September 08, 2020
This story was originally titled “The Artifact: Colorado's Yampa River is one of the best trout streams in the Rockies—and locals are working to keep it that way.” It appeared in the August-September 2020 issue of Fly Fisherman.
It was in May, when melting snow turns the Yampa River into a fire hose, that the water almost took my daughter.
She was two, and we were walking on the paved bike path that follows the river through Steamboat Springs, the ski town that I’ve called home since 2002. I waved to my friend Clark, who had just stepped out of the art gallery that occupies the old train depot, and that’s when my toddler made a dash for the current.
I still shudder to think how far that rushing river would’ve carried her, if I hadn’t scooped her up before she teetered off the bank. Yet the Yampa’s springtime power is precisely what makes it so special: Unlike virtually every other river in the U.S., it hasn’t been straitjacketed by dams or weakened by diversions. It still evidences nature’s own design. In autumn, it’s a mild-mannered Dr. Jekyll, but in spring it morphs into a violent Mr. Hyde. I like it that way. Apparently, so do the trout—and a host of other living things.
High-water years have supported some 3,178 adult trout per mile through downtown Steamboat Springs. And fly fishers on the upper Yampa can still catch mountain whitefish, a salmonid that’s native to only two Colorado rivers—the White and the Yampa.
At Carpenter Ranch, where The Nature Conservancy manages a 906-acre agricultural property beside the Yampa River 63 miles from its headwaters, a rare community of cottonwood, box elder, and red osier dogwood trees still thrives along the water. Farther downstream, the river supports four endangered fish species (humpback chub, bonytail, Colorado pikeminnow, and razorback sucker) that have disappeared from the other, highly dammed waterways of the Colorado River Basin.
“We still have a natural hydrograph on the Yampa, with flows that peak and taper,” explains Kelly Romero-Heaney, Steamboat Springs’ water resources manager. “Those peak flows make a huge difference to the river’s health.” Across the West, dams have altered the character of most rivers by moderating their dramatic surges and drops. But the Yampa’s four small reservoirs are located mostly near its headwaters, and don’t significantly impact the river’s seasonal fluctuations.
Those ups and downs foster unusually healthy riparian zones and gravel beds that produce large populations of the aquatic insects favored by trout. So although the river looks rather small—averaging just 30 feet wide through Steamboat Springs—it holds some astonishingly big fish. Browns here have been known to exceed 30 inches in length.
Their existence used to be Colorado’s best-kept secret, but no longer. “Ten years ago, the Yampa was an amazing fishery that didn’t get pressure because it was relatively unknown,” says Ben Rock, a fly-fishing guide who operates out of Straightline Sports in Steamboat Springs. “Now, the trophy hunting has gotten more technical. But there’s still lots of food, so the fish have a high growth rate. The allure is still small water, big fish.”
In 2002, however, the water got too small. Extreme drought shrank the Yampa’s flow to just 17 cubic feet per second (cfs), and water temperatures topped 80 degrees F. every day for a month. Many whitefish died, and locals worried about their river’s survival.
Although it had escaped rampant dam building and even toxic pollution (mining never fouled the Yampa like other Colorado rivers), it obviously wasn’t immune to the effects of climate change. The valley’s residents vowed to do something to help—and they did.
Colorado may be full of stark, treeless summits, but you don’t see those around the Yampa Valley. Here in the state’s northwest corner, on the Western Slope, the peaks are covered with dark green spruces that make this landscape look more like Vermont than the rest of the Rockies.
But at 10,000 to 11,000 feet in elevation, these mountains are high enough to wring plenty of snow from passing clouds. Steamboat, the ski resort that was founded on these slopes back in 1963, is famous for its deep powder and cowboy character: Miners here never unearthed much gold, but homesteaders established cattle and sheep ranches that live on today. Come midsummer, round bales of hay dot the broad meadows flanking the Yampa River.
From its headwaters in the Flat Tops Wilderness south of Steamboat Springs, the Yampa flows west for 250 miles through mountains, sagebrush flats, and sandstone canyons before joining the Green River at Echo Park in Dinosaur National Monument.
And none of its route flows through major cities. Echo Park is a five-hour drive from Salt Lake City; Steamboat Springs, on the Upper Yampa, is three hours from Denver. The river’s remoteness has been its saving grace: No elaborate dams or diversions were needed to support the relatively small towns that developed along its banks, and its water was too distant from major metropolitan areas to make pumpback projects seem feasible.
