The San Luis Valley angler in a changing environment — The #Alamosa Citizen #RioGrande

Photo credit: Ryan Michelle Scavo

From The Alamosa Citizen (Owen Woods):

ANGLING is a time-honored tradition that spans family generations and fills a spiritual or even religious void in many people’s lives. Above it all, though, it is an almost daily connection with nature. These days, changes in the environment around us are becoming more apparent and even alarming.

This story started out as a pursuit to gain an understanding of climate change through the gaze of the Valley angler. Most of the questions were broad and allowed the angler to speak freely, but as more interviews were conducted, there became a series of throughlines, common subjects, and themes that became present: water levels, the Hoot Owl, an increase in recreational angling, and the Rio Grande cutthroat trout.

“The water is never gonna be what it used to be,” said Larry Zaragoza. He is an avid angler and fisher, who’s observed a stark decline in water levels and fish health over the past two years.

In his 53 years of fishing the Valley’s waters, Zaragoza said that he cannot compare these last two years to any other. He said the average 14-16 inch trout he catches are not as healthy looking, “not as meaty,” and slender-looking. As a catch-and-release fisherman, he said that there’s hardly even anything to catch and release.

What do he and his fellow anglers discuss when they meet or get together? “Water level is the first thing we talk about.”

Photo credit: Ryan Michelle Scavo

Deacon Aspinwall, the City of Alamosa’s planning and development specialist, is an avid angler himself.

Aspinwall has a science background and prefaced his answers by stating that in the 10 years he’s fished in the Valley’s waters it’s hard to draw long-term conclusions. However, he did say that within the last 10 years we have seen climate shifts, with runoff occurring much earlier than it did 20 years ago. He’s observed, through the angler’s perspective, a two-phase runoff, with the initial snow melt surge dubbed the “meltoff,” which is occurring earlier in the season from drier and warmer days.

His climate concerns as an angler are the lower snowpacks and earlier runoffs. In 10 years of fishing here he has noticed some changes in the fisheries – such as more “snot moss” turning up, and in higher elevations. And some fisheries that 10 years ago were fishable have now dried up.

He said that trout populations in Cat Creek and East Pass Creek that existed 20 years ago no longer exist today. “What will the next 20 years look like?” he pondered, especially, at what high mountain lakes and streams will look like in two decades.

Aspinwall said that it’s often difficult to discuss climate in a meaningful way that resonates with people. He added that a changing climate is natural, but the amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere isn’t.

On top of this, Aspinwall said that a real concern of his is the increase in angling pressure on fisheries. In the last year alone, he noticed that the Valley’s waters have seen an increase in angling and fishing.

“Some fisheries can’t handle more than one angler a day,” he said, pointing out that we all have a responsibility to fish and angle sustainably, for the next generation, and that all anglers and fishers should ask themselves, “Are we doing this sustainably, are we doing this responsibly?”

Conversations with the Hoot Owl

He said anglers need to be mindful of the “Hoot Owl.” This is the time to stop fishing. Catch-and-release fishing in warming waters after 2 p.m. can cause harm to the fish.

Trout Unlimited has worked closely with CPW to suggest that fishers and anglers voluntarily stop fishing between noon and 2 p.m.

Aspinwall and Kevin Terry, Trout Unlimited’s Rio Grande Basin program director, both brought up the point that it is a common misconception that the coolest part of the day to fish during is as the sun goes down. For catch-and-release fishing on warmer days in warmer waters, this presents a problem, as the warmest water temperatures, in fact, often don’t break until 9 or 10 at night.

So, the solution to this is to fish earlier in the day.

Terry said that if the water temperatures are high, and cause for concern, then fishing in the evening and at night is a problem, but if the temperatures are fine, then fishing in the afternoon is also fine. He said that it is the anglers’ responsibility to take a temperature reading of the stream to be certain it’s okay to fish there.

This goes against traditional thinking, but anglers have to evolve. This becomes more difficult for traveling anglers who spend time and money and travel to fish in the Valley’s waters. Though it is voluntary to adhere to the Hoot Owl, most catch-and-release anglers respect it.

Terry works for the National Trout Unlimited, and is a board member of the SLV Trout Unlimited chapter.

It’s worth noting that during the interview, Terry stressed that anglers and farmers are having similar water issues. There is a larger picture of the San Luis Valley’s water and how it affects everyone who lives here – and it brings attention to recent attempts to export water to the Front Range and the chronic unease that is felt around the Valley’s water.

The Rio Grande cutthroat is the only trout native to the San Luis Valley. Evidence suggests it was a native fish to Lake Alamosa 700,000 years ago. Photo credit: Ryan Michelle Scavo

Terry talked more on the Rio Grande cutthroat trout and its dwindling historic range. Native RGCT now only live in about 10 percent of that range, with about 10 “aboriginal” populations that have “never been messed with.” Those populations have never been reintroduced, moved, or hybridized.

