more of an adventure, as the two lakes we were going to camp at were, as it turned out, off the trail a little bit. My wife would probably tell it a little different, but after convincing her to have faith in my homemade map and trusty GPS, we stumbled upon two remarkable lakes that were truly “hidden” gems. I mean, this is the kind of place that is truly wild, right?

Well, it turns out that the answer is yes and no in this case. While the lakes are in a spot that must have held natural water based on the topography, both lakes also have dams that enhanced the storage capacity substantially in each—and also created two tremendous fishing lakes. There wasn’t any signage or any other indicator of who had done this work and when. This is, after all, Wilderness, right?  Yes, a quick check of the map showed that indeed, we were within the boundaries. Well, it remained a mystery, at least for a couple of years.

Maintenance required: Logjam on spillway of one of the lakes

Fast forward to the summer of 2013. I have just started my new job with Trout Unlimited as the Rio Grande Basin project manager, and I am trying to make new contacts in the area the best way I know how, on a boat on the Rio Grande. I’ve met a new fishing buddy, and as fate would have it, he begins to tell me about a problem his friend has way up in the Weminuche Wilderness with two lakes that his family first built in 1926. He goes on to say that the lakes were rehabbed sometime in the 1940s, but that there are now some problems with the dams according to the State Engineers Office.

 

I quickly connect the dots and, to his surprise, name these mystery lakes right off. Well, it turns out that the lakes are now part of a partnership called the Conservation Pool Program with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. The program works by keeping some lakes full for the purpose of fishing, while the farmers’ water rights from them are transferred to another reservoir and delivered to their farms. This program is particularly good for this situation, as the remote location and restrictions of the Wilderness designation would make water delivery and ditch maintenance very challenging. This is a win-all agreement that has a benefit to every stakeholder, including the USFS, CPW, the farmers, and the general public. However, the water right holders have the sole responsibility to maintain the dams to state standards.

So how do they maintain this infrastructure in the middle of the wilderness? That’s a good question, and one that started me on my first project with Trout Unlimited. After all, I knew that these lakes were valuable fisheries available to the public and that these folks needed help from someone to maintain them.

TU volunteer Doug Manley braves the cold water to float a log that had been on the face of the dam.

The first step was to meet with the farmers and look through the state engineer’s latest inspection reports. The partners included Rick Davie of the Davie Ranch, David Colville of the Corset Ranch and Harold Peck of HSP farms. These gentlemen and their families own the water rights and have been ranching and farming the Rio Grande for generations. They are very busy, hard-working people and they were all relieved to have TU step up and offer a hand.  We took a collective look at the reports and listed the major actions required to bring the dams into compliance and maintain the current full storage level. The primary duty was to remove decades of waterlogged trees that have fallen into the lakes and drifted onto the surface of the dams and in the spillways. This area has been hit hard by beetle kill in the last 10 years—over 100 logs needed to be removed in the lower lake alone. Another requirement was to inspect the outlet pipes visually, and to service the outlet wheel works that open and close the pipes in case the lakes need to be drained for an emergency.

The draft horses in action, with a small dog supervising for safety control.

We determined that we would do our best with horses and hands and give it a shot. I was tasked with getting something together for the pipe inspection and bringing some good old TU volunteers. The farmers were responsible for the horses and to bring some of that ingenuity that allowed their forefathers to persevere in the first place. As we were restricted by Wilderness rules, banning mechanized equipment, this would be a significant task.  Over the next couple of weeks we talked occasionally and finally decided on a date for the trip.

For the inspection, we rented a high tech video camera attached to an apparatus much like a sewer snake, which allowed us to record our inspection of the pipe works. We used an inverter to allow the use of DC power from a battery and we had solar chargers in place to keep the power flowing. For the logs, the farmers brought in a team of draft horses that were gargantuan by my standards of very limited experience with horses, as well as a few come-a-long hand winches and plenty of muscled ranch hands to crank them. We threw in an inflatable boat to help with the logs by floating some of them up lake to drag onto shore by hand or to tie in with other log debris to maintain and create fish habitat. After a couple of long hard days, we had done our best to comply with the required actions, and the work accomplished was astonishing. Everyone truly came together to get the job done and preserve something special.

Dinner for the crew: This haul of brookies took the TU guys about 30 minutes–yes, we sometimes keep them.

