Awesome Bite On Bear River

Once a mediocre fishery, this Colorado trout stream turned on last year. But can it last?(May 2008)

In recent years, biologists stocked the Bear River heavily to create an easily accessible cuttroat fishery. So far, they've succeeded.
Photo courtesy of Holger Jensen.

The Yampa River drains a basin spanning 9,500 square miles in northwest Colorado and south-central Wyoming. It starts out as a snowmelt creek 12,000 feet high in the Flattops Wilderness Area. But it has no name until it tumbles down some 2,000 feet into Stillwater Canyon, where it becomes the Bear River. This stretch lasts barely 15 miles, flowing through three reservoirs and pretty green meadows where beaver dams widen the river before it drops another 2,000 feet to the small town of Yampa.

Many believe "Yampa" is the Ute Indian word for bear. But it is actually a plant, Perideridia gairdneir, with an edible root that served as a staple food for many Indian tribes. The plant was named "yampah" after the Ute Yamparica band, who lived in that part of Colorado.

The Bear River becomes the Yampa River only as it passes through the town of Yampa. Then it goes north to the ski resort of Steamboat Springs, then west to Dinosaur National Monument and Utah's fabled Green River.

The upper Bear is easily accessible to anglers. It runs alongside Forest Service Road 900, which dead-ends at a trailhead next to Stillwater Reservoir. Along this well-maintained gravel road, there are several campgrounds as well as individual campsites marked by fire rings.

Lower down, where the road reaches private ranchland at the National Forest boundary, it becomes Routt County Road 7, a paved two-laner the rest of the way to Yampa.

The scenery is spectacular, with the Flattops towering above both sides of the canyon and its hillsides clothed in aspen and pine. But the fishing had always been mediocre. A short growing season at elevations of 10,000 feet or more, periodic winterkills and disastrous snow runoffs allowed few survivors in a precarious population of brook trout and German browns.

Most anglers ignore the river to fish the three reservoirs it feeds: Upper Stillwater, Lower Stillwater and Yamcolo.

I had fished those reservoirs myself for 16 years, without ever trying the river. But last summer, on a camping trip with my wife Christy and her teenage daughter Chelsea, I decided to fish the Bear, hoping to catch a few brookies for supper.

BIG SURPRISEImagine my surprise when I started hooking large cutthroats of 1 to 2 pounds and limited out in 20 minutes!

The fish kept biting, even after my hunting dog started swimming where I was fishing.

I called Christy, who doesn't fish much, and Chelsea, who had never fished before. Both of them started hooking big cutthroats as if they'd been doing it all their lives.

Never before had I seen such big fish caught within walking distance of a road, only 200 yards from camp. And these were cutthroat trout, no less -- a species that usually demands long hikes into wilderness areas.

The fishing was so good I had to check my regulations to make sure the Bear River wasn't catch-and-release or otherwise restricted to protect a conservation population of cutthroat trout. But no, it wasn't even listed in the regs -- meaning that Colorado's statewide limit of four trout a day and eight in possession applied.

So where had all those big cutts come from?

Bill Atkinson, an aquatic biologist with the Colorado Division of Wildlife based in Steamboat Springs, cleared up the mystery. To meet the growing demands of anglers wanting to catch cutthroats in more accessible flowing water, he had stocked the Bear with 1,000 big brood culls from a hatchery. He also put in 1,000 sub-catchables -- six-inch fish that should grow to catchable size within a year or so.

These 2,000 fish planted in the summer of 2006 greatly increased trout density in two stretches of the river between the three reservoirs.But it remains to be seen how they survived the winter and the fishing pressure in waters so easily accessible.

"The Bear River is not a cutthroat recovery project, but a brand-new recreational fishery on a research basis," said Atkinson. "It's purely experimental. There are a lot of unanswered questions that will be answered only in future years, such as overwinter survival, how well the fish withstand a heavy runoff year and their ability to reproduce naturally."

The river has some pretty sharp drops and strong cascades, but the meadow stretches also have riffles with good gravel for spawning.

"At this stage, I can't guarantee the fishing will stay as good," said Atkinson. "All I can do is hope."

All the subspecies require clear, cold water, naturally fluctuating stream flows, low levels of sediment, well-distributed pools, stable stream banks and abundant stream cover. A study by the Western Native Trout Initiative found that such conditions exist mostly in designated wilderness and other roadless areas, underscoring the central role that roads play in devastating native trout populations.

"Native trout and wilderness are nearly synonymous," said Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity.

"You can't have one without the other. It's imperative that we not build more roads into America's last remaining wild places."

The fishing was so good I had to check my regulations to make sure the Bear River wasn't catch-and-release or otherwise restricted to protect a conservation population of cutthroat trout.

Cutthroats spawn in early summer, just after ice-out, which in the high country comes as late as the latter half of July.

In 1995, I found myself beside Surprise Lake in the Flattops Wilderness Area with a broken ankle and no food. For four days, before rescue arrived, I tried to catch spawning cutts. They wouldn't take anything I threw at them. But they do feed fiercely, immediately before and after their spawn.

FLIES, LURESWhereas big browns and rainbows often eat forage fish and smaller trout that are easily imitated by lures, cutthroats feed predominately on freshwater shrimp, aquatic insects, and terrestrials like grasshoppers, crickets and ants. Imitations of these food sour

ces are your best bets for catching cutts. That's why they're more a flyfisher's quarry.

My favorite fly is a Black Gnat, fished slow and deep. Other effective nymphs include a beadhead Hare's Ear, beadhead Pheasant Tail and Stoneflies. Dries don't work as well, though cutts will feed on the surface when there are plenty of flying insects around.

Always take along some mosquitoes and grasshoppers. Small spinners (1/24- and 1/16-ounce) are also effective. I stick almost exclusively to Panther Martins and Rooster Tails -- the smaller, the better and retrieved fairly fast.

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