Steamboat Springs God didn't intend for northern pike to cruise the eddies of the Yampa River, searching for native fish to sink their teeth into. But the fact is they're there. And they must be eating something. How else can you explain their ability to grow to be 3 1/2 feet long?
A crew from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was out on the Yampa west of Hayden this week trying to reduce the number of the toothy predators. Their efforts are all part of a complicated natural resources policy issue. The presence of nonnative pike, and more specifically their appetite, in the Yampa has thrown fishermen, environmentalists, government agencies and even water developers into the same kettle of fish.
The pike are being removed because biologists fear they are preying upon and out-competing already endangered fish like the Colorado pike minnow and the razorback sucker. Future development of water projects in the Yampa basin has been tied to the ability of cooperating government agencies to bolster the populations of the endangered fish.
Frank Pfeifer, a fisheries biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service in Vernal, Utah, said it's pretty plain that the pike are gobbling up everything they can sink their teeth into and swallow.
Studies contrasting the upper Yampa River and the upper Colorado, where there are no pike, suggest the pike have almost cleaned out their larder in the Yampa.
"If you look at the data, it's just amazing," Pfeifer said. "There are no fish of any kind under 20 inches in the upper Yampa. These predators have eaten themselves out of house and home."
Still, Pfeifer said the pike aren't likely to eat themselves into a population crash. Instead, they'll continue to prowl the river for years, albeit in a relative state of emaciation.
The pike were originally stocked in Elkhead Reservoir near Craig and were never intended to get into the river system. But a dam breach in 1977 opened Pandora's box.
Another Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, Tim Modde (pronounced moody), said the Yampa turned out to provide ideal habitat for pike, and it's no secret they have thrived in the river. Unlike other transplanted species like rainbow trout, the pike spawn successfully in the Yampa. Anglers report catching pike up to 40 inches in length.
Modde, along with colleague Tom Hatch, and river expert Ed Wick (not a Fish and Wildlife Service employee), were out on the Yampa on a frigid Wednesday morning last week checking net traps intended to remove mature pike from their spawning beds.
Using a johnboat powered by an outboard motor, the men checked a series of three traps set in backwater sloughs. The sloughs are contained within a state wildlife refuge where the pike spawn.
"They really like to spawn in vegetation," Modde said. So, flooded grassy areas that appear when the Yampa runs flush with snowmelt each spring make ideal reproductive grounds for pike.
Last Wednesday's survey of the traps turned up a disappointing five pike. Modde and his crew stored them in a cooler filled with water until they could be transported to a public fishing pond closer to Hayden. If the pike had been collected in Utah, they would have been destroyed. But sportsmen in Colorado have achieved a compromise after being weighed, sexed and tagged, the fish are put in ponds where they have no chance of getting back into the river.
The fish become available for anglers who seek the thrill of catching a fierce predator.
Modde said it feels good to know the trapped fish provide recreation for people who might not otherwise access them.
"We estimate about an 85-percent return rate" based on the number of tags turned in by anglers, Modde said.
Not everyone who cares about the river is 100 percent comfortable with the pike relocation program. The presence of the big fish has created demand from sport fishermen who will pay a fee to local guides to get them into a large pike.
Bruce Lee of Straightline Sporting Goods is both an avid pike fisherman and the owner of a shop that books guided pike fishing trips. He's made a deliberate decision not to worry about the pike relocation program.
"I've decided, let's just make the best of it," Lee said. He recommends pike anglers take a close look at Stagecoach Reservoir as an alternative to the river.
Managing predator population
The primary focus of Modde and his team is to protect endangered species of native fish as far away as Vernal, Utah, and even as far away as Sand Wash in the Desolation Canyon of the Green River.
Modde believes the pike that are pressuring pike minnow and razorback suckers near Vernal and Jensen, Utah, probably originated as far upstream as Hayden.
No one at the Fish and Wildlife Service expects the efforts to remove pike from the river to either eliminate the predators or solve the problem.
"We know we can't eradicate them," Modde said. "There are so many areas we don't have access to. This is a demonstration program. We want to learn how to manage the fish."
Last year, the Fish and Wildlife Service managed to trap about 250 fish. This year, the number has fallen to only about 130. Modde said that shouldn't be misinterpreted as a sign the relocation program has already cut the population by two-thirds. Annual variations in streamflows and water temperatures can affect the success of the trapping, he said. This year's exceptionally low runoff means the river is late in flooding some of the backwaters where the pike spawn.
Longtime Hayden angler and former sporting goods store owner Don Johnson said he thinks it's just fine that locals have a chance to catch the fish out of the ponds. But he thinks the pike relocation program is futile.
"It's a lot better than killing them, but I think it's a waste of time, money and effort. They're never ever going to get rid of those pike. And they're about to eat themselves out of house and home anyway. I don't think there are the numbers of big pike there used to be. They're just not there anymore."
Johnson said he knows that there's no way to stop the Fish and Wildlife Service program. And given that knowledge, he would prefer the state Legislature pass a law to give the biologists access to the entire river so they can do a more thorough job.
Pfeifer acknowledges the program is expensive, especially when you amortize the annual budget of $35,000 over 250 or 130 trapped pike a year. But he believes getting a handle on the pike population is about more than protecting the endangered fish downstream. The upper Colorado has many hundreds of lesser-known fish like the roundtail chub. And the evidence suggests the pike have decimated the ecosystem of the upper Yampa of those kinds of fish.
Still, Lee says there's something special about getting a big pike on the other end of his fly line.
"The cool thing about it is you've got a chance to catch fish up to 45 inches on your fly rod. That's the most exciting thing," he said.
"They're the kind of fish that attack your fly. They don't sip anything they are wanting to kill it."
Pike love 'em or despise 'em they're out there. And they're hungry.