After the work was done, TU’s crew went to work fishing for dinner. This was a simple task in the upper lake, which is teeming with 8-12 inch brook trout. A reward for almost every cast. The lower lake is another story, as densities are lower and the average size greater. A bonus in the lower lake is the presence of big Rio Grande Cutthroat. We caught one at 19 inches that avoided a picture, and we saw another well over 20 inches lurking around in the shallows. Next time we’ll get them!

I repeatedly failed to mention the names of these lakes throughout this blog. The clues are in place and finding them will not be a challenge, if you are so inclined. It is an unforgettable adventure that I highly recommend to anyone who likes remote fishing lakes and peace and quiet. Hopefully the work we have done will preserve this opportunity well into the future.  It’s a feel-good situation to have been a part of this project, and I am proud to be part of a group like Trout Unlimited that enables projects like this and encourages partnerships that protect fisheries. A huge thank you goes out to the five TU volunteers who hiked 14 miles and worked their butts off for this effort: Matt Pelletier, Doug Manley, Eric Peterson, Matt Peterson, and Andrew Terry. They are the essence of TU and our cause.

Team TU volunteers (from left): Matt Pelletier, Matt Peterson, Kevin Terry, Eric Peterson, Andrew Terry, and Doug Manley. Many thanks, gents!

Kevin Terry is TU’s Rio Grande River Basin project manager. 

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Online training, “Resilience and Resistance to Climate Change in Your Streams.”

Please join us tonight, Tuesday September 10th at 8:00 pm Eastern time for the online training, “Resilience and Resistance to Climate Change in Your Streams.” Amy Haak, TU’s Resource Information Director will discuss the effects of climate change, specifically on the cold water resources that we work to protect. Please contact Rob Keith [rkeith@tu.org] for more information or to register.

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Adopt-A-Trout: Wyoming schoolkids take walk on the wild side

The entire Baggs, Wyoming, school population on Muddy Creek field trip.

By Nick Walrath

On a recent morning, a long line of bright yellow Carbon County school buses—filled with the entire school population of Baggs, Wyoming—left the pavement to travel over 20 miles down dusty BLM roads to meet TU staff and other resource management folks on the banks of an inauspicious little creek in south-central Wyoming.

It was part of an effort to get Baggs kids out of their classrooms and into the field to learn more about the amazing world of rivers and wildlife.

Muddy Creek may not look like much, but it hosts four very special native fish species, one of which is the Colorado River cutthroat trout.  The Wyoming Game and Fish Department is interested in using TU’s Adopt a Trout program (AAT) to learn more about cutthroat movement patterns in the Muddy Creek system in order to improve their habitat conditions.

TU has been organizing successful AAT programs throughout Wyoming for over five years. These programs take real wildlife management information needs identified by WGFD and turn them into hands-on learning opportunities for school-aged children in which local schools “adopt” the fish and learn about the fishery.

“The Adopt-A-Trout program is a great way to show kids what’s in their own back yards,” said Anna Senecal, fisheries biologist with the WGFD. “It also gives us an opportunity to engage them in applied science and show them how data can be used in ‘real-world’ settings.”

How did we end up here? This spring I asked Dawn Arnell, assistant natural resource coordinator with the Little Snake River Conservation District, if there was a teacher in Baggs who might be interested in participating in an AAT program at Muddy Creek. I assumed there would be one, maybe two, teachers with 20 or 30 kids.

I completely underestimated the enthusiasm of the Baggs school and Dawn.

Within a week or two, Dawn had arranged for a meeting with teachers from the high school, middle school and grade school at the Baggs School. Every teacher insisted that no grade be left out.

Even with the great success of the AAT program in other areas of Wyoming, we have never worked with an entire school, so I was a little hesitant. However, after seeing the passion and willingness of the teachers, I agreed.

Over the summer, other partners in the program were engaged, including WGFD’s Anna Senecal, TU’s Wyoming Coordinator Scott Christy, and BLM fisheries biologist Brad Tribby. This Muddy Creek program with the Little Snake school was unusual since every kid in the entire school was coming on this field trip—that’s right, all 150 kids, from 1st through 12th grades.

