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Greeley angler Juan Jiminez sets up his fishing rig at Poudre Ponds, a salvage order suspending bag limits has been issued as the city drains the lakes to prepare for repairs. Salvage orders have been issued for more lakes and reservoirs than in a decade, in some cases because of the drought. (Dan England, Special to The Colorado Sun)

GREELEY — Juan Jiminez comes to Poudre Ponds for the peace. The fish are a bonus.

Jiminez, 47, of Greeley works the graveyard shift stocking shelves at King Soopers. He loves to unwind after work at the pond, so much so that he rarely changes out of his khakis. The pond, in fact, seemed to be the only respite from the coronavirus, as he adjusted to his own fears, a broken economy and wearing an uncomfortable mask for hours at work.

He had fish on his mind when he drove over to the popular Greeley pond on a recent Sunday morning as a fresh sun crept into the sky. Jiminez had just returned from his honeymoon, where fishing was discouraged, so he was eager to cast a line, and he read on Facebook that Colorado Parks and Wildlife had declared an emergency fish salvage. 

Salvages are rare, as it means the state is essentially pulling the plug on the fishing spot, but there have been three this summer in northern Colorado, and two of them are because of the punishing drought that’s haunted the state all summer. 

MORE: Nearly all of Colorado is under some drought status. A year ago, almost none of the state was parched.

The salvage declaration at Poudre Ponds banishes bag limits, meaning anglers can take home as many fish as they want. Jiminez enjoys eating fish from Poudre Ponds, but he also donates some of the bass, bluegill, catfish and trout he catches to others who could use a meal.

When he pulled up that Sunday morning, he found anglers circling the pond, socially distanced but as crowded as he’d ever seen it. The fishing trip was not as successful as he would have liked. Monday morning wasn’t much better, either, when the only thing he caught was some algae. 

“That’s OK,” Jiminez said that Monday. “I’ve had an awesome time fishing out here. I’ve really enjoyed the outdoors lately, especially with everything going on.”

Salvages are rare treats for anglers since they can catch and keep as many fish as they’d like. But they come at a stiff price: When fishing holes are opened to no-limit catches, it means they’ll soon be taken out of commission. This year, anglers have lost more of their favorite spots than in at least a decade.

Most of the reservoirs at popular areas, such as state parks or regional open spaces, are owned by irrigation and ditch companies. In lean water years, like this one, when the only significant moisture of the summer came in a crazy September snow, growers drain reservoirs dry for irrigation.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife workers show some of the fish they salvaged from Poudre Ponds on Sept. 16, 2020. The city of Greeley is preparing to do work on the ponds that will last through April and has suspended bag limits so as many fish as possible can be taken from the water. ( Justin Scharton, City of Greeley)

Greeley merely ran into bad luck, needing to drain Poudre Ponds to make unexpected repairs to a broken intake pump. The city plans to drain the pond all the way down to the dirt. 

But other popular spots, such as Barr Lake State Park in Brighton and Jumbo Reservoir in Julesburg, hosted public fish salvages because of an algae bloom or irrigation demands, and at least one other lake, Jackson Lake State Park, east of Greeley, had to close its boating ramp just a week ago, far earlier than normal, because of low water levels.

The goal of a salvage is to use the fish in the pond, and with that in mind, Colorado Parks and Wildlife sometimes shocks fish to knock them out and move them to other fishing spots, said Jason Clay, spokesman for CPW’s northeast region. This typically happens when conditions get unsafe for anglers. 

“They won’t want people getting stuck in the mud,” Clay said, “so we will take what we can when that happens. We want as little waste as possible.”

Biologists did this at Jumbo Reservoir State Wildlife Area, near Julesburg, and this week at Poudre Ponds. Justin Scharton, Greeley’s natural areas and trails division superintendent, said while water is being pulled from the ponds at an accelerated rate, there should be fishing until around Oct. 1. 

A double-edged sword

Most anglers understand the need for bag limits. Greedy anglers who hog all the fish aren’t good for the lake. But they can be frustrating at times. 

“There are days you get out there and the fish are just banging, and the limit is just four,” said JR Pierce, an angler who can see Barr Lake from his home in Brighton. “So, heck yeah, salvages can be a fun way to fill the freezer.”

Pierce, however, was mourning the idea of seeing his favorite fishing spot run nearly dry on Sept. 4, the day the fish salvage there began. He’s fished the reservoir for 30 years, since he was a kid, and called it his steady spot for the last decade. He also hosts a fishing tournament out at the lake. 

“The fishery has really blossomed,” Pierce said. “I caught some of the biggest fish I’ve ever caught out there. So it’s horrible. I hate it. It hurts.”

But Pierce is also a water shareholder, and he uses the water for his hayfield. He’s also good friends with the people draining the lake.

“It’s a double-edged sword for me,” Pierce said. “Unfortunately you can’t have it all.”

A nasty blue-green algae bloom helped contribute to the emergency fish salvage, said Michelle Seubert, manager of Barr Lake State Park. Algae blooms were common until 2013, when the water quality improved, which Seubert attributes to more public awareness about preventing nitrates from seeping into the water. 