Paying for Water
But in 2002, drought squelched the flows that the region’s ranchers and recreationists had grown accustomed to, and the shortages haunted locals. Steamboat may be best known for its skiing, but its summer tourism has also risen steadily—a hot July day in the Yampa Valley is still cooler than the lower-elevation cities across Colorado and Texas—and for heat-fleeing visitors, the river is a big draw. River tubing is popular throughout much of the summer, with several outfitters renting tubes and shuttling floaters. Stand-up paddleboarding has also grown, as has fishing: Many vacationers now expect to wet a line during their trip to Steamboat Springs, where you can land a 20-inch trout and gulp locally brewed beer along the same stretch of river.
Municipal managers knew that a dying Yampa would impose big financial losses from diminished recreation and tourism. Declining river health would also force the city to invest in expensive upgrades to its wastewater treatment facilities. But, says Romero-Heaney, the Yampa Valley’s outdoorsy residents also recognize the river’s intrinsic value, not just its revenue potential. “In surveys, protecting the health of the river always scores very high,” she says. “The community has asked us to preserve the Yampa for the Yampa’s sake, because it has value that, in some cases, may not be quantifiable.”
So the city of Steamboat Springs joined forces with area ranchers, utility providers, nonprofit organizations (such as The Nature Conservancy), and public land managers to assess the river’s needs and plan for its future. In 2012, when drought struck again and July flows dipped to 45 cfs, the coalition was able to convince the Colorado Water Trust and the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District to release enough water from Stagecoach Reservoir to sustain the river’s ecosystem.
It wasn’t enough to give the Yampa a clean bill of health (in 2016, the EPA added it to its 303(d) list of impaired and threatened streams, based on high 2012 water temperatures) but by August 2018, the city had completed a river health assessment and stream management plan that now guides remediation efforts. One current project is planting cottonwoods in riparian zones along the Yampa so that the trees can shade the water and help keep it cool.
And in fall 2019, The Nature Conservancy launched the Yampa River Fund (yampariverfund.org), an endowment that can pay for future water releases (like the one in 2012 from Stagecoach Dam) and projects to support the river’s health along its entire length. Thanks to deep-pocketed local donors, the Yampa Fund raised $4 million for its debut (the Steamboat Ski and Resort Corporation alone gave $500,000, which ranks as the company’s largest-ever single gift). “In a resort community like Steamboat,” says Romero-Heaney, “There are homeowners who may not live here year-round, but still want to support river health. The Yampa Fund tapped into these hidden philanthropists.”
Not only is the funding local, but so is the decision making about how money will be spent. “There’s no faraway entity throwing money at a rural community and saying, ‘Go fix your problem,’” says Romero-Heaney. “This is a locally driven movement, and having that community buy-in is really important to making sure those funds are spent wisely.”
Before and now, the Yampa River has a lot going for it. That’s especially true for anyone who wields a fly rod.
Fishing the River
Fly fishers can target trout from the Flat Tops to the town of Maybell, about 100 miles downstream—though as the river gets bigger, the ratio of trout to other fish diminishes. Most anglers focus their attention on the stretches through and above Steamboat Springs. The Yampa through town is all public water, and it’s bordered by a paved bike path that makes it easy to relocate from pool to pool (or to grab a beer and sandwich from one of the many riverside restaurants).
Upstream, there are more public access points at Rotary Park, River Creek Park, and the Chuck Lewis State Wildlife Area. Stagecoach State Park, a 25-minute drive from Steamboat Springs, contains Stagecoach Reservoir, with a boat launch and 1.5 miles of tailwater fishing below the dam. This small parking lot fills early, but the tailwater’s consistently cold water makes it a great destination in late July and August, when low flows through Steamboat Springs limit productivity on those stretches.
Below the tailwater, the Sarvis Creek State Wildlife Area offers public access to prime rainbow trout and whitefish habitat. Access there was expanded in 2013, when Western Rivers Conservancy purchased the Hubbard property, at Sarvis Creek’s confluence with the Yampa. The allure of this zone is its backcountry feel: You’ll see fewer anglers here than in town or at the tailwater, and native mountain whitefish are plentiful.
Ask locals about the best fishing season, and you’ll get a variety of answers. Some say it’s late June, when sundown often cues a hatch of Green Drakes (as well as the Brown and Slate varieties) that turn the river’s glassy surface into a regatta of tiny sailboats. Sarvis Creek is the best spot for exploiting the Green Drakes, though I’ve also fished that hatch at Rotary Park, farther downstream.