And it wasn’t just the kids. All the teachers, teacher helpers, the principal, bus drivers and most of the busses also attended. To make things even more difficult, the project area is about as off the beaten path as you can get. The field day location where the study is to take place is almost a two-hour bus ride on dirt and gravel roads from Baggs.

“Most schools would have stopped it right there,” said Scott Christy. “Fortunately, the school in Baggs simply isn’t most other schools, and they were dedicated to making it happen.”

Here’s how AAT works: First, the fish are tagged with radio telemetry tags and tracked by project partners throughout the school year. We plan on tagging 20 Colorado River Cutthroat trout in the upper Muddy Creek drainage. We hope these tagged fish will give us an idea of what we can do to help them out.

Throughout the course of the school year, the AAT is woven into the school’s curriculum by having classrooms participate in relocating the fish and analyzing the data. Resource management professionals prepare classroom visits that discuss a variety of topics including stream ecology, biology, wildlife management and career opportunities.

The Baggs AAT program is unique in that it includes all of the school-aged children in the community of Baggs, as opposed to one grade level. Each AAT program is kicked off with an initial field visit where the kids get to see the creek, view tagging demonstrations and more.

TU's Nick Walrath, far right, shows a group of kids how to operate the telemetry equipment he uses to track the fish in Muddy Creek.

The kids spent the day rotating through different learning stations. “The kids learned about aquatic insects, aquatic invasive species, native fish of Muddy Creek, got to see a demonstration of a fish getting a tag surgically implanted, and learned how the tracking equipment works,” said Dawn Arnell.

This will be our most challenging AAT program to date. However, with challenges come great rewards. This was evident by the beaming smiles on the faces of kids, teachers, and partners at the end of the first day.

“This effort has been and will continue to be a lot of work,” said Christy, “but if it keeps our youth interested in special places like Muddy Creek, it is worth it all and more.”

Nick Walrath is TU’s Green River Project Manager. 

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Utah Single-Fly winner: the Green River

OK, time to choose–which fly?

By Randy Scholfield

It’s a trout angler’s dream challenge: One fly. One legendary river. One full day of fishing.

Trout Unlimited held its fifth annual Utah Single Fly tournament Aug. 26-27, with nine four-man teams (and 18 volunteer guides) testing their fishing skills while benefiting river conservation on the fabled Green River below Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Utah-Wyoming border.

The basic rules are simple: Each angler gets to choose one fly for the day. You lose it—you’re done.  Each team is scored on how many trout they catch and release, with additional points for two measured fish and bonus points for big trout over 20 inches.

There are high-stakes fishing tournaments that take themselves seriously—the Utah One Fly isn’t one of them.

“This is about camaraderie, good fishing and good times,” said Dave Kumlien, director of TU’s Aquatic Invasive Species Program and organizer of the event. “And it’s about supporting conservation work in Utah that ensures healthy fisheries.”

That’s not to say there wasn’t some friendly competitive spirit in evidence at the reception dinner at Red Canyon Lodge in Dutch John the evening before. As you’d expect, there was a lot of strategizing and talk about the pros and cons of particular flies.

Some of the participants had already spent a day or two on the water, seeing what was working. In one conversation, someone allowed that they’d been having good luck with a Hippie Stomper.

“I gotta get one,” the person next to him said.

“Sorry, there’s none left at the fly shop,” the first said, bursting into maniacal laughter.

Many competitors didn’t choose their fly until the very last minute. The choices were all over the map, from nymphs to dries to terrestrials.

Big, healthy Green River brown

I wasn’t there to compete, so when an unexpected opening came up on the State Street Irregulars team, I felt lucky to be sent into the game.

So, which fly? I actually had bought a Hippie Stomper earlier—but ended up going with a parachute black cricket, which had been having some steady success on the river. Besides, it’s easy to see, and casting one of these all day, I wanted something visible for my aging optics.

We launched the next morning at the 8:30 time slot with our guide Dave White, an old hand on the river.

The “one fly” rule changes things, in an interesting way. You don’t have to worry about fly selection—you’re locked in, for better or worse. I worked the banks carefully, a bit tight with my casting, afraid of snagging up 100 yards from the boat ramp and winning the Biggest Loser Award (earliest lost fly). I also tied my knot more carefully than usual, testing it more than once to ensure it was solid. A lot was riding on it.

