Reprinted from The Mountain Mail.
By Fred Rasmussen
When Jeanne and I purchased our place in the Arkansas River Valley in the late 1970s, there was a tattered Texas gate guarding the narrow rutted cow trail that led through the pinon/juniper to the property.
The J-shaped trail led west then through and over the rocks in Sand Creek, which was passable when the water wasn’t running. But it did not connect to the highway on the other end.
The Texas gate was a necessary burden for quite a while because John Smythe still ran cows on some of the land even after he had sold that part of the homestead west of U.S. 285 to Jim Treat. Jim had since subdivided the property into 35-acre lots but had yet to improve the roads and install electricity.
In 1983 three of our sons and I built our passive solar house on that land. Treat had improved the road some, but it still did not run to the highway and there was only one other house in the nearly 600acre subdivision.
As we settled in and began our organic garden, you can imagine there was a rich selection of cow pies to work into the sandy soil.
In the early days there was no phone service. Jeanne had to answer her West Central Mental Health emergency pager by driving to the public phone in Poncha Springs.
Each year, in early spring, the Smythe family atop horses drove their cattle herd up the road past our house to the summer pasture on their U.S. Forest Service grazing lease. Later in the year when the pinon cones were ripe and bursting, friendly families from the San Luis Valley would come and spread their blankets beneath the trees to collect nature’s harvest.
The ecosystem gradually changed during those early years. The big elk herd that moved down to the river and back near our home moved south as more homes were built. The floor of Sand Creek, instead of being barren of plant life, became populated by young long leaf cottonwoods in the absence of hungry cows.
The nearby Arkansas River was different too. Severely polluted by heavy metals from the extensive and uncontrolled mining near Leadville, its fauna were very different from now. Hatchery rainbows were the fishing target and were heavily planted to please the tourists and local fishermen.
The brown trout, seriously affected by the heavy metals, rarely lived beyond 3 years and so there were few large fish. One exception, the river section below the Salida Water Treatment Plant was known for producing the largest fish because the effluent from the plant was a food source for algae and insects.
The insect population then was dominated by the more pollution tolerant Brachycentrus caddis. In the spring the rocks in the river from Buena Vista to Canon City were covered with blankets of their caddis cases. They were present by the millions and were the major food source for the trout.
The river was known statewide for the blizzards of caddis that hatched along U.S. 50. The spring hatches of baetis and midges provided reasonable fishing but nothing spectacular. In the summer you could find the occasional yellow sally, PMD, black quill or net-building caddis.
Later the EPA determined that the toxic metals in the water were bad for people and fish. Two water filtering plants were built near Leadville to clean up the river water. Gradually, as the metals were filtered out, the insect populations began to change back to the fine balance that preceded the mining era.
The Brachycentrus gradually had to compete with growing populations of midges, mayflies, other caddis and stoneflies, and their numbers fell drastically. So now we still have a spring caddis hatch, albeit a much smaller one. The new, prolific hatches of mayflies throughout the summer provide an equal biomass to the past caddis hatch but throughout the trout growing season.
Plus, without the heavy metals the brown trout are living for 7 or 8 years, as the current Gold Medal designation and the hordes of happy anglers can attest.
Fred Rasmussen is a founding member and current board director of the Collegiate Peaks Chapter – Trout Unlimited.