Personally, I’m partial to June mornings, because the 10 A.M. Pale Morning Dun hatch often triggers a lively bite on almost anything—nymphs, drys, streamers. Everybody’s hungry and nobody’s picky. Plus, mornings let you cast without the “rubber hatch” of tubers that typically covers the river on summer afternoons and evenings.
Ben Rock, a longtime Steamboat fly-fishing guide, says May is his favorite month. That season’s raging flows of fast, turbulent water can be intimidating, he admits. But May affords the year’s best opportunity to catch the Yampa’s biggest fish.
“In May, the water becomes so aggressive that it pushes all the fish into a few pockets of soft water, so the biggest 12-pound trout end up stacked shoulder-to-shoulder with the little 12-inch fish,” he explains. He looks for them on the downstream end of the river’s big bends, which often shelter trout between the bank and the seam of fast-flowing current. “They sit right on the river bottom, where the bank hits the gravel, and they won’t chase food,” explains Rock. “They’re hungry, because their feeding opportunities are limited, but their top priority is conserving energy out of the current. So you’ve got to get down deep and put food right in front of them.”
Rock drifts a heavily weighted stonefly, worm, or egg pattern (rainbow trout spawn in May) using a 6- or 7-weight rod and 2X tippet. “The water’s off-colored in May, so you don’t need to play the finesse game,” he says. “But you do need enough strength to turn the fish before it heads into the current—because once the fish takes off into the hurricane, you can’t win that fight,” he continues.
You should expect to stand in deep water, casting short: Fish are hunkered down at your feet or, at most, a rod’s length away. And you can expect to lose lots of gear. After all, rolling flies along the river bottom in high water is bound to produce a few hangups. But, says Rock, that’s your clue that you’re putting your flies where they need to be to entice shelter-seeking fish. “If you’re not donating flies to the river gods, then you’re not doing it right,” he jokes. But the reward can be a 25- to 29-inch brown trout that’s virtually unhookable in any other season.
Early summer brings PMDs and Yellow Sallies. During those months, the Yampa calls for a 4- to 5-weight rod and 5X tippet. Then, once summer’s heat cranks up, grasshoppers provide lively action.
“Terrestrial fishing is phenomenal here, and generally, it’s the bigger fish that respond,” says Rock. That season typically starts in July and continues into September, even after autumn rains trick many anglers into assuming that hopper season has ended.
Caddis and Tricos are also prolific through summer, when a dry/dropper rig can prove successful in the pocketwater through town. Rock likes to fish a drowned Trico pattern—a strategy that’s productive not only in summer but into the fall, when Rock also returns to egg patterns (the Yampa’s brown trout spawn from late September through November).
“It’s best to have a wide selection of egg colors,” suggests Rock. Depending on the cloud cover and the lures that fish have been seeing regularly, anything from yellow to apricot to pink and even chartreuse can work. Just keep rolling them along the river bottom until the fish’s interest clues you into the color du jour. I also find “bacon and eggs” to be a winning combo: I tie on an egg with a pink San Juan Worm dropper.
In any season, the Yampa is a gem—but it’s not invincible. The river may have managed to escape the kind of widespread exploitation that’s degraded so many other streams across the country, but population growth, climate change, and a host of assorted threats now make its future more tenuous than I’d prefer.
Fortunately, I’m hardly alone. Many residents of the rural communities along the Yampa realize that the river’s health is paramount. The conservation gains we’ve collectively pushed forward prove that people can, in fact, work together to improve the environment they love. That’s encouraging, because we’ll need that collective resolve to counter growing demands on the Yampa. We still have to devise ways to keep the water temperatures from spiking beyond the levels that our native riparian ecosystems require. And every few years, Colorado’s thirsty Front Range revives a proposal to pipe Yampa River water east, over two mountain ranges, to urban lawns and pipes.
But we haven’t waited for such catastrophes to take action. We’ve recognized that our relatively pristine river needs and deserves defense. After all, my daughter’s nine now, and she still gravitates toward the water (she’s getting wonderfully good at netting the fish I catch). I want her to be able to find plenty of Yampa River trout and whitefish when she’s old enough to catch them herself.
Kelly Bastone lives in Steamboat Springs with her daughter and husband.