Voices from the River: March to madness

By Scott Willoughby 

Everybody loves a little March Madness — that tumultuous time when your brain begins to go a bit haywire in anticipation of all the action and chaos to come.  

And come it does, in any variety of forms. 

With any luck, your March Madness “pool” includes an early blue-wing hatch and a handful of hungry trout on the rise heading into winter’s post-season. For the fish’s fervent fans, these extended days may be more accurately described as something of a “pre-season,” when spring fever warms our world just enough to kindle the angling action before the heat hits in earnest, triggering the frenzy of full-blown snowmelt runoff in mountain streams. 

Following one of Colorado’s best winters in recent memory, we’re looking at a wild ride once the tide starts rolling. For those keeping score at home, the statisticians have measured Colorado’s statewide snowpack at 158 percent of average heading into the final week of March (already a record-setting month for snow in some surrounding locations) and more than 200 percent of the snowpack the state saw at the same time a year ago. You’ll have to go all the way back to the winter of 1996-97 to find a deeper snowpack so late in the season, although 2007-08 came close. 

The granular details of how the runoff game will play out are merely speculation of course, but the snowpack is established at this point, and its destiny inevitable. When the time comes, our rivers will run as hard and fast as they have in years. But exactly when and for how long is anyone’s guess. 

In the meantime, our minds swirl with a blend of expectations, excitement and suspense over what the future may hold. Ski resorts are extending their seasons by as much as a month, a few of them past Memorial Day, while rabid river-runners thirst for the thrill of juicy waves and anglers ponder the pursuit of trout in cool, clear water late into the summer months and beyond. Reservoirs will refill as the water’s energy eventually bleeds over riverbanks to nourish riparian vegetation and assure us that the streams remain alive and well, refreshing the ecosystem as they revitalize our spirits. 

Such intense — and optimistic — anticipation is amplified among anglers as we patiently await our turn in nature’s queue for an opportunity to fulfill the fishing fantasies floating around in our noggins. The trout will be hungrier, hatches more prolific, or so we like to think. Rarely does reality agree with imagination, but that does little to dilute our inspired thinking. There’s always one more cast to make, propelled by possibility. 

Occasionally those casts see palpable payoffs in the traditional sense of tricking a trout into taking the bait. More often the return is tucked away in some deeper fold, to be rendered later as life asks us to recite lessons learned in perseverance or purpose. The answers are revealed through disposition, character. 

I find myself unpacking those life lessons with increasing frequency as the climate pendulum swings from one extreme to another, like we’re witnessing now. Although it can be difficult to concentrate on conservation in the face of our current fantasy conditions, it isn’t enough to simply wipe our brows and comment on another close call before heading out to enjoy a day on the water. It’s all too easy to dismiss the climate impacts of fire and drought from less than a year ago as an anomaly, but the reality is just the opposite. 

Our rivers are the underdogs in this tilt, requiring us to lean in and do the hard work needed if we ever hope to restore balance. This time of year, that means engaging in the political challenges of public land and water preservation through federal legislative efforts like the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy (CORE) Act or state legislation like Colorado’s Loaned Water for Instream Flows to Improve Environment bill (HB19-1218), where March Madness takes on a whole new definition. It means championing efforts on hard rock mining reform and responsible OHV use, as well as making smart choices about seasonal trail closures or how often you really need to water your lawn. 

Even local impacts can have global significance. Just consider the Colorado River as an example, which sustains more than 40 million people in two nations, agricultural production notwithstanding. Then consider the critical sections of upstream habitat along that river we treasure for the trout fishing. Forsaking them is beyond irresponsibility. It’s madness. 

Scott Willoughby is the Colorado Field Coordinator for TU’s Sportsmen’s Conservation Project. He lives and works in Eagle, Colo. 


Add Content