At one point, my fly snagged on a rock by the bank while we drifting through a fast run. I couldn’t flip it loose and thought it was all over as I played out line. But Dave oared the dory toward the bank downstream and the fly popped loose as we entered slower water.

Whew. Close one.

As anyone knows who has fished this river, it’s an amazing place, with a pristine water clarity that’s a sight to behold.  In many stretches, trout can be holding almost anywhere in the river. You know that because you can see them, clear down to the river bottom.

My black cricket was not exactly on fire that day, but teammate Chad Chorney of the Idaho Water Project and I managed to bring several healthy browns and rainbows to the boat. Every now and then, amid the frenzy of casting to the next great spot, we simply had to stop ourselves, sit back and look around at the soaring spires of red rock canyon and neon green water and marvel at this magical place.

This is worth saving . . .

Protecting these special places is what the Utah Single Fly is all about. The event benefits TU programs in Utah, including TU’s Utah Water Project, which has several field staff working in the Green basin on everything from habitat improvement projects on key tributaries of the Green to campaigns to stop the Million pipeline. The latter would suck water from the Flaming Gorge region and send it 500 miles to Colorado’s Front Range. The Million boondoggle is a nonstarter among anglers and anyone who cares about preserving this amazing fishery. The event also benefits TU’s Aquatic Invasive Species program, which works to stop the spread of aquatic invasive species, from didymo to whirling disease.

At the end of the day, everyone had a great time, judging by the laughter and stories at that evening’s awards banquet. Dave Kumlien gave a special shout-out to the Green River Outfitters and Guides Association and the 18 guides who volunteered their time to make the event happen. “We couldn’t do it without them,” he noted.

Want to have a float trip of a lifetime and benefit trout conservation at the same time? Mark your calendar for the 2014 Utah Single Fly, scheduled for Sept. 18 and 19. For more information, check out event details on TU’s website or contact Dave Kumlien at dkumlien@tu.org.

And the winners are. . .

First Place Team winners: Cache Anglers

Among the award highlights: The First Place Team was Cache Anglers (Paul Holden, Gary Hillyard, Guy Jardine and Bryan Smith) with 176 combined points. They were guided by David Peters and David Schneider.

John Willis of Team TU received the award for Largest Trout, a big 21’’ brown.  Paul Holden of Cache Anglers received the Most Trout award, bringing 17 trout to the net.

The Most Unique Outfit was a shoo-in with the Wee Lads team and their Scottish kilts.

Matt Hyde nabbed the Bird Dog award (best fly save) for diving in to retrieve his fly, which was wrapped around a cable across the river near the put-in point.

The Wee Lads: Kilt Required

Calvin Hazlewood of WY TU Bucking Fish team secured the honor of Biggest Loser by losing his fly earlier than anyone, at 12:01 p.m.

The Bomar Tipton Award (for the guide with the most points for his boat) went to Darin Bowcutt of Team TU, who guided Steve Trafton and John Willis to a top score of 99 points on Section B.

Randy Scholfield is director of communications for TU’s Western Water Project.

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Congressional Leadership Brings New Hope for the Klamath

In 2002, tens of thousands of salmon died in the Klamath River when drought and upstream water demands caused lethal water temperatures and disease in the lower river. Last week's court decision approving supplemental flows from the Trinity River for the Klamath should help prevent a repeat of the 2002 fish kill. Photo courtesy Yurok Tribe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Brian Johnson

In the Klamath Basin, it’s one darned thing after another. Late last week, in a move cheered by TU and our Klamath partners, a federal judge allowed the United States to release extra water down the Trinity River into the Klamath River.  We’re not out of the woods yet, but hopefully this will prevent a massive salmon kill and calamity for the commercial salmon fishing industry.

Two hundred miles up-river, ranching families are experiencing their own drought-driven crisis. In June, the Oregon Watermaster had to turn off water to 96,000 acres of range and farmland in order to protect senior water right holders downstream under the newly final water rights adjudication. Everyone with water rights dated 1864 or after – almost all agriculture above Upper Klamath Lake – was shut off.

The next crisis may be at the basin’s famous wildlife refuges, which have been without water because of the dry summer and because the refuges have relatively junior water rights. Unfortunately, the basin has a long history with water-related catastrophes.

