In its second year, Elkhead Reservoir Fishing Classic considered major success
CRAIG, Colo. - Colorado Parks and Wildlife is celebrating impressive numbers after the 2017 Elkhead Reservoir Fishing Classic concluded on a high note in early July. This year's event saw a sharp increase in several important measures, including prizes, participation and the number of northern pike and smallmouth bass - species not native to the Colorado River drainage - caught by anglers of all ages and abilities.
A recently compiled post tournament tally showed 332 anglers caught 1,359 fish, including 963 smallmouth bass and 396 northern pike. The totals are a marked increase from the tournament's first run in 2016 when 56 anglers caught only 582 fish.
"The growth in interest and participation is a major step forward for what we are trying to achieve at Elkhead," said CPW's NW Region Senior Aquatic Biologist Lori Martin. "From little kids to old timers, everyone had a great time and caught a lot of fish. We anticipate even greater interest next year. This is a good thing for the reservoir and the Yampa River, in addition to being a boon for the local economy."
Spurred by the chance of winning prizes and money, anglers from across the state traveled to the northwest region reservoir to test their skills. A few went home considerably richer for their efforts, like Tom Bowser of Craig who earned $1,500 for landing the 2017-tagged smallmouth bass. Because no one caught the 2017-tagged northern pike, a drawing from the pool of contestants resulted in Don Edward of Steamboat Springs taking home $1,500. In addition, several anglers took home a portion of $5,000 in total prizes and cash for catching the most smallmouth and pike, or catching the smallest or largest of each species.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board provided funding for the tournament, allocated from the Colorado Legislature's Species Conservation Trust Fund.
"Quite a nice reward for just a few hours of fishing," said Park Manager Jacob Brey of Elkhead Reservoir State Park. "But what's important to note, not only did these anglers win some great prizes they also actively participated in positive fishery management, one of several goals for this tournament and the reservoir."
Since 2015 - along with the help of several local anglers - CPW has stocked numerous warmwater sport fish into Elkhead Reservoir, including 50, foot-long black crappie 127,051 largemouth bass fry 672 largemouth bass, each approximately eight inches in length 120 largemouth bass, each averaging over 21 inches in length 30,000 juvenile black crappie and 15,000 juvenile bluegill.
According to the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, of which CPW is a partner, all recently stocked species are compatible with Colorado's endangered native fish found in the Yampa River and other rivers in the Upper Colorado River Basin. However, northern pike and smallmouth bass - two predator fish currently established in Elkhead Reservoir and many other waters across western Colorado - rank high on the list of primary impediments to native fish recovery.
"Because of the significant threat they pose to the state's native fish, we must replace northern pike and smallmouth bass with warmwater sport fish compatible with native fish recovery and conservation efforts," said Martin. "However, fishery management goals like these cannot be met quickly and effectively without the assistance and cooperation of the angling community."
Martin recommends all anglers continue working with CPW and become directly involved in the constructive and responsible management of their own fisheries, primarily by working with their local aquatic biologist.
"Over the past few years, there has been quite a bit of controversy with what is happening at Elkhead," said Area Aquatic Biologist Tory Eyre of Craig. "Not everyone has agreed with the overall goal, but I sense a positive change. We are grateful to those whom have made an effort to listen and learn about the various issues involved. This is not an easy problem to tackle, but it is great to see community involvement in the positive transformation of this important fishery and I hope to see it continue in the future."
In fall of 2016, CPW and its partners in the Recovery Program installed a 1.3 million dollar net across the reservoir's spillway. Funded by the Colorado Water Conservation Board and Recovery Program partners, the net's design allows water to spill while at the same time reducing the escapement of smallmouth bass and northern pike into critical habitat for the endangered Colorado pikeminnow in the Yampa River.
According to the manufacturer, the net could last between 10-15 years. Due to its relatively short lifespan, it is considered a temporary remedy for the problem of nonnative fish in Elkhead Reservoir however, the net gives the Recovery Program and CPW time to implement permanent strategies aimed at reducing smallmouth bass and northern pike populations. The Elkhead Reservoir Fishing Classic is a major component of the overall effort.
"By the time we reach the end of the net's useful life, we hope we will be well on our way to establishing a warmwater sport fishery in Elkhead that is compatible with native fish downstream," said Martin. "If we all continue to work together in the spirit of cooperation and compromise, we can provide anglers with excellent long-term warmwater fishing opportunities while at the same time recover native fish populations in the Yampa River Basin."
In 2014, CPW and program partners considered the use of rotenone - a natural substance derived from the root of rainforest plants - to reclaim Elkhead Reservoir. The process would have lethally eliminated the majority of fish in the reservoir, followed by a restocking effort with compatible sport fish species. After discussing the option with local residents and community leaders, Recovery Program partners instead installed the spillway net.
To aid in reducing their numbers, CPW and Recovery Program partners also encourage anglers to 'catch and keep' northern pike and smallmouth bass in the many western Colorado waters with established populations of the predatory fish. In addition, through cash and prize incentives like the Elkhead Reservoir Fishing Classic and the public's help and support, CPW officials say detrimental warmwater fish populations across the region can ultimately be controlled, helping bring native fish recovery efforts to a successful conclusion.
CPW is already preparing for the 2018 Elkhead Reservoir Fishing Classic and encourages the public to participate in the weeklong event next summer.