This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.
When Dave Haeusler and nearly 25 other volunteers walked a 40-mile stretch of the Poudre River, dumping buckets of trout babies into water, he couldn’t help but think about the future.
Those buckets, after all, were the future of the river. The tiny fish were no bigger than guppies you’d see in a living room aquarium, but with a little luck, they could grow into beautiful rainbow trout, a fish that’s as fun to catch as it is to admire.
Not all 115,000 fry would survive, of course, but enough of them could restore the Poudre to its status as one of the best rivers in Northern Colorado in five to seven years. For Haeusler and his fellow members of the Rocky Mountain Flycasters, a chapter of Trout Unlimited that serves Weld and Larimer counties, those buckets were full of squirming optimism.
“We had a lot of fun,” said Haeusler, the chapter’s vice president.
A fish and a prayer
But there’s also a lot of wishing, even some outright prayer, among the volunteers and Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologists. Mother Nature hasn’t been too kind to the Poudre. Two of the state’s largest wildfires have scorched the Poudre Canyon in the past 10 years, including Cameron Peak in 2020, the only fire in written Colorado history to burn more than 200,000 acres.
The bad thing about wildfires isn’t just their flames and smoke. It’s what they leave behind. Cameron left so-called burn scars, barren swaths of land that snake right into the Poudre. When it rains, the water rushes down these blackened slides, free of any vegetation to dissipate the debris it collects on its way down the foothills.
Sure enough, a year after the fire, a gushing rainstorm created a wall of water in the Black Hollow Creek drainage that swept a load of ash, debris, mud and rocks into the Poudre, killing four people.
The impact to the river was about as devastating as you’d expect: From the Black Hollow Creek confluence to 16 miles downstream biologists found just one lonely brown trout. There were trout 20 miles downstream at Stove Prairie, but their numbers were 80% lower that year compared to historic estimates.
The July 21, 2021, storm was an unusual one, to be sure, so much so that Kyle Battige, an aquatic biologist for CPW leading the Poudre restocking project, called it a “perfect combination.”
The rain was fierce, even for the foothills, as more than 1 inch fell in half an hour, and it fell right on Black Hollow, one of the more severely burned areas and one of the very few drainages with a moderate slope that led directly to the Poudre, without even a beaver dam or a small valley to slow the water down and capture some of the debris.
“The crosshairs hit just perfect on one of the most severely impacted drainages of that watershed,” Battige said.
But he and others acknowledge a savage storm, especially during the summer monsoon, isn’t unheard of, and Black Hollow isn’t the only damaged drainage that would cause problems if a storm dumped on it. And there’s always a chance for more fires in our changing climate of long, hot summers and drought. The monsoons don’t always help, either, as they bring lightning along with moisture, and lightning causes wildfires.
This year was a decent season, with storms that turned the Poudre a milder and fish-friendly milk chocolate at times instead of the widespread damage caused by the Black Hollow incident, Battige said. He believes he needs three to five years of similar weather before the restocking takes hold and nature replaces enough vegetation to help stop the most severe runoff. Five years, he said, and they’re essentially in the clear.
In the meantime, Rick Kahn, a member of the Flycasters who volunteered, expects some setbacks. That’s how these projects go, he said, and he would know, after working for CPW for three decades as a range conservationist. Nature is fickle, even cruel, and humans really never control it. Even so, they did have a good 2022, and every year they have a decent season, that’s one more year that adds to their everlasting optimism.
“We dodged a bullet this summer with all the monsoons, to be honest with you,” Kahn said. “But conservation itself has to be optimistic by nature, or else you’d walk off a cliff.”
A calculated but risky restocking
State biologists with the CPW discussed the fact that restocking the Poudre was a gamble, but after discussion, it didn’t seem as foolish as, say, betting on the Broncos to score more than one touchdown in a game.
“There’s certainly some risk,” Battige said, “but it was a risk we were willing to take. It’s a risk but a calculated one.”
Other than the fact that another event such as Black Hollow is unlikely, the state considered two other factors.