Dog owners began picking up after their pets more, for instance. But the water’s nitrate levels came back up this year, probably because there wasn’t any rain to help dilute the supply and keep water levels normal.

MORE: Toxic algae are filling Colorado lakes with slimy pea-green soup. Are hotter summers making it worse?

Low water levels also usually mean higher temperatures in the water, which increases the chances of more algae blooming. As the water level dropped to about one-fifth of its normal level, the algae died off, robbing the water of its dissolved oxygen, leaving the fish gasping for breath. 

“It’s a perfect storm this year,” Seubert said. 

Anglers seem to understand why the salvages need to take place as they are stuffing their coolers, though most are as sad as Pierce, and many boaters have expressed some frustration. Low water levels just aren’t much fun anywhere, said Tyler Seward, the park manager at Jackson Lake State Park.

Water levels haven’t been this low since 2013. 

“The fishery was awesome this year,” Seward said. “It was a good year until the boating stopped.”

As Pierce said, Barr Lake’s fishery blossomed in the last few years, and that’s only helped the park’s recent designation as a bird oasis. Visitors crowd the park in the colder months to view the wintering bald eagles, as well as a nesting pair, and even with its terrific fishing, the park is probably more known for birding than any place in northern Colorado. 

Through July, the total visitation was nearly 185,000, or 45,000 more than in all of 2016.

Seubert has fielded many calls about the bald eagle population, which the park has encouraged in past years with its eagle festival and Eagle Express ride that takes visitors around to see the big birds that sometimes snatch fish from the water. Seubert, however, isn’t worried about whether the eagles will visit this year: There will still be a bit of water in the lake. 

She’s also seen almost 200 pelicans stuffing their pouches with fish. “They’re making the anglers look bad,” she said. 

So the fishery, although smaller, is still there. 

“There’s a small pool, but the big fish will eat the little fish and become bigger,” Seubert said. “We will still have fish.”

Rebuilding and rebounding

All three fishing spots were popular, even if they didn’t match Barr Lake’s recent boom. Jumbo grew in popularity in the last eight years, even with residents from Nebraska, because it’s close. 

Juan Jiminez, who works overnight stocking shelves at King Soopers, often heads straight from the store to Poudre Ponds, his favorite fishing spot. He says he goes there for the peace, so even when all he catches is algae, he’s happy. (Dan England, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the city worked together to develop the Poudre Ponds in Greeley from a reclaimed mining site more than a decade ago. They even let it sit for a couple years so the vegetation and ecosystem had a chance to mature before stocking it with fish that were both good eating and good fun to catch. The pond now acts as an oasis among gravel mining operations and a nice place to take a break from a trip on the Poudre Trail, which winds around it. 

As hard as it is to lose all those fishing holes, Mandi Brandt has seen them disappear to drought many times. She is the northeast region’s fisheries biologist, and part of her job is to restock and restore fishing holes when they dry up. 

Brandt worked out in eastern Colorado for many years, and it seemed like every year a couple popular spots dried up because of the demand for irrigation in the area. 

“We have had to rebuild fisheries in the past after severe droughts,” Brandt said. “We rebuilt the fisheries at both Jumbo and North Sterling Reservoirs following the drought in 2012. It takes time, but it can be done.”

It usually takes two to three years for fisheries to build back to where they once were, but anglers can fish in them as soon as the next year. They just may not be able to keep anything, as bag limits also can put limits on the size of fish anglers can keep. 

But history shows rebuilding usually works: Seubert said Barr Lake had low levels in 2013, and the lake rebounded with a banner year for walleye in 2016.

Most salvages are still going on, although anglers should check the CPW social media for water levels. The state usually closes them for safety before water levels get too low. 

The real issue, of course, comes next year. If it’s a normal year, the lakes have a good chance of rebounding right away, especially with the stocking by the state. But if it’s another dry year, the lakes could make no progress at all.

“A low water level next year means they will have the same issue as this year,” Brandt said. 

Although he’s sad to lose his favorite spot, Jiminez understands that work at Poudre Ponds must be done. He’s already planning to head to Carter Lake, west of Loveland, and other places for fall fishing. His hopes are high for some trophy trout. But even if he doesn’t land one, he’s OK.

“Just being out here is more than anything I can ask for,” Jiminez said. 

Know before you go fishing

For more information, seek out the various social media platforms used by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. The northeast Colorado region for Colorado Parks and Wildlife on Twitter will keep you up to date, although Facebook pages for the individual parks and recreation spots are also recommended. 

There are a few rules to follow if you want to participate in the salvage:

• Bag limits are suspended at Poudre Ponds, Barr Lake and Jumbo, but nowhere else. 
• Fishing is allowed only during daylight hours, from sunrise to a half-hour after sunset. 
• You must have a fishing license. 
• All legal methods are allowed except for snagging, dip nets and seines.

Part of this story ran in The NoCo Optimist on Sept. 2, 2020. 

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @DanEngland