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Out, Out, Rainbow Trout
Northern Pike replace fishermen's favorite sport fish in droves

click to enlarge A fair days catch from Eleven Mile Reservoir the day that Vince Johnstons general store reported only Pike coming from Spinney. - GREG SKINNER
  • Greg Skinner
  • A fair days catch from Eleven Mile Reservoir the day that Vince Johnstons general store reported only Pike coming from Spinney.

There is a saying spreading around these days at South Park's Spinney Mountain Reservoir: "There ain't no fish in here."

At Spinney the term fish could be directly translated into "easy-to-catch trophy trout." The disappearance of trout is bad for tourism; it's bad for the Department of Wildlife's image; and it's bad for the fisherman's morale.

Just two years ago Spinney was one of the premier trout lakes in Colorado, and the mere thought that there are no fish -- at least the good kind -- to be found in Spinney is a serious taboo for a lot of folks.

It's a troubling subject and people close to the problem are split in their opinions over how the problem came about and how to deal with it. But one thing is clear -- if the rumor that there are no fish prevails, fishermen will choose not to fish at Spinney. And without fishermen to pull out the catch, the system could fall further out of balance.

"In 1998 the fishing was great; we had a great trout season," said Larry Falk, owner of Eleven Mile Sports. Falk says he no longer gets the catch he once enjoyed.

When the 1999 season started, something was drastically different in the reservoir. Trout were hard to find and catch, and the smaller trout began to disappear. Anglers started to complain.

Falk maintains that the main difference between the '98 and '99 seasons was the time of day that the fish were active and feeding. "The times changed [from morning] to three or four in the afternoon, so the guy's who went early didn't catch," said Falk.

But feeding time for fickle fish doesn't account for the disappearance of trout. The question on the reservoir these days is, Where did the fish go? What happened to the 2,944,000 Rainbow Trout released in Spinney since 1987?

The standard answer is, "the pike ate them."

The Colorado Department of Wildlife and many anglers put heavy blame on Northern Pike, an active predator. In Spinney and Eleven Mile, the reservoir downstream, Northern Pike often reach 30 pounds and are perched at the top of the food chain in any aquatic environment.

The DOW has its hands full managing the six species of fish introduced into Spinney, an entirely manmade ecosystem. Of the six, only Northern Pike are fully self-sustaining and they will eat anything they can -- small mammals, ducks, lizards and, of course, trout.

The mere presence of big Northerns, however, is not the problem. It's the balance of pike and other species, and Spinney is way out of balance.

"It's a harvest issue," contends Greg Gerlich, DOW fisheries biologist.

In other words, according to Gerlich, fishermen are partly to blame. For years fishermen at Spinney were interested in only the trout.

"Until this season, four out of five people let the Northerns go," said Gerlich. "What you've got to do is crop them." Eleven Mile has a healthier fish ratio and Gerlich attributes it to fishermen, adding that there are fishers who go to Eleven Mile just for the pike.

Plenty of pike

To understand the balance of species, the DOW uses annual test nettings, then forms a model of the whole population. Falk, who has been fishing Spinney since it opened in the early 1980s and Eleven Mile since 1979, is critical of the process. "One year they say that Northerns are 30 percent of the population and the next they say it's 17 percent," said Falk. "Did the trout eat all the pike?"

click to enlarge Fishing guide Larry Falk out where the fish are - GREG SKINNER
  • Greg Skinner
  • Fishing guide Larry Falk out where the fish are

But DOW officials stand by the test nettings. Current DOW numbers show that there are few trout below 20 inches in Spinney Reservoir and plenty of small Northerns. And it is the absence of small trout that tells the DOW something is wrong. In 1998 and 1999 Gerlich released 247,000 five-inch trout, 116,900 of them in Spinney. Those fish are hard to find today. Net samples from June of this year show zero.

Falk insists the issue is mismanagement of both trout and Northern Pike. At one time the DOW, expecting to have a trophy trout fishery in the same water with trophy pike, restricted the catch on pike from 26 to 34 inches; the fish were returned to the water to become trophies.

