Steamboat Springs I was startled when the telephone jangled at 8:30 a.m. Sunday. It wasn’t because I was sleeping in — I’m incapable of that. And it turned out the caller who dialed my buddy’s cell phone was an old friend we’d been hoping to hear from. I just wish Dave had dialed the number for the trout, instead of calling Jim.
Just before the phone broke the silence, we’d been sitting by a small lake in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area drinking coffee and observing that the only detectable human noise in the air was the sound of our own voices — no motorcycle engines, no TV, no hippity-hop music and no jets sighing overhead. No nothing. Just the sounds that happy birds make.
There wasn’t even the sound of a fish breaking the surface of the lake to grab a delicate mayfly. And that was a problem.
There’s something amiss this summer with the handful of beautiful little lakes clustered within a mile-and-a-half of the summit of Buffalo Pass. Late July is the time of year when a species of caddis fly known as Goddards, after the fly pattern that imitates them, send the trout in those high-mountain lakes into a feeding frenzy.
This particular aquatic insect, upon hatching, putt-putts around the surface of a lake like a little motor boat, leaving a telltale v-shaped wake behind it. The motion of the Goddard caddis brings out the predator in the cutthroat trout. But not this month.
Only a few of the bugs are hatching, and the fish are leaving those unmolested. We managed to land a few fish over the weekend, but the lake was quiet morning, noon and night.
We’ve decided it was the water temperature that has put the fish off their favorite feed. Jim waded out into the lake until the water was up to the bottom of his shorts (no need for waders this summer) and bent over to dip a stream thermometer on a string as deep into the lake as he could. He came up with a reading of 71 degrees Fahrenheit.
That’s pleasant for people who want to swim, but it's too warm for trout. We deduced the fish were all in cooler water at the bottom of the lake.
Steamboat-based Colorado Parks and Wildlife fisheries biologist Billy Atkinson said Monday that afternoon temperatures in the town stretch of the Yampa got as high as 78 degrees last week. But trout in the lakes on the Continental Divide should have a built-in advantage over their cousins in the river — they don’t have to expend calories and precious oxygen resisting the current of the river.
But there’s another factor that could be hurting the Alpine trout this summer, and that’s last summer. When I visited Mica Lake farther to the north on July 30, 2011, the ice had just come off the lake and there were big snowbanks all the way down to the water.
Atkinson said that means the water in the high lakes didn’t warm up enough for the fishes’ metabolism to kick in and cause them to begin feeding until August last year.
With only a few weeks in which to feed and build up reserves for the coming winter, it’s not unlikely there was a higher than usual fish mortality rate in the mountains this past winter, Atkinson concluded.
Clearly, being a trout is a really tough gig.
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com