Fish scarce in Yampa River

Electro-shocking crew says river's due for stream improvement


The results of Friday's electro-shocking of fish on an 800-foot section of the Yampa River within the Chuck Lewis State Wildlife Area were enough to make any angler frown. But fisheries biologist Billy Atkinson was unfazed.

There weren't many fish to count last week, but Atkinson has hopes for this stretch of river.

"If I yell, don't take it personally," Atkinson told his all-volunteer crew. "I yell a lot on this action. It's good sport. This data is very important to me."

Atkinson and a crew of nine men were conducting a survey of the fish life in the river about two miles south of Steamboat Springs, upstream from the bridge on Routt County Road 14F. By wading through the river with generator-powered electrodes on long poles, the crew was able to stun and net the fish temporarily. They then were placed in small aluminum barges filled with water that were towed behind the volunteers.

When the catch has been "worked up" and the data recorded, Atkinson returns all but a few of the fish to the water unharmed. Several of the pike won't make it back to their favorite haunts. Atkinson kills a few of the pike to sample their stomach contents and calculate their age. The pike have a bone behind their gill plate that contains growth rings similar to a tree trunk's. Biologist can use information about the age and size of the pike to reach conclusions about their growth rates and density of prey species in the river.

This is the third time since 2000 that Atkinson has surveyed the same stretch of river. He and his volunteer crew knew enough not to expect to find many trout, but the number of fish, their age class and the species composition will provide critical baseline data.

A plan to conduct significant stream improvements on the public access stretch of the river is almost in place, and work could begin as soon as the summer of 2006. The stream improvement project will be a collaborative effort among several groups, including the DOW and local fishermen, through the Yampa Valley Stream Improvement Charitable Trust, a separate 501-c-3 created by members of the Yampa Valley Flyfishers. The Flyfishers save the proceeds of their annual Golf Trout Benefit to leverage grant monies needed to complete the stream improvements.

In 2016, the data collected on a mild November afternoon in 2004 will allow biologists to gauge how effective the stream improvements proved to be.

On Friday, the first of two sweeps with the electrodes produced one large rainbow, a nice brown and a handful of small trout. Four or five large white suckers, a couple of healthy looking mature pike and a lot of "hammer handle" pike also were collected. That compares with 19 pike and five trout on the first sweep in 2003. As the crew set out on its second pass, it quickly picked up some more of the skinny juvenile pike.

Later Friday afternoon, Atkinson collected data on a section of the Yampa that holds many fewer trout than the river does just two miles downstream. He received permission to survey a segment of the river that flows through private land and should offer comparable habitat to what exists today at Chuck Lewis.

The private stretch isn't part of the planned stream improvements. But Atkinson thinks this year's fish population survey will provide a means for contrasting future populations within and outside the improved area.

During the spring, DOW crews collected, tagged and released northern pike on the upper stretch of the Yampa beginning at Lake Catamount and continuing downstream to the "Hayden pump house" east of the town. The purpose of tagging those fish, Atkinson said, is to track their movements. If the pike later prove to migrate downstream into habitat deemed critical for endangered native fishes, the tagging program could become the basis of a decision to remove the toothy predators from the upper reaches of the river near Steamboat.

-- To reach Tom Ross call 871-4205

or e-mail


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