Ed Dentry Rocky Mountain News
Ben Swigle must be living a charmed life. Going into his first full year managing Colorado's star northeastern fisheries, the Division of Wildlife biologist based in Brush finds assembled before him all the elements to build great fishing.
Including water, of all things.
After seven years of below-average runoff crowned with drought of biblical proportions, the four major reservoirs along the lower South Platte River Basin are standing pat with a full house, brimming with potential.
In contrast with southeastern Colorado reservoirs, which remain thirsty, Jackson, Prewitt, North Sterling and Jumbo reservoirs are poised to produce good to excellent fishing for just about everything from walleyes and wipers to trout.
"Three of four reservoirs are nearly 100 percent full," said Swigle, who is in the catbird seat but careful not to get cocky. "I'm cautiously optimistic."
With the reservoirs certain to fill and a higher-than-average South Platte snowpack poised to recharge them, it would seem chances are good water levels might stay relatively hearty, even after farmers start pulling off irrigation flows.
Swigle and crew also were pleasantly surprised by gill-net samples during the fall. There even is good news to report from Prewitt Reservoir, which shriveled into a puddle within a sandy desert in 2002.
All four reservoirs will be stocked with catchable trout in the next few weeks. Jackson is home to hordes of wipers larger than the 15-inch minimum size limit. North Sterling offers the fruits of three exceptional year-classes of wipers. Jumbo will continue its adventure into jumbo rainbow trout, with abundant walleyes on the way.
Anglers should note some new regulations, including a trophy limit for walleyes/saugeyes at all four reservoirs and a trophy limit for wiper at North Sterling.
At Jackson, Prewitt, North Sterling and Jumbo, the minimum size limit for walleye and saugeye is 15 inches, but only one longer than 21 inches can be taken per day. At North Sterling, the minimum size limit for wipers is 15 inches, but only one wiper longer than 25 inches can be kept per day.
Here is some of what's happening, fishwise, on the northeastern plains:
? Jackson Reservoir. "There must have been a heck of year-class of wipers in 2001, so there's a potential for an excellent keeper wiper fishery," Swigle said.
He was amazed, in net surveys late last summer, to find 103 wipers, 97 of which were longer than 15 inches.
Jackson also received 18,000 catchable rainbow trout during autumn, and more will be on the way.
"Expect a flurry of fish," Swigle said. "People routinely catch 20-inch trout."
The biggest thing Jackson has going for it is a "phenomenal forage base of gizzard shad," he said.
Those prolific, silvery baitfish will feed everything from wipers and walleyes to trout.
? Prewitt Reservoir. A nearly empty bowl with loads of gizzard shad surviving and no sport fish stocked since 2002, now-full Prewitt is ripe for massive infusions of wipers, catfish, saugeyes and catchable rainbows.
"We need some teeth out there to take care of the shad," Swigle said.
Fair numbers of wipers and catfish stocked in 2001 also survived; those larger wipers have grown to 17 to 22 inches.
In June, Swigle stocked 52,000 saugeye fingerlings in Prewitt, fish that will be 6 to 8 inches this year but will need a couple of years to grow to legal size. The schedule this year includes 75,000 wiper fingerlings, 72,000 catfish, some bluegills and crappie and 6,000 catchable trout in April.
"We're putting catchable rainbows in Prewitt for the first time in 10 or 12 years," Swigle said.
? North Sterling Reservoir. The wildlife division hopes to get gizzard shad from Nebraska to boost a slumping shad population, but "North Sterling is coming back," Swigle said.
His stocking plans include huge helpings of walleyes/saugeyes - 1 million fry and 150,000 fingerlings this year, followed by 5 million fry and 150,000 fingerlings in 2007.
"We're going to try to get people to quit going across the (Nebraska) border to Lake McConaughy," he said.
North Sterling anglers might catch some northern pike this year, also. Swigle plans to follow up modest stockings of pike that started in 2001, to control carp and suckers.
The largest pike he bagged in his nets last fall weighed 14 pounds.
He said he wants to keep stirring some pike in the mix, at one pike per 75 walleyes, because they seem to be munching effectively into the rough fish population. There is no chance the pike will reproduce, he said, because North Sterling's irrigation drawdowns will dry out the shallows where they deposit their eggs.
? Jumbo Reservoir. The big one near Julesburg has proved something of a phenomenon lately - whenever it wasn't empty or nearly so.
Thanks to phenomenal production of the important zooplankton critter named Daphnia, Jumbo has been growing trout fat and sassy. It also has a huge population of crayfish, which has inspired Swigle to introduce smallmouth bass, the crustacean's greatest fan.
Jumbo also has been busy growing plenty of 8- to 10-inch walleyes, not keepers, but well on their way.
"If we can keep water on their backs, Jumbo is going to be an incredible walleye fishery this fall or in spring 2007," Swigle said. "So I'm starting with all I need - water and a forage base."
And, we might add, with lots of help from hatcheries.
With some luck, snow in the high country and maybe rain on the plains, this could be the start of something big.