A consistent population of RGCT requires isolation, with “fish barriers” such as waterfalls, culverts, or man-made structures. These allow the fish to maintain genetic isolation and avoid other risks. However, isolated streams can become vulnerable. Wildfires can send ash and soot down a high mountain stream and wipe out populations, or low-flow streams (less than 1 CFS) during one drought season can be “blinked out.”

For fishery biologists, Terry said that the conservation of RGCT is an “extremely high priority.”

He noted that these fish are not at historic sampling sizes, and that 2-3 populations have “blinked out” in the past 8 years.

The solution is to reintroduce these fish to more streams and bigger streams to make them less localized, isolated, and less at-risk. It is slow work.

Mark Seaton, president of the SLV Trout Unlimited chapter, said that the organization is anything but a fishing club. It’s a conservation organization that works closely with local groups to focus on habitat.

Seaton has noticed that shoulder seasons (spring and fall) have become longer and that winter temperatures are not as cold.

He stressed that rising temperatures are not good for trout.

The fly fishing community is aware of climate change he said, and that the last couple of years have been tough to fish.

The “number of boats on the river (Rio Grande) have increased dramatically,” he said.

For Seaton, the most concerning issues are low snowpack and the lack of water in streams and creeks. He said climate change is “a pretty big deal” in Trout Unlimited.

Trout Unlimited is a conservation-based organization with 400 unique chapters. There are 300,000 members from Maine to Alaska. Within TU’s ranks, there are state councils that organize the chapters. Through these state councils, state-wide efforts can be identified and tackled. Trout Unlimited can also provide state agencies with support through its members, providing much needed eyes, ears, and flies on the ground to provide empirical data.

Cutthroat trout historic range via Western Trout

Disease, algal blooms and the Rio Grande cuttthroat trout

Though the Valley has many species of fish, including kokanee salmon, largemouth and smallmouth bass, carp, northern pike, and bluegill, the trout is the most abundant and diverse species found in our waters. The Valley is home to rainbow, brown, brook and native Rio Grande cutthroat trout. The Rio Grande cutthroat is the only trout native to the San Luis Valley. Evidence suggests it was a native fish to Lake Alamosa 700,000 years ago.

Being the only native fish species to our land, it has been near extinction more than once. According to the book The Geology, Ecology, and Human History of the San Luis Valley, “mining, logging, over-harvesting, and extensive stocking of non-native fish drastically reduced their populations.” The biggest threats are “non-native fish, over-grazing, and the myriad issues associated with a warming climate: low snowpack and early melting, rising summer stream temperatures, high-severity wildfires, and low stream flows.”

The biggest issue facing fish populations is rising water temperatures. Trout are a cold water fish, requiring water temperatures between 37-66 degrees Fahrenheit for their life cycle from spawning, incubation, and growth. Water temperatures that exceed 70 degrees contain less dissolved oxygen. Trout, at these temperatures, have a difficult time getting oxygen and are more prone to disease such as Whirling disease.

Whirling disease is a parasitic infection that occurs in salmonid fish species – in Colorado, rainbow and cutthroat trout are the most at risk. Estevan Vigil, CPW’s Valley aquatic biologist, says it is the biggest disease to combat in the Valley.

Rising water temperatures can also lead to algal blooms. Algal blooms are a rapid growth of algae that bloom to the surface. Most blooms occur through a high nitrate content in the water which can occur through nutrient pollution from surrounding farms, industrial buildings, or cities. However, with high mountain lakes, blooms occur with warmer water or rural nutrient runoff, which allows more harmful bacteria to thrive in the algae causing it then to take in more light and grow.

Most blooms create foul odors and mucky surfaces, but some are toxic. Humans and animals exposed to toxic algae can show symptoms ranging from lung irritation to neurological damage.

Climate change will cause lakes and streams to warm over time and become more stagnant, which encourages more bacteria growth in algae.

Angling in a fish-less world

The act of angling is a method in mindfulness and a grounding meditation that has proven to de-stress. In England there are some therapists that have prescribed fly fishing to their patients. Project Healing Waters helps veterans with disabilities recover through time spent on the water. Casting for Recovery is an organization that helps women with breast cancer enhance their lives through fly fishing.

The lessons learned about angling in an unsteady climate are clear. The future remains the only unclear, murky aspect of angling. Some data from hundreds of years ago can be fun to look at, but averages can’t fully paint the picture of what’s happening now and a year from now, let alone 20 years from now.

Angling and fishing will continue for a long time in the Valley. There will still be safe havens on our streams and in our reservoirs for anglers and fish alike, but there needs to be constant attention to sustainability and responsibility. Meat fishing must be done within state regulations and angling must be done with temperature and conservation in mind.

Snowpacks will become more unpredictable. With meltoffs occuring in off seasons, the downstream effects are yet to be determined.

Climate change will cause lakes and streams to warm over time and become more stagnant, which encourages more bacteria growth in algae.

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