In 2001, water to the federal Klamath Reclamation Project was abruptly cut off for farmers on 170,000 acres of land, triggering widespread economic distress; smaller water cutoffs occurred in at least six other years. In 2002, the government responded to another dry year by delivering water for irrigation but cutting flows to the lower river just as adult salmon returned to the river. That led to the largest fish kill in U.S. history, with as many as 70,000 dead Chinooks. As a result, the commercial fishing industry in California and most of Oregon was completely shut down in 2006 and partially closed in 2005 and 2007. Tribes dependent on fish and river resources have suffered even more.

It doesn’t have to be this way, and recent moves by Senator Ron Wyden and the region’s Congressional delegation give Klamath basin stakeholders hope that we can soon break this cycle of crisis. In July 2013, Senator Wyden joined with Senator Jeff Merkley, Congressman Greg Walden, and Governor John Kitzhaber to convene a task force of interested parties to resolve remaining issues in the basin.

The Klamath River is justifiably famous for its superb fishing for salmon, steelhead, and wild trout. Photo courtesy Craig Nielson/Shasta Trout

The delegation asked that the task force build on the work that has already been completed with the 2010 Klamath agreements, which more than 40 parties signed, but also to go farther. Specifically, the task force is charged with resolving remaining water sharing issues above Upper Klamath Lake, addressing outstanding issues needed to maintain affordable power, and bringing down the cost to federal taxpayers. Senator Wyden and the delegation stated that they will use the task force’s recommendations as the basis for drafting legislation to authorize the parts of the agreements that require federal legislation.

Our deadline is September of this year. That’s an ambitious charge, but the delegation’s sense of urgency is welcomed by the task force members. TU is at the table on behalf of thousands of Oregon and California members and people come from across the nation who travel to the Klamath Basin to fish for its incredible steelhead, salmon, and wild trout. We played a major role in working out the two bipartisan agreements that the task force is building on now, and we won’t rest until a solution is implemented.

That time has arrived. With this year’s drought, everyone who depends on water from the river has experienced their own crisis: recreational and commercial fishermen, tribes, farmers in the Klamath Reclamation Project, and this year the “off project” (i.e., not Reclamation Project) water users above Upper Klamath Lake.

Perhaps this is why High Country News is reporting that even staunch opponents of the Klamath agreements now believe that settlement is the best hope for the region’s water woes.  https://www.hcn.org/issues/45.14/severe-drought-forces-a-moment-of-truth-for-the-klamath/article_view?b_start%3Aint=0 [subscription required].

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Brian Johnson, TU’s California State Director, represents Trout Unlimited in the Klamath agreements and is a member of the task force.

For more information, see Brian’s recent interview on Jefferson Public Radio and the testimony submitted to Senator Wyden’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee:

http://directory.libsyn.com/episode/index/show/jpr/id/2444782

http://www.energy.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/hearings-and-business-meetings?ID=2140d7f0-ca76-4a7e-99b3-cd053c3ec9ac

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‘Riverstock’ raises awareness of Fraser River threats

Fraser the Trout and an admirer at Riverstock

By Randy Scholfield

Beer? Check. Barbecue? Check. Bands? Check. What more do you need for a good time?

The steady stream of people who turned out for Trout Unlimited’s “Riverstock” event Aug. 17 at the Crooked Creek Saloon in Fraser, Colorado, enjoyed a full day of good vibrations and cold libations in celebration of peace, love and local rivers.

Between sets, they also learned about the looming threats to the Fraser River’s health posed by Denver Water’s proposed expansion of its Moffat diversion project.

Kirk Klancke, president of TU’s Colorado River Headwaters chapter, organized the event with help from local volunteers, as well as the dozen bands (including BlueCat, Hippie Sideshow Hootenanny and Gary Key) who donated their time and talent to the cause.

The Fraser, a key tributary of the Upper Colorado, is the lifeblood of the Fraser Valley, supporting angling, wildlife, outdoor recreation and local communities. But decades of water diversions have left the river depleted and degraded. Already, some 60 percent of the river is diverted to the Front Range for municipal uses. Denver Water’s Moffat expansion would remove another 15 percent, putting the river system on the brink of disaster.