The first factor is also the most obvious: It takes time to establish a good fishing population. High school freshmen will graduate before the fish are ready to spawn, and it takes even longer before they grow to a catchable size. These fry are the future, not the present, even if CPW did stock a few larger fish to give the campers who dot the river in the summer a thrill or two.
The Poudre never was a gold-medal fishery, not like the Arkansas or Frying Pan or Roaring Fork rivers, but it was a good local spot that took pressure off close, renowned areas such as the Big Thompson.
Waiting three years, enough time to give the hillsides time to grow some vegetation, would be safer, Battige said, but it would also lead to a lot of wasted summers.
“The alternative is we wait three years, and nothing happens, and then we are kicking ourselves,” he said. “Three years is a long time.”
It is in human years at least. Nature doesn’t really work on our timeline: Scientists believe dinosaurs first evolved more than 250 million years ago. It may take a few years for the area to truly recover from the Cameron Peak fire, but really, it takes a lot longer than that. The area of Larimer County burned by the High Park fire in 2012, the third most destructive at the time with more than 85,000 acres charred, is just now really coming back, Kahn said.
“These things don’t recover quickly,” Kahn said.
Until they do, areas such as Big Thompson are in serious danger of being overfished, anglers from the Flycasters said.
“Mulching is expensive at $3,000 an acre, and that’s not really the overall answer,” Haeusler said. “We need to let nature take its course, but we have a tendency to be impatient.”
The other factor has to do with the kind of trout the state wants to spawn. Brown trout have dominated the Poudre in the last few years because whirling disease nearly wiped out the rainbow population in the 1990s. There’s nothing wrong with brown trout, but rainbows are more fun to catch because they bite more, and they are beautiful, Battige said. Brown trout are finicky fish that are a difficult challenge.
“Rainbows get caught a lot more,” Battige said.
When CPW would attempt to restock rainbows, the browns would either eat them or compete with them or both, and their size advantage was difficult to overcome. The sludge from Black Hollow choked out both kinds of trout, so CPW is essentially starting from scratch. This gives the state a chance to re-establish a dominant rainbow population, like it was before whirling disease, up to 70% rainbows and 30% brown. CPW isn’t restocking brown, allowing nature to take its course.
“This was another big reason to push the envelope,” Battige said. “The longer we wait, the more time the brown trout have to take over again. There will still be sections (of the Poudre) that are 90% browns if you want that challenge.”
Hard work hauling buckets of hope
The tiny trout aren’t any bigger than a pinky — some even refer to fish that size as “fingerlings” — but they can be heavy when there’s a bucket of 500 of them. The volunteers from Otterbox and The Nature Conservancy as well as more than 20 Flycasters from all over northern Colorado hauled those buckets during a hot morning and a rainy afternoon.
All that, of course, was the endgame of raising them at the state hatchery in Glenwood Springs from eggs and sperm collected from wild stock resistant to whirling disease. And they’ve got several years to go before they turn into catchable fish and, of course, those that make other fish on their own.
“That’s assuming we don’t have another Black Hollow event that resets everything,” Battige said.
Or another fire?
“Yeah,” Battige said. “Or another fire.”
Sisyphus probably also thought it was a lot of work to push the boulder up a hill only to have it roll down again, and Battige admits that another event that wiped out all their hard work would be “devastating.”
“It would take us back to square one,” he said. “But it would be heartbreaking more than it would be a back-breaker. It’s work we could continue to do and keep the progress going.”
CPW plans to prioritize the Poudre for a number of years, Battige said, meaning if another bad storm wipes out their efforts, they’d probably just try again next year, even if he warns that there are limits to stocking the Poudre with rainbows resistant to whirling disease.
“It’s a unique operation to get them and make them,” Battige said. “But we will continually be evaluating this need across the state. It’s a priority and will continue to be a priority.”
The Flycasters who worked on the project can’t help but be optimistic about it, and so is Battige. But they also don’t expect it to go perfectly. Nature doesn’t work that way.
“More fires will have an impact,” Kahn said. “We just need to accept this as users of the outdoors. These fires will get more common, and we have to adapt. When they do occur, you do what you have to do. You have to retool and restock.”