The Colorado Game and Fish Department (now the DOW) introduced Northerns to Eleven Mile Reservoir in 1962 when Spinney was ranch land, not yet turned into a reservoir.

Accepted wisdom was that Northern Pike would eat many of the tons of Western White Longnose Suckers and Common Carp in the reservoir. Gerlich says that at one point the "rough fish" outnumbered more desirable fish (trout) by a ratio of 300 to 1 in Eleven Mile. "They did a real good job," said Mike Serphin, a DOW spokesman.

The original test Northern Pike had a high fluctuation rate. According to the science of the time, pike would not successfully reproduce on their own in Eleven Mile's water. The reservoir, owned by the City of Aurora, dropped in level each spring and left the Northerns' possible spawning grounds dry and exposed.

"The impression was they were easy to manage," said Gerlich. But that was not necessarily so.

Over time the Northerns in Eleven Mile made their way up the South Platte River. And in spite of the DOW's efforts to eradicate pike by poisoning a portion of the river, a few of the pike survived. Spinney was never intended to have Northern Pike in the system, but they are there now in a big way. Gerlich's nets say that in 1999 Northern Pike constituted 50 percent of the total fish population. It just sort of happened. "The question was never, 'Are the Northerns gonna show up,' it was, 'When are they gonna show up?' " said Gerlich.

Times change and so did water use. During the mid '80s, water level stabilized and the pike populations in both Eleven Mile and Spinney began to grow naturally. A DOW study conducted from '82 to '87 says there were up to 14,000 Northerns in Eleven Mile, a 3,000-acre lake.

Throughout the 1990s Spinney, known then as the Cheerio Bowl, grew into a trophy trout machine. Trout were accumulating 1.5 inches of growth from one season to the next. "A good fisherman could go out and expect to catch 40 fish (trout)," said Gerlich. Then the trout disappeared. "Now they can expect six or eight,"

Last weekend the only fish to happen by Vince Johnston's store, set 300 yards from the reservoir entrance, were two Northern Pike. "We heard about some trout being caught, but we didn't see any," said Johnston.

Smoked pike?

To try and restore the balance, the DOW has instituted a campaign to change people's minds about pike. One weekend in May there was a pike fishing tournament. In June there was a pike festival where lure manufactures were brought in and people were taught how to catch, fillet and cook pike. Karen Johnston, co-owner of Chaparral Park General Store at Spinney, says the information campaign is working, "We're getting people hooked on it," she said.

But Rainbow Trout, the most popular sport fish, cannot reproduce naturally in the reservoir. So to keep the fishery going during 1999 alone the DOW released 334,385 Rainbow Trout in Eleven Mile and 61,875 Rainbows in Spinney's waters at a total cost of $60,234.

This year Gerlich skipped Spinney's allocation of Rainbows for fear of simply feeding the pike population. "It's not smart in a business sense alone," he said.

Instead he put the fish in Eleven Mile Reservoir downstream and Antero Reservoir upstream a few miles. Antero is safe for trout since there are no pike in the waters there -- the reservoir was drained and the water poisoned in 1998 to eradicate pike.

All sides agree it's tough to manage Mother Nature. And to add difficulty, the setting of Spinney Mountain Reservoir is entirely artificial -- the environment created by engineers and all fish species introduced. In New York State, where fresh water lakes are abundant, if pike get in the system, fisheries quit managing for anything else and let nature take its course. "We can't do that here because the whole thing is engineered," said Gerlich.

Johnston, Falk and Gerlich agree on one point: If left alone, Spinney would be filled with nothing but Northern Pike.

Nature might be taking hold; German Brown Trout introduced over the years have been holding a nice population in the reservoir. They are a more predatory species than Rainbow Trout and thrive in deeper waters. A fisherman came in to Johnston's store last week with a big German Brown. "It's stomach had three little Northerns in it," said Johnston.

Stocking will resume at Spinney once the DOW finishes the new management plan expected in January 2001. Gerlich plans to place around 64,000 trout of eight to 10 inches in the reservoir.

These "catchables" are expected to escape the gauntlet of pike by passing straight through the shallow weedy edges of the lake to live in open water where Northerns are less effective hunters, thus restoring the balance. p


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