Singing the blues: Fraser River with low flows

“Unless these projects include adequate protections for our rivers, we could lose our outdoor quality of life and the reason many of us live here in the first place,” said Klancke. “Riverstock sends a message to the big utilities that local people care about our rivers and streams.”

Inside the saloon, a blues guitarist was shredding some serious Stevie Ray Vaughn licks.  Outside, in the back courtyard, an acoustic duo held forth with their spin on Simon and Garfunkel.

There was something for everyone.

Also playing were short videos about the Fraser and Upper Colorado rivers and their importance to the recreational businesses and overall quality of life of Grand County. Free bumper stickers, posters, and other educational materials went fast, as well as some far-out tie-died t-shirts.

Outside at the curb, facing traffic, a giant green trout (Fraser the Trout, Colorado Trout Unlimited’s mascot) waved a sign that read “Save the Fraser River,” eliciting a steady stream of honks from passing motorists.

Fraser Valley residents “get it,” notes Klancke, and they’re generally well-informed about the details of Denver Water’s project. They understand the depleted Fraser River is on life support, and they want the river protected from more diversions.

Jammin' for the river

TU is asking Denver Water for three basic protections:  adequate peak spring flows to help flush the river and keep its riverbed and aquatic habitat healthy and free of choking sediment; standards that would prevent Denver Water from diverting water if the river temperature reached levels lethal to fish;  and ongoing monitoring and “adaptive management” that requires Denver Water to adjust its operations if the river shows significant signs of decline in the future.

So far, Denver Water has rejected those commonsense protections.

All proceeds of Riverstock will help benefit TU’s campaign to protect and restore the Fraser River.  Go to www.DefendtheColorado.org for more information.

Randy Scholfield is director of communications for TU’s Western Water Project. 

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Summer Road Trip 2013: North Fork of the Shoshone

Day 1: Denver to Cody

By Randy Scholfield

The wind kicked in just as I crossed the Wyoming state line. I was driving my 1977 green VW camper bus—perhaps the most aerodynamically challenged vehicle ever created—as part of a week-long summer road trip. The goal: get out of the office and visit some of TU’s stream restoration projects in several Western states and do a little fishing, camping, and blogging along the way. First stop: North Fork of the Shoshone, just west of Cody.

But first I had to survive Wyoming’s angry wind spirits, which were gathering in force to punish me for daring to bring a VW hippie bus into cowboy country.

I tightened my seatbelt as my groovy road-trip fantasies veered to grim scenarios involving wind shear and head-on collisions with semis. For several hours across Wyoming’s windswept tundra, the bus lurched and swerved, battered by sudden microbursts and vicious crosswinds that threatened to rip the wheel from my deathlike grip.

The Green Machine: Aerodynamically challenged, but a road trip classic

A reality of vintage VW bus touring is that you get nowhere fast. The bus is as slow as molasses, but the Conestoga pace lends itself to leisurely touring with windows down. You experience the sounds, smells and various assaults of the landscape. That’s part of its retro charm.  Still, I was passed by, among other things, an “Oversized Load” truck, a Winnebago Chieftan pulling a boat, and—I’m not kidding—a Smart car. I didn’t think they even allowed those in Wyoming. Feeling a bit humiliated, I gamely tried to overtake it but failed.

I finally limped into Cody that evening, shaken but alive.

The next morning, a sunny Friday, I met up with Tommy Thompson, TU’s project manager in the Cody area, in front of Buffalo Bill’s Irma Hotel.  Tommy is a biologist and self-professed bug freak who, like several TU staffers, is also an accomplished fly-fishing guide with stints in Alaska and Montana.

I followed him east toward Yellowstone National Park, along the North Fork of the Shoshone River, a broad and beautiful freestone river and remarkable fishery that thousands of visitors race past every year on their way to Yellowstone. Big mistake.

Tommy pulled off at a bend in the North Fork, beneath some rugged chalky cliffs and hoodoo spires.  He wanted to show me an irrigation canal along the river where TU and partners are launching an ambitious restoration project this fall.

Tommy at old canal headgate, with North Fork in background

The problem: the canal—the largest diversion on this stretch—is big enough to be an offshoot or branch of the North Fork. That’s what fools the fish. They check in, but they can’t check out when the water levels drop in late summer and fall. Thousands end up dying.

