‘The bigger fish are just going to get bigger’: Biologist, fisherman ponder future of Lake Dillon after state record Artic char
November 24, 2017
For more than three years, Randy Ford knew this state record-breaking moment was going to happen. On Nov. 6, Virginian Lindsay Regali reeled in a 23.5-inch, 4.15-pound Arctic char from Dillon Reservoir.
For Ford, a Summit County fishing guide, it was more a question of when he'd let the moment happen.
That's because back in the spring of 2014, Ford had his first revelation that bigger and badder Arctic char were finally evolving deep in the reservoir after more than two decades of intermittent efforts to inject a healthy population into the lake.
That positive development came after Colorado Parks and Wildlife, led by aquatic biologist Jon Ewert, used a grant beginning in 2007 to stock 30,000 char per year.
To Ford, the owner of Lake Dillon-based Alpine Fishing Adventures, the news of Regali’s record-breaking catch poses as a “double-edged sword” of a situation for not only fishing in Lake Dillon, but the reservoir’s aquatic ecology as well.
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And on that fateful spring 2014 fishing trip, Ford realized the biggest of the Arctic char were already large enough to break the previous Colorado record of 3.75 pounds and 20.5 inches, caught at Lake Dillon in 1994 by Marshall Brenner. While targeting brown trout around the reservoir's shore, Ford reeled in a 22-incher.
"A fat, big old Arctic char that was spitting out fingerling rainbow trout," he recalled.
"He had one sticking out of his tail — it would have been a record breaker," the fishing guide added. "But at the time, I didn't want to exploit the fishery. I didn't want to bring too much attention. So I actually waited a long time to let this cat out of the bag.
"I've been catching these big fish for a while now," he continued, "and just this season I said, 'Well, I'm going to open it up. And I'm going to expose this.'"
To Ford, the owner of Lake Dillon-based Alpine Fishing Adventures, the news of Regali's record-breaking catch poses as a "double-edged sword" of a situation for not only fishing in Lake Dillon, but the reservoir's aquatic ecology as well.
Yes, Ford says the publication of the Arctic char state record may attract many more happy anglers to the mountain-side reservoir he loves. And, in turn, he admits it may boom his young guide business as well.
But the lifelong fisherman also has worries about how overfishing or improper fishing in the historically vulnerable Lake Dillon may harm not only the budding char population, but other Lake Dillon fish species too.
Ford believes it's not out of the question in three to four years to have up to 30 boats out on the reservoir fishing for char during periods of the year when, these days, he's almost always the only one out there.
"I've seen it happen at other reservoirs," Ford said. "And it's going to happen. I have exploited the Arctic char fishery. These fish are kind of fragile. When you take them up to the surface it takes a certain skill to release them properly so they survive.
"Something that could happen as a result of this," Ford continued, "is, I bring all the pressure in — too many guys fishing for them. Too many fish getting killed. And it has an adverse effect on the fishery. And that's the last thing I want. That's the worst thing I can think of is people start showing up, picking on them when they are spawning, improperly handling a fish and killing a lot of these fish. That's the worst-case scenario."
Observation years ahead
Ewert — the man who Ford lauds praise upon for the successful growth of the Arctic char species in Dillon Reservoir — isn't so sure a worst-case scenario like the one Ford describes will happen.
Although Ewert says CPW does see overpopulation of predator problems at other lakes in Colorado, he couched that by adding that Dillon currently has a very healthy kokanee salmon population. The salmon population is one Ewert believes is balancing out well with the growing Arctic char population that is now starting to feed on the kokanee. The salmon, Ewert says, is also balancing out the lake's longstanding populations of brown trout and rainbow trout.
"We think we have enough (Arctic char) fish in there to reproduce on their own and sustain themselves," Ewert said, "but the next five years will be key in observing if we continue to have young (large Arctic char) fish appearing. Because, if they do, we know they are increasing their numbers."
"When the char get large," the biologist added, "they will switch to being predators on other fish, like kokanee. Then their growth will really take off. And then, at that point, we have to be careful that we don't have too many predators in the lake. But we are long ways away from that at the rate they are growing right now."
For 11 years Ewert has served as Colorado Parks & Wildlife's Fisheries Biologist for Grand and Summit counties. His grand plan for Lake Dillon over that time was to model it after healthy lakes and hydroelectric reservoirs in Scandinavia that compared similarly cold temperature and depth. Yet those Scandinavian spots had previously managed to foster quality fisheries, something Dillon hadn't manifested in recent years.
That's why Ewert doubled down on investing in the Arctic char in 2007, cash purchasing 50,000 eggs per year from Canada to further introduce the species into its only ecosystem in the Lower 48.
Why? Because much like Ford, Ewert thinks Dillon Reservoir can have an Arctic char-fueled fishery renaissance similar to the kind of renowned brown trout fishing that occurred here in the late '70s.
"Lake Dillon is our most visible and most accessible high-altitude mountain reservoir in the whole state," Ewert said. "Millions of people drive past it, but if you look at fishing traffic on that lake, it's very minimal compared to other lakes.
"It could be more of a resource locally and more of a showcase for cold water mountain reservoirs in Colorado, if it's a destination fishery," Ewert added. "We'd like to see it be a little more developed and make more use of it than we have in last few decades."
Out fishing on a snowy late November day, Ford reeled in and released three Arctic char within about a 30-minute timeframe while he hovered over a "honeyhole" near the Dillon Dam shoreline. The largest of those catches was about 18 inches.
Looking ahead, Ford thinks Lake Dillon Arctic char will further break state records, as big as the 6- to 7-pound range in the coming years, he believes. Then, thanks to the large supply of small kokanee salmon in the reservoir, Ford thinks char may approach 15 pounds in about a decade.
"The day Lindsay caught hers," Ford said, "there was one (Arctic char) bigger than the one she caught that chased up a kokanee salmon and tried to eat it — probably 2 or 3 pounds bigger. So, now that I've seen this, and I know we have big enough char that eat kokanee salmon, because of the fact that the reservoir has more kokanee salmon than any other reservoir, we have a food supply for these char that is amazing."
"This reservoir," the fisherman continued, "was a crap reservoir for fisherman, because it had billions of little fish in it and no big fish. And so now that we have a big fish that can eat little fish, the bigger fish are just going to get bigger."
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