DOW hosts angler’s roundtable

An estimated 30 people attended an Angler’s Roundtable at the Pagosa Lakes Clubhouse in Vista last week, with hope of influencing improved fishing on the Piedra River west of Pagosa Springs.

Apparently, beginning late last year, the Colorado Division of Wildlife office in Durango has received several letters and comments from individual anglers, calling for tighter controls on fish harvest and methods of take along an approximate 20-mile stretch of the river. According to DOW Aquatic Biologist Jim White, the overwhelming concern seems to be a steady decline in the number and size of fish caught there in recent years.

While regional roundtables are annual events for the purpose of discussing general angling and aquatic-related issues, they’re typically scheduled in different communities every year. Since Pagosa Springs was a likely setting for the next event, the DOW thought it best to include a special review of Piedra River angling regulations as part of the agenda.

White opened the meeting with a quick statewide rundown of invasive species, including Zebra and Quagga mussels. He described the incredibly prolific pests and how they’re inadvertently transferred from one body of water to another, and illustrated what damage they can do to the environment, infrastructure and boating equipment.

Before turning to matters involving the Piedra, White and others suggested ways in which anglers and boaters can prevent further spread of the tiny mussels, though they acknowledged that, once in a lake or reservoir, they’re there to stay.

Upon shifting attention to the Piedra, White first talked of the limited quantifiable data biologists currently have in considering any regulations changes. He mentioned that a 1980s attempt to initiate bag and size limits failed, largely due to insufficient information.

Nevertheless, White affirmed that angler surveys are the best source of what’s happening on the fairly remote and scenic stream, though actual responses have been few and far between of late. At that point, District Wildlife Manager Mike Reid explained that survey sites at three primary trailheads are periodically stocked with the proper forms, but the papers don’t always see their intended use. Too, many anglers evidently ignore the surveys, particularly if they’ve completed one in the past.

While confessing that virtually all communications to date have come from flyfishers, White said that most would like to see “catch-and-release” restrictions imposed on the river from the Piedra Road crossing down to the lower boundary of Tres Piedra Ranch (1.5 miles above U.S. 160). At present, licensed anglers may take two fish of any size, using artificial flies or lures only.

Should catch-and-release be unattainable, some anglers say, other suggestions include limiting the size of fish taken to 12 inches or less, and requiring single barbless hooks only.

White, however, said that, with so many unregulated Piedra River tributaries in the drainage, main stem harvest and size limitations would be difficult to enforce. Additionally, the agency has never imposed flyfishing- or barbless-hooks-only restrictions on state public fishing waters.

Nonetheless, White said, “We’d like to eventually manage the Piedra as a Wild Trout River.”

To accomplish that status, though, brown and/or rainbow trout populations would have to reach a point where they are totally self-sustaining, without need for supplementary stocking. While some anglers believe catch-and-release regulations will ultimately lead to that, White insists further scientific analyses are necessary before biologists can determine if the river’s carrying capacity is conducive to increasing fish populations. The DOW currently stocks the Piedra with about 8,000 trout per year.

Without more studies, White said, researchers can only guess as to what might be causing suspected population declines. Illegal harvest, otter predation, poor water quality and disease may all be factors.

For instance, scientists don’t yet know if Whirling Disease (WD) has found its way into the Piedra. If it has, it could partially explain why brown trout numbers have gradually increased over the years, while rainbows have steadily fallen. WD is known to be particularly harmful to most strains of rainbow trout.

For now, White said the DOW plans to gather more public input through increased creel surveys and fish inventories, particularly downstream of Indian Creek. To determine the presence or lack of WD, biologists will collect samples for analysis, while Reid and others will begin stocking Hofer crosses, or WD-resistant rainbow trout.

Before closing the meeting, White expressed hope that enough data will soon be forthcoming, thus allowing the matter to proceed to the next step. He suggested that if all goes well, the DOW could recommend either changes or no change in regulations by November 2010.

Whatever regulations the agency ultimately endorses, they will likely hold for at least five years, beginning in January 2011.

chuck@pagosasun.com