Sticking up for the smallmouth bass

Ed Engle writes for the Rocky Mountain News
August 07, 2001

CRAIG, Colo. - Angling security runs about as high as it gets along select stretches of the lower Yampa River in Moffat County, Colo. Some things deserve to be kept close to the vest.

Like the whereabouts of plump smallmouth bass, the fish that 19th-century angling author James Henshall described as "pound for pound the fightingest fish that swims."

John Duty and Steve Henderson of Steamboat Springs, Colo., occasionally condescend to show a visitor secret reaches of "the other" Yampa River. This is the high-desert Yampa near Utah, where currents are warm, canyon wrens sing their descending melody and smallmouths of fairly recent origin swim with endangered fish that evolved eons ago.

There has been talk of blindfolding guests on the way in. Certainly, Duty and Henderson will ask you to forget the (precipitous) route. Drop bread crumbs at your own risk.

"You seldom see a footprint here," said Henderson, a trout fishing guide who fell in love with stream-bred smallmouths during part of a youth spent along the James River in Virginia.

"It's nice to have a change of pace," said Duty, whose serves a daily diet of mountain trout fishing as owner of Bucking Rainbow Outfitters at Steamboat Springs.

They are delighted when a visitor finds not the sluggish, muddy river of his expectations amid the sagebrush hills, but a clear, stony stream clearly bustling with fish. They are delighted even more if the visitor also is a lifelong admirer of smallmouths. Not lake smallmouths, which are a dime a dozen, but river smallmouths, which live, reproduce and fight even harder in river currents.

Henderson and I have some things in common, including the James, the Rappahannock, Shenandoah and Potomac rivers. In my youth the smallmouth bass crusade spread north to the Susquehanna, Juniata and on to Maine. The bronze bass were perfect for the fly rod. Trout were tame by comparison.

That smallmouths swim in the lower Yampa has been a guarded secret for decades. But a river bassing grapevine with exceptionally long tendrils has known about it at least since the mid-1980s, when a pal in Maryland - 2,000 miles away - let slip the lower Yampa's smallmouth secret.

So why would a couple of guys from Steamboat Springs give all this up to a fish writer who carries the curse of being compelled to reveal (more or less) where he goes?

First, Duty had to wade in and catch a couple of bass on a fly-rod frog.

Then Henderson, who alternates with flies and a bait-caster, used a chartreuse, soft, plastic grub to produce a 4-pound smallmouth for a photograph. We know the fish weighed 4 pounds because it was 17 3/4 inches long and had a 13 1/2-inch girth. Do the math.

The bass fishing was outstanding by any standard.

"Well, this is a long way from Denver," Henderson said. "Access is poor, and it's rough getting in here, so it may not get crowded. But people should know about it because of the removal thing . . ."

Ah. Removal. As author Lee Wulff said when he winced and told the world about his secret salmon rivers in Newfoundland, a river and its fishery needs as many friends as it can get when the chips are down.

In short, political forces backing an aggressive restoration of endangered species - Colorado pikeminnows, razorback suckers, humpback and bonytail chubs - would like to see the bass go the way of the Yampa River's northern pike: out of here.

State and federal biologists working with the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program have been using traps and electroshock devices for several years to remove northern pike, which prey on pikeminnows (formerly, squawfish) and the other endangered species. Smallmouth bass are next on the removal list; biologists removed the first bass in the spring and trucked them to Rio Blanco Reservoir.

The motives are hardly altruistic. Unless the native minnows can be taken off the endangered species list, developers, ranchers and farmers could lose water to the restoration efforts. Dams and diversions, which caused the fish to become endangered in the first place, might even be ordered destroyed.

The last place a western state wants water is in a river.

Short of tinkering with flows and big-money water rights, some method must be found to give the endangered fish more of an edge. Therefore, the restoration program turned its sights on nonnative predators like pike and smallmouths.

People such as Duty and Henderson, who value this uniquely productive warm-water river fishery, hope some compromise can be struck to allow the native and nonnative fish to coexist.

Henderson points to the robust condition of the smallmouths, which indicates no shortage of food in the river. Duty calls the fat smallmouths "Nerf fish."

Crayfish, a favorite dinner of most fish species - especially smallmouths - scuttle everywhere in abundance. Schools of young smallmouths swarm in the shallows. Every year-class is present, indicating strong natural reproduction and certainly representing a source of food for the predatory minnow formerly known as squawfish.

Contrary to the opinions of biologists, who believe only a few bass escaped from the Elkhead Reservoir into the Yampa River in 1993, this is a well-established smallmouth fishery of world-class quality.

"This will rival any eastern stream," Henderson said. He should know. He has been there, done that. Now, he reluctantly tells (almost) all.

Rewritten with permission from the Rocky Mountain News





1996-2001 The Weelin Company., All Rights Reserved.