Hope for the River, By Will Rice

Will Rice for Sage Fly Fish

Here’s the last entry in our compelling series about the situation down on the South Platte and Sand Creek written by Will Rice.

I’m very cautious when I talk to people who are not familiar with this section of the South Platte River to make sure I don’t focus too much time on this disaster without talking about some of the positive things happening.

Just about one month to the day after the spill at Sand Creek was detected, the South Platte River received some of the most positive news that I have ever heard. Miles upstream from ground zero would receive funds and efforts for one of the most comprehensive improvement projects in the river’s history. The Littleton City Council voted unanimously to move ahead with a revitalization and improvement project that will change the South Platte and create a more natural river and will hopefully lead to more stabilized and healthy flows.

The $4 million project run by South Suburban Parks and Recreation will create a deeper channel into a 2.4-mile stretch of the river. In the water channel itself, a dozen or so riffles and pools will be created to improve the fish habitat to help species sustainability. Eroding banks would be stabilized and the river will be generally enhanced.

Granted, this is one project and only 2.4 mile stretch of nearly 30 miles of river bank that runs nearly unobstructed below Chatfield dam. It is however, a milestone event. It is a start.

Will Rice for Sage Fly Fish

Most people agree upon one thing: there is no reason that this river cannot be drastically improved and be a better resource tomorrow than it is today. People – and not just carp junkies and environmental masochists – are starting to recognize the river’s potential. The river has issues – but there is a growing recognition that with relatively minimal effort and funding, the South Platte can be transformed into a valuable resource and source of pride for Denver and its’ surrounding communities.

“Managing a sport fishery in a metropolitan area provides challenges from several fronts – water temperature, physical habitat (i.e., providing pool habitat), sediment deposition, instream flows,” says Paul Winkle, Aquatic Biologist Colorado Division of Wildlife. ”The South Platte River from Chatfield downstream through the City of Denver and even beyond doesn’t always have adequate flows to provide optimum amounts of water for sport fish.”

Fly Fishing - Will Rice - Sage Fly Fish

Many believe these unpredictable and sometimes wildly dynamic flows stand between the South Platte being an anemic sport fishery and a world class urban fishing resource. These flows are primarily controlled at one single point: the Chatfield Dam and those who have rights to the water it contains.

Despite all of the conditions that exist on the South Platte, there are still spectacular specimens rainbow trout, brown trout, small mouth and carp that manage to find refuge and thrive. The DOW has concentrated most of its efforts just below Chatfield Dam on the upper metro section.

Rainbow on the South Platte - Will Rice

“From Chatfield dam down, the South Platte has been stocked with fingerling brown trout. This stocking took place in 2006, 2007, and 2010,” said Winkle. “However, due to inconsistent flows in this section, they are not stocked on an annual basis. Rainbows have been stocked on an annual basis starting in 2008 and continuing. This is most likely the primary source of the rainbows anglers have been seeing downstream in the river.”

“As far as the smallmouth, Chatfield Reservoir and Bear Creek Reservoir are the main sources of those fish,” commented Winkle. “But there may be some natural reproduction in the South Platte.”

Bass - Will Rice for Sage Fly Fish

Denver Trout Unlimited has spearheaded efforts to improve the river. Their goal is to ensure that when river restoration projects are discussed and funded, that fish habitat is high on the list of considerations. Every year, DTU sponsors the Pro-Am Carp Slam, an event that teams up professional and amateur fly fishers to chase the common and mirror carp in South Platte River in and around downtown Denver. In 2011, the event raised over $30,000 and this money was used to help fund the restoration efforts taking place on the South Platte.

In response to the Suncor disaster, Denver Trout Unlimited responded by creating “Spill and Kill” reporting cards and distributing to DTU members and fly shops across the metro area. The laminated and wallet size cards include a toll-free number on the front of the card that directs callers to the National Response Center for pollution emergencies is a 24-hour nationwide hotline run by the U.S. Coast Guard. Responders will notify all relevant federal, state, and local agencies immediately and call back the reporting. Denver Trout unlimited and member anglers are mobilizing to create an early-warning network to alert authorities about pollution and ensure swift responses.

Will Rice for Sage Fly Fish - Carp

For me, it is easy to get bummed out thinking about the situation on Sand Creek and the lower section of the South Platte I once fished so often. At the same time, it is important to recognize that there is a silver lining to the situation: there has been a ton of coverage about the river – more coverage in the last three months than the last three years. I’m of the opinion that this type of press, ultimately can have a beneficial impact in the longer term. If people begin to recognize that this river system does not have to function as city drainage ditch, instead, that it can be a valued resource for residents, something good can come a situation that right now seems really bad. Maybe I’m being overly optimistic.

In early January, I had a day off from work. I awoke early in the morning and tied two new fly patterns, for me they were experimental. When they were complete, I stuck both into my hat, grabbed a spool of 8 lb fluorocarbon and put my 8 wt in the back of my truck. It took me about 8 minutes to get get to the bank of the river from my house. The sun was high in the sky and the temperature was in the 50s – balmy for January in Denver. I stood high on the bank looking for fish. It took me a few minutes, but I found one, holding in deeper water. Every few seconds I could make out the lateral line of its’ back and then every-so-often: a flash of its’ tail. I stripped out line. I took my time. And then made my first cast of the year on my home water. It felt really good – and really promising.

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