Past 2020 Colorado Wildfires
After a record-breaking 2020 summer with new fly-fisherman, Covid-19 disrupted the start to many fly shops and guide services around the world. However, fly-fishing being an outdoor recreational sport, many people took this opportunity to get outside and learn the beauty of fly fishing with it respectfully being a safer-outdoor sport.
In the fall of 2020 Colorado got hit hard with numerous wildfires; a true detrimental component to add to Covid-19, where drought conditions throughout the state are one of the biggest components leading to the start of wildfires. Within the drought, Colorado locals have feared wildfires were going to be one of the biggest threats within the state-wide drought issue. In the fall of 2020, there were three wildfires: Cameron Peak, East Troublesome, and the Pine Gulch Fire that burned a grand total of 541,732 acres. These three fires, burning consecutively on record represent Colorado’s Largest three fires by acreage in state history.
While these fires burned precious forest and wilderness areas, they have left a trace–altering river ecosystems, increasing water temperatures, and ultimately leading to river sedimentation. Various Fly Shop Owners and Guides across Colorado have learned to adjust on the fly with weather conditions, and clients canceling trips the morning of. However, Jeff Ehlert of Winter Park Flyfisher & Grand County Fishing Company, alongside Scott Graham of North Park Anglers, never estimated the strength of these wildfires—burning thousands of acres across permitted public and private blue ribbon trout water.
Flylords: How did the East Troublesome, Mullen, and Cameron Peak fires effect your business?
Ehlert: “Initially, we had trips cancelled from the East Troublesome, and few from the Williams Fork fire. But a larger impact came with degraded water quality during the following summer.”
Graham: “Besides road closures, forest closures, and the terrible smoke, the East Troublesome, and Cameron Peak fires did not have any severe impact on North Park Anglers. The fires that did have the biggest effect on our company were the Beaver Creek and the Mullen fire. The most significant direct impact we could gauge was the closure of the national forest, shutting down access to miles of rivers and lakes that we fish regularly.”
Flylords: Are the Colorado, North Platte, and Poudre Rivers in recovery mode from the fires? What have you witnessed?
Ehlert: “Yes they are and will recover, but it will take time. These fires were needed at some point to clear out all of the deadfall that has been building up for the past 20 years.”
Graham: “Currently, we have not seen any issues with the North Platte or any of its tributaries as a fishery. The fish seem to be healthy and the aquatic bug life also seems to be in great shape. However, we have not had a big runoff or any big rains that may cause serious erosion. There are new trees that are continually falling into the river which causes concerns for safety while floating and wade fishing. We have seen the river turn black a few times; but it seems to clear up quickly and the sediment doesn’t seem to be pilling up in any one spot.” These fires were very different from each other and the direct impacts won’t be measurable for years to come. The Beaver Creek and Mullen fires along the North Platte seem to have been healthy fires along the drainages that we fish. The grasses are coming back thick, and there aren’t too many moon-shaped burn areas. However, we have been in such a drought that it’s very hard to tell. If we were to get a significant snowpack and or big rain, I think there could be some significant erosion issues that could be catastrophic to the fisheries.”
Flylords: What are the effects of the river ecology and entomology from these catastrophic fires?
Ehlert: “If you had asked me last fall, I would have told you that I feared that our invertebrate numbers were going to decline this year, but after spending time on the river this spring I feel that the caddis hatch and BWO hatch has been better this year than in the past few years. I do still expect there to be a lot of sediment in the river anytime we have heavy rains this summer, but I am more optimistic about the health of the Colorado River this year.”
Graham: “So far, we haven’t seen many problems from an ecology or entomology standpoint directly correlated from the fires.”
Flylords: What do you think will happen with the local rivers in Grand, Jackson, and Larimer Counties in the next few years? Is the fishery at risk?
Ehlert: “The fires do add a sediment load to the rivers in the years following the fires, but that is not the risk that most threatens our rivers. Excessive dewatering of our rivers is what puts these rivers at risk. The Colorado River is consistently listed in the top 3 most endangered rivers in our country with the front range taking 60% of it’s flows over the continental divide creating high temperatures. In 2021, the Fraser river (A tributary
to the Colorado River) was flowing at 360 CFS on the same day that the Colorado was flowing at 320 CFS. The Colorado River really did not experience any true flushing flows in 2021 which every healthy river needs to remain.”
Graham: “Not being a biologist I cannot really speak upon this. Overall, I think fires are healthy, although each of these was human-caused; it was only a matter of time before something cause them to light up.”
Flylords: Have you altered your business or did you have to because of the fire?
Ehlert: “We have not altered our business other than having to cancel trips due to high turbidity when we had heavy rains last summer. We occasionally had to cancel trips for the same reason in years prior to the fires, but this occurred less frequently in prior years.”
Flylords: Tell us more about yourself, the company you own, and what guided trips you have available for all levels of anglers.
Ehlert: “My name is Jeff Ehlert, I am originally from Montana, and been guiding float and wade fishing trips here in Colorado and South Central Wyoming since 2004. In 2007, we opened our fly shop to complement our outfitting business. Our shop, Winter Park Flyfisher is located on the banks of the Fraser River. We offer the largest fly selection in our region and an extensive fly tying section. We hope you’ll stop in if you find yourself near the headwaters of the Colorado River. We love hearing your fish stories and are happy to point you toward the best fishing in Grand County.”
Graham: “My name is Scott Graham. I am a Colorado Native, and been working for North Park Anglers since 2003. North Park Anglers is the premier outfitter and Fly Shop in Walden, Colorado.”
Interested in booking with Winter Park Flyfisher or North Park Anglers?
Click here to book with Winter Park Flyfisher or call (970) 726-5231
To book with North Park Anglers please call (970) 723-4215
Article from Winter Park Flyfisher guide and Intern of Flylords Magazine Nelson Oxley, give him a follow on Instagram at @nelson_oxley.