This “fish entrainment” issue is a huge problem across the West, with hundreds of thousands—probably millions—of fish trapped each year in irrigation ditches. TU is leading efforts in many states to rescue fish and retrofit canals with fish-friendly headgates.

The problem is aggravated on the North Fork, Tommy explained, because of the amazing migratory habits of trout in this stretch of river.  While a few fish are year-round residents, most overwinter in the deeper water of Buffalo Bill Reservoir near Cody. In spring, they migrate upstream, populating about 35 miles of the river and over 300 miles of tributary habitat. In the fall, they migrate back down to the reservoir.

That return journey is when thousands of fish—including native Yellowstone cutthroats, wild rainbows, whitefish and other fish—take a wrong turn and become entrapped in the canal.  In 2010, TU’s East Yellowstone Cutthroat Chapter members rescued some 1,000 salmonids in the first mile alone of the canal, which snakes several miles up the valley.

The annual mass migration makes the entire North Fork fish population vulnerable to canal entrainment.

This is a popular, productive fishery, but it could be even better, Tommy and others believe, if the canal problem was addressed. A couple of years ago, he approached the local East Yellowstone chapter about doing the project, and they enthusiastically jumped on board. The Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and U.S. Forest Service have also been important partners.

Together, they came up with solutions: A new fish screen in the canal that allows water through but redirects fish back to the main river channel through a return chute. A new debris boom installed at the head of the canal diversion that deflects woody debris back into the main river and greatly reduces the ditch company’s maintenance problems.

“The partnerships have been great,” said Tommy. Like most of TU’s water projects in the West, the solution is a win-win for irrigators, anglers, and of course the fish.

We fished that afternoon along the North Fork as it flows out of Yellowstone. The stretch has excellent accessibility, the highway paralleling the river and offering many places to pull off and fish.

This is active grizzly country, so we carried bear spray.  I also felt the urge to sing loudly.

Randy and a healthy Yellowstone cutt

Just downstream of a shelf of riffle and deep pool, I cast a dry-dropper rig into the tumbling water and, seeing a flash underneath the surface, lifted my rod tip into a Yellowstone cutt that made several strong runs before I brought it to shore—a golden-bellied beauty.  A few minutes later, just upstream, I caught another nice cuttie on a Bloody Mary, which seemed to be the ticket that afternoon.

Walking back to the truck, I stopped and looked around. The North Fork is the kind of river many anglers envision when dreaming of fishing in the West:  A broad-shouldered river teeming with big, healthy fish, running through a stunningly scenic canyon.

And the fishing will be even better here in the future, thanks to the hard work of Tommy and local TU members.

These are the kind of special places that TU is protecting and restoring across the West.

Next stop: Working with ranchers to bring back salmon in the Upper Lemhi valley of Idaho. 

Randy Scholfield is communications director for TU’s Western Water Project. 

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Our Colorado River: Cooperation, not conflict

By Richard Van Gytenbeek

For well over a decade, Trout Unlimited’s Western Water Project has partnered with the agricultural community and local TU chapters to improve habitat, upgrade aging irrigation infrastructure and boost stream flows throughout the West. In Colorado, TU’s field staff live and work in each of the major West Slope river basins that comprise the upper Colorado drainage. They work on projects that improve habitat, increase flows and help keep western Colorado streams and rivers healthy and productive. Their success is a direct result of cooperation with the agricultural community, not conflict.

Agriculture is the primary user of water on the West Slope. Farmers and ranchers use the water to grow and send crops and animals to market each year. Their farms and ranches protect important riparian and aquatic habitats, winter range, migration corridors and the iconic western landscapes. This agricultural way of life is sustainable and deeply woven into the fabric of our communities and their economies. Like agriculture, recreation and tourism also rely on healthy flows in our streams and rivers. These uses are also sustainable and have also become critical to West Slope communities and their economic health. When agriculture and recreation-tourism clash over the use of water, the community, the economy and the river all suffer. When they cooperate, flows, communities and economies all benefit. To help tell this story and take it to a new level, TU this summer launched the Our Colorado River program, which has three primary goals:

1)      Highlight our successful partnerships with agriculture in restoring habitat, upgrading irrigation infrastructure, and other efforts to boost healthy flows in our West Slope streams and rivers.

