Public vs. private

In some spots on White River, fishing public stretches just as good as private

Two anglers, one accompanied by a watchful guide, spend a few minutes on a private stretch of the White River east of Meeker. Although priced out of the budget of many anglers, these ranches may supplement local trout populations when fish escape up and downstream to public waters.

One of the several public access points on the White River east of Meeker is the Wakara Ranch fishing lease on Rio Blanco County Road 4. Parking is available but limited.

An angler releases a rainbow trout caught on the White River east of Meeker. Much of the river is private water but anglers on public water can find a number of large trout and whitefish.

MEEKER — It’s hard to imagine there being anywhere a more scenic valley than that of the White River, meandering between spruce-covered mountains and through emerald-green hayfields in its wandering from Trappers Lake to Meeker.

In those 50 or so miles the river’s face changes little, although the meanders get wider and the banks more open as the river cuts through the miles of private ranches and developments, busy this time of year with harvesting the 800-pound round bales of hay scattered across the fields.

Although the river is enticing, most anglers driving along this river are like a kid in a candy store, where you can look but not touch.

Private property controls access to maybe 90 percent of the White River between Meeker and Trappers, charging hefty trespass fees and playing several roles in river management.

Unlike many rivers, the flows of the White drop as you go downstream, reflective of the irrigators pulling out water to maintain those profitable fields of hay.

In these waning days of summer, as haying crews race the surge of afternoon storms forging across the Flat Tops Wilderness, water flows drop by a third in the 20 miles or so between Buford and Meeker.

A rancher friend explained that as the bales are harvested, he and others turn water back onto the fields, hoping to recharge the ground before winter takes hold.

The ranches also control fishing pressure, although with enough money you could fish almost every mile of the river.

Over the years, Colorado Parks and Wildlife has offset the fishing-for-profit crowd by maintaining a series of state-owned or leased fishing reaches along the river and there are several other places, including through the town of Meeker, where the river is open to the public.

Private and public stretches are well-marked, and in yet another enigma, it appears the private, pay-to-fish reaches occasionally see as much pressure as the public waters.

“Yeah, we’re pretty busy this time of year,” said one angler exiting the river at the Bel-Air State Wildlife Area, the former state hatchery site across the road from Lake Avery.

He was reluctant to give his name, allowing as he was a part-time guide for one of the larger ranches that controls about 20 miles of river.

“August is a great time to fish the river, and we have lots of big fish,” he said with a grin.

A bystander noticed aloud that he was fishing, not the great water of the ranch, but some well-attended public waters.

“It’s my day off and I thought I’d try something different,” he said. “The fishing here can be pretty good, but the water is pretty low right now.”

A similar thought was shared by another angler, seen climbing out of the Wakara state fishing access a few miles east of Meeker.

“I think the water’s about 62 or 63 degrees and probably not flowing much more than 150 or so” cubic feet per second, he said. “I probably didn’t need my waders. I try to stop fishing by noon when it’s this warm.”

Anyone who has fished those private ranches can attest to the remarkable fishing found there, with strong, river-grown trout and whitefish more than capable of taking you into your backing.

Whether those fish-rich ranches, some of which stock their own trout, unintentionally augment the trout numbers in adjacent waters is an unanswered question.

But there’s no doubt that with a bit of searching, and without someone peering over your shoulder to critique your casting, nice fish can be found on the public water.

There is candy enough for all.


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