Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.
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Saturday was the perfect day to get mud caked in the tread of your boots, and we made the most of it.
We were among 35 volunteers who showed up at the Chuck Lewis State Wildlife Area just south of Steamboat Springs. We were there to help put some of the finishing touches on phase two of stream improvements being undertaken on a nice quarter-mile stretch of the Yampa River. It's just upstream from the Gilroy Bridge on Routt County Road 14F.
My motives for showing up at The Chuck on Saturday were pretty selfish. I'd love to see this stretch of the river, just a couple of minutes from the Holiday Inn, become a productive trout fishery.
Thanks to the Colorado Division of Wildlife and the determined efforts of the Yampa Valley Fly Fishers, it is well on its way. Through their Yampa Valley Stream Improvement Charitable Trust, and using matching funds generated by the annual Golf Trout Tournament, the Fly Fishers have pulled off the first two-thirds of a three-phase project enhancing the health of the river upstream and downstream of the bridge.
The Fly Fishers' Dan Picaro said the city of Steamboat, Yampa Valley Community Foundation and Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp. all contributed. Routt County came through in a big way with thousands of cubic yards of fill dirt, Picaro added. And individual donors contributed thousands of dollars to the work.
Steamboat-based DOW fisheries biologist Billy Atkinson has been a tireless advocate for the work being done at The Chuck.
During a few hours at The Chuck on Saturday, we got to plant willows, reseed disturbed areas, work on a soft-surface trail and get hundreds of little pieces of straw down our sweatshirts.
The hard work already had been completed during the course of the preceding two summers. Heavy equipment was used to move a sharp bend in the river into its abandoned historic channel. That difficult task was undertaken to solve a severe erosion problem. Elsewhere, a pair of cross-channel boulder structures were put in place and eight more boulder veins were installed, all to create healthier channels in the river.
Atkinson knows better than anyone that the combination of voracious nonnative northern pike and poor river structure has left this stretch of the Yampa nearly devoid of trout.
Almost exactly four years have passed since I had the opportunity to accompany Atkinson and a crew of volunteers as they used electro-shocking equipment to take a census of the fish in this stretch of the Yampa.
After two passes over an 800-foot stretch of water, they collected one large rainbow trout, a nice brown and a handful of small trout. There were four or five large white suckers, a couple of well-fed mature pike and a lot of skinny hammer handle pike.
With the new improvements in place, the stage is set for Atkinson to begin stocking wary brown trout, whirling disease-resistant Hofer rainbows and willing cutthroat trout to this public fishery.
Establishing trout populations in The Chuck will be helped along by the fact that the river no longer is hospitable to pike.
Someday in the future, if they aren't worn out, the Fly Fishers will tackle phase three of the project. It entails a longer stretch of river downstream toward town.
"The bottom line is that everything we do is done for the good of the river and the riparian zone," Picaro said.
And in a couple of years, it will be a wonderful close-in fishing destination.
I'm going to wade into deep water and predict that within fewer than 15 years, area youngsters will be able to ride bikes along new extensions of the Yampa River Core Trail either to go fishing at The Chuck or golfing at Haymaker. And they'll be able to do that without ever riding along a major highway.
Hats off to all the committed individuals who did the heavy lifting and are making it happen.
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