Pagosa Springs Town Tourism Committee member Larry Fisher led a meeting last week in which nearly 20 concerned anglers and local fishing guides tried to explain to two employees of the Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife why they supported changing the San Juan River through town to a catch-and-release fishery.
Fisher, who owns a sporting goods store on the east end of town, began the Wednesday evening meeting in the Ross Aragon Community Center by clarifying which part of the river his group wants to change — the 2 mile stretch from behind the Riverview Everyday (formerly Conoco East) to the Apache Street bridge.
The next step in the process, once the public input meetings are done, is to do a survey of anglers along that stretch of the river to see how many support the idea of catch and release, which would mandate artificial lures only, Fisher explained. As it stands now, bait fishing is allowed through town and anglers are allowed to harvest two fish per day.
“Parks and Wildlife makes the final decision,” Fisher explained, “We have input. We can request, and then they make the final decision. Unless there would be a severe biological problem with doing something like that, they tend to listen to local requests.”
Fisher confirmed the Pagosa Springs Town Council sent a letter of support for the catch and release proposal to CPW last year, but personnel from the Durango office, which oversees Pagosa Country, have expressed valid concerns with the idea.
The last public input meeting Fisher conducted on this topic was over 15 years ago, and he described it as “unbelievably contentious.” Fisher said, “I had a fanatic worm-drowner on my right and a fanatic catch-and-releaser on my left, and within fifteen minutes both had moved their chairs away from me and neither one of them has talked to me from that point on. That was when you could catch eight fish, and some people felt it was their right to catch and keep eight fish, period, and some felt like it was a travesty if you don’t release the fish.”
Fisher then asked game warden Doug Purcell to explain CPW’s current concerns.
“Basically, we look at the system,” Purcell began, “what habitat it has and what it will support. We try to manage it for the maximum use.”
Purcell then described the characteristics of the San Juan River as it flows through Pagosa Springs. It is a volatile stream with heavy flushes and fluctuations in levels without much spawning habitat. In addition, the heat and chemistry from the hot springs, especially in the summer, is not conducive to fish reproduction. Plus, since the river is located in the middle of town, it does get a lot of pressure from swimmers, kayakers and inner-tube riders.
“So it is a good little fishery,” Purcell continued, “but it’s not one we would look at as a wild, self-sustaining trout population. It’s just not that.”
Up until now, CPW has managed this section of river by stocking catchable fish and allowing anglers to take those fish out. The current two-fish limit was the best compromise to result from the meeting that occurred 15 years ago.
“We manage the resource for the people that own it,” Purcell said, “and that’s what they wanted, so it was fine. That’s the same thing that this regulation proposal will have to be — what the general populous wants. The hard thing is trying to get good representation from each side.”
CPW normally conducts surveys to determine catch rates and angler satisfaction, but it has on occasion also asked people if they practice catch-and-release fishing; approximately 80 percent claim they do. The next step will be to conduct a more formal survey with specific questions about this topic.
Purcell then described what would happen if a catch-and-release policy were implemented. Bait fishing would no longer be allowed; people could only use flies and lures. In addition, the state will not stock catchable fish in catch-and-release waters.
“Research shows that since those fish are reared in an artificial setting,” Purcell argued, “I worked in a hatchery for five years so I’ve got some experience with this — they do OK but they do not tend to over-winter. They just don’t make it. You’ll have some, but it’s not the norm, so those fish are going to go out one way or the other. They’re going to flush out, they’re going to die, or they are going to get caught and kept, so we’re not going to put three thousand fish in the river if it is catch and release.”
In other words, according to the data CPW has at this time, changing the river to a catch-and-release fishery will do nothing to increase the fish population; it may actually reduce the number of catchable fish.
Several of the people at the meeting were local business owners and fishing guides who contribute their own money towards stocking additional fish, above and beyond the 3,000 per year stocked by CPW.
One of these audience members described observing people who catch their two fish limit, take them up to a cooler in their car, then go back down to the river to catch two more fish, and so on and so on. He argued that changing the river to a catch-and release area would make it harder for poachers to steal the fish that private citizens paid for.
CPW aquatic biologist Jim White, who arrived a little late to the meeting because he had to finish up a population survey for cutthroat trout in a remote back-country location, reiterated some of the points Purcell had already made.
Ten-inch fish (considered catchable) are not normally stocked in rivers where fish can thrive and reproduce naturally, catchables are only stocked where they are needed to enhance the experience for anglers, and when they are stocked they are meant to be kept, not released.
Besides protecting the health of the river and considering the biology of the stocked fish, another major concern of CPW, according to Purcell, is recruitment. The goal is to get kids away from the TV, the computer and all the other electronic devices that have them mesmerized these days and to get them outside.
In most cases, using flies or lures is too advanced for kids, and the best way to introduce the sport of fishing is with worms or salmon eggs. Once kids are hooked on the sport, then they can be taught more advanced fishing techniques.
Audience member Lori -*, who owns a fishing tackle manufacturing company with her husband, agreed. “I’m on the fence, because I see lots of tourists that come here with families and I see them down in the river. I see those kids and they’re happy and excited to have those fish, and I understand it is harder for a child to learn to fish with a (fly) rod in his hand. It’s just not going to happen. You have to put the little worm on there.
“That’s how we taught our daughters. You put the little worm on there, they kiss it, they put it in the water, and sure enough, a fish comes up, and they’re so happy about that. How can you take that away from a child growing up?
“How can you take that away from a family that comes through town? They don’t see the lakes. They don’t see Echo. They can’t go to the lakes if they don’t have a Pagosa Lakes pass or if they’re not staying at Wyndham, so those options are out for most of them. How can you deny them this beautiful river that they see from the highway?
“I’m for the catch and release, don’t get me wrong, but what about the kids that can’t afford a fly rod, that can’t afford the flies and lures?”
While several people pointed out that anglers could still catch and keep fish out of the river near Yamaguchi Park, Purcell reiterated that he wasn’t at the meeting to debate against 25 fishing guides. CPW doesn’t advocate for one side of the issue or the other; the whole point of these public input meetings was just to find out what people wanted.
Recognizing that most of the people who attended the meeting represented the catch-and-release side of the issue, Purcell argued there is still a need to gather comments and opinions from all the people who use the river.