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Rabbitbrush Rambler: Fish stories

Posted: Tuesday, Jun 25th, 2013

The column that follows was written just before fire engulfed our beloved mountains and the surrounding area. If it seems uncaring for me use it today, please forgive me.

Although I do not fish, I enjoy reading about the fishermen of old, like those with their nets on the Sea of Galilee, Izaac Walton with his hand-tied flies in England, and Huck Finn on his raft on the Mississippi. Perhaps fish were once abundant in other parts of the world, but this condition did not last long after settlement began in Colorado.

In what became Colorado, American Indians were not usually fishermen, although they were unlikely to pass up an easy chance to spear one, catch it with arrow, or grab it with bare hands. Pressure on the fish population didn’t exist in this area, but in Utah, especially around Utah Lake, a band of Ute Indians used reeds to make rafts and weirs and harvests fish, and they dried the harvest for an important source of food.

After settlement, when fishing began in earnest in Colorado, the lakes, rivers, even irrigation ditches seemed to produce enough fish for people for a while. The dramatic impact on fish and wild game lay ahead in the 1870s.

The mining boom in the 1870s severely reduced fish and game for many years. A leisurely day of casting a line at a resort was one thing, but setting off sticks of dynamite in beaver ponds was a destructive way to haul in a catch.

Meanwhile, irrigation was draining streams, and watersheds, which were vital to fish and wildlife, were rapidly being denuded for buildings, mine timbers, charcoal, and railroad ties, causing erosion and silting that ruined streams and lakes. Some mining tycoons were getting very rich, and many workers appreciated the jobs in mining and mills, but the disappearance of an important food — fish — also needed attention, which arrived too late.

With some foresight, Colorado’s legislature had created our first State Fish Commission in 1877. By1889, the second federal fish hatchery in the country, the Leadville National Fish Hatchery was constructed southwest of Leadville in hopes of remediating the loss, and it is still operating. (The first was at Spearfish, South Dakota.)

Following a trend, several hatcheries were built in Colorado in the early 1900s. By then, fishing for sport was rising as motorized vehicles made travel easier and lured residents and vacationers alike. In response, the private and public fish culturists mainly chose to raise popular nonnative rainbow trout, not to concentrate on restoring the native species of the mountain country.

Glen A. Hinshaw’s book “Crusaders for Wildlife” tells of early hatcheries in the San Luis Valley on San Del Norte’s Francisco Creek where water proved to be inadequate (1908-1915?), Antonito (1914-1929), and La Jara (1933-1977). Spearheaded by the sportsmen A.E. Humphreys and Lawrence Phipps at Wagon Wheel Gap and the aquaculturist Bert Hosselkus at Creede, a federal hatchery was built at the Rio Grande near the Wason Ranch. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service operated the Creede Hatchery from 1929 until 1965, after which time DOW took over the facility.

Colorado has several publically owned hatcheries and private fish farms. Most fish provided in our area by DOW come from the hatchery at Almont, and some private enterprises exist in the San Luis Valley.

Environmental problems increased in the latter part of the 1900s. Examples were fish killed off in contaminated water such as in the Upper Arkansas and the Alamosa River, and then something called whirling disease arrived, so it takes constant vigilance and know-how to maintain healthy fisheries.

In 1999, the Colorado Division of Wildlife dedicated a hatchery and rearing facility, south of U.S. Hwy. 160 on Alamosa County Rd. 6, where threatened and endangered warm-water species are being hatched and reared. And Trinidad State Junior College at Alamosa offers a program, where its students learn about biology, aquatic diseases, and different kinds of fish management, in preparation for careers.

Because of such efforts, fishing for sport has long played a significant role in Colorado’s economy, but the results are mixed. The Rio Grande has some gold medal waters, but, unfortunately, San Luis Lake, which had a fishing camp a century ago, is presently dry, a story for another day.

As populations grow and more pressure is placed on supplies of water and food, freshwater fish will become a rarer treat, while large-scale projects will be providing future generations with farmed seafood of uncertain quantity and quality, as they already are doing.

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