2)      Promote cooperation between agriculture and recreation-tourism interests to protect the water resources that are the lifeblood of our West Slope communities.

3)      Encourage that cooperation by asking West Slope residents, businesses, elected officials and organizations, to endorse some common “core values” on water, including cooperation, not conflict; modernizing irrigation; and maintaining open spaces.

We believe the core values are the centerpiece of the Our Colorado River program and provide the starting point for forging consensus on how to protect water resources in western Colorado. While West Slope residents won’t agree on everything regarding water, we are confident most can agree on these five commonsense values.  The goal is to encourage a wide diversity of river users and community members to show their unity and resolve in protecting West Slope water resources as we move towards a Colorado Water Plan by December 2014.

When it comes to keeping our rivers healthy, we’re all in this together. Please help us out by going to www.ourcoriver.com and signing the core values and supporting our West Slope rivers.

Richard Van Gytenbeek is the Colorado River Basin coordinator for Trout Unlimited’s Colorado Water Project.

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Climate Adaptation: One Stream at a Time

A juvenile Colorado River Cutthroat Trout from Milk Creek

By Brian Hodge

Whether or not you believe in the boogey-man of climate change, data illustrate two patterns in the West: 1) the region is getting hotter and 2) the region is getting drier.

Diminished flows and warmer streams are often a gloomy prospect for trout and other coldwater fishes.  But what can we do, if anything, to redirect the trend?  Even if global climate can be altered by man, it’s a battleship; a lot of time and movement are required to evoke small shifts in direction.  By comparison, protecting and restoring coldwater fisheries is direct and timely.

One of Trout Unlimited’s on-the-ground responses to climate change is adaptation; that is, we are preparing fisheries to endure and bounce back from effects of climate change.  The Milk Creek project in northwest Colorado is a working example of climate adaptation strategy—it’s also a great example of partnership.

Milk Creek, a tributary to the Yampa River, is occupied by a native population of Colorado River Cutthroat Trout (CRCT).  Unfortunately, climate models predict that Milk Creek is at moderate to high risk of climate-related disturbances, including wildfire, winter flooding, extreme drought, and increased summer temperature.

Milk Creek and its cutthroat are especially vulnerable to the impacts of climate change for several reasons.  First, segments of Milk Creek are over-widened and unstable.  This condition leaves the stream more susceptible both to channel alteration during debris flows and to increased summer stream temperatures during drought.  Second, summer stream temperatures in Milk Creek restrict cutthroat to the coolest and upstream-most reaches of the drainage.  Without intervention, an increase in summer temperature will further reduce their range.  Last, the relatively small cutthroat population is isolated from other populations (i.e., seed sources) that might recolonize the stream in the event of a major disturbance.   Consequently, the population is at increased risk to blinking out in the face of a major disturbance.

The primary goal of the Milk Creek project is to foster a cutthroat population with a long-term future.  However, to persist in the face of climate change, a population requires two key qualities: resistance (the ability to endure disturbance) and resilience (the ability to bounce back from disturbance).

At Milk Creek, we are “insulating” the fishery from expected climate stressors.  By narrowing the channel, planting streamside vegetation (such as willows and cottonwoods), and developing deep pools, we are reducing incoming solar radiation, increasing bank stability, and creating thermal refugia (cool places for fish to ride out summer heat waves).  This reduces vulnerability to future temperature increase and channel altering events (e.g., floods), and thus increases resistance.  Over time, temperature reductions and habitat improvements will lead to increases in both the abundance and distribution of CRCT.  Increasing the size, extent, and connectivity of the population will increase resilience.

Boy Scouts from Troop 190 (Meeker, CO) plant willows on a newly restored section of Milk Creek.

Implementation of the Milk Creek project has been a team effort.  Trout Unlimited’s valued partners include Milk Creek Ranch, Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S Fish and Wildlife Service (Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, National Fish Passage Program, and Colorado Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office) , Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory, Shell, Boy Scouts of America, White River Conservation District, and Western Native Trout Initiative.

By the end of 2014, TU and its partners will have restored and reconnected approximately three miles of Milk Creek.  By implementing similar climate adaptation strategies in other locations, TU and partners can make small but measurable steps towards addressing the threat of climate change.

Brian Hodge is Yampa and White River project manager for TU’s Colorado Water Project. 

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