The Colorado Pike Minnow

What is the Colorado Pike Minnow?

Last week I wrote about the desperate condition of our state fish, the greenback cutthroat trout. While doing research and learning about the situation, I stumbled upon some more in depth information about another Colorado native that is struggling to survive in its home water. This fish may not be as pretty as a native trout but is an important species nonetheless. It is a very important indicator of the health of an entire river system.

Range, Distribution and Description

The Colorado Pikeminnow (formerly known as the Squawfish) has gotten much less attention than the cutthroat trout because it is not a game fish targeted by anglers and tourists. The largest cyprinid fish (or carp) in North America, the pikeminnow was at one time the top predator in the entire Colorado River basin. They have been known to ambush baitfish, mice, and even small birds. They were a reliable and important food source for early western settlers.

Fishermen no longer target the pikeminnow, but it is still considered and important part of the ecosystem here in the Colorado River basin, and has been listed as federally endangered since 1967. Other places where they squawfish may be found in Colorado include the lower Yampa, White and Green Rivers.

Although anglers in Vail may only see the squawfish on rare occasions due to its preference for larger, siltier rivers and warmer water, it is important to be able to identify them in order to help preserve their population. The Colorado Pikeminnow that fly fishermen often see on the upper Colorado River are usually caught in slow moving water with subsurface flies such as streamers or large nymphs. Adult fish may be green-gray to bronze on their backs and silver to white along their sides and bottoms. During spawning, their fins can turn a transparent orange color.

In the past, the Colorado Pikeminnow was able to reach lengths of up to six feet and weights of one hundred pounds. Larger individuals still exist in the twenty four to thirty six inch range throughout the lower stretches of the Colorado River near the Utah state line, but these days it is uncommon to land a pikeminnow over fourteen inches long while fishing in the cooler water in Eagle County. Although they are named after a fish known to have sharp teeth, the pikeminnow lacks teeth but shares the same aggressive attitude as the northern pike.

Habitat Problems and Restoration Efforts

Dam construction which restrict large spring runoffs necessary for successful spawning has restricted the pikeminnow’s once extensive range to the upper Colorado river basin above Lake Powell. Early western settlers nicknamed the pikeminnow the “white salmon” because of its long migration during the spawning season. With the recent placement of several large obstacles including the Hoover and Glen Canyon dams along the traditional spawning routes of the pikeminnow, their reproduction capabilities have been diminished, thus fragmenting the population.

Efforts by Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Utah Department of Natural Resources, and a few private groups such as the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program are being made to manage nonnative fish, monitor pikeminnow populations, and build fish passages at several of the major dams to help the once dominant fish recover. Recently, a fish ladder was built to circumvent a dam just east of Grand Junction, Colorado to aid in migration. Additonally, the species is being helped by supplemental stocking where possible.

Anglers can help by gently releasing these rare fish when unintentionally caught. Many misinformed fishermen see the Colorado Pikeminnow as a nuisance species or rough fish and do not release them properly. Treat them as gently as any trout you plan on releasing and get them quickly back into the water without handling them.

Although fly fishermen and the Colorado Pikeminnow do not cross paths very often, some education on our part may help the endangered predator in some way. If you happen to net one of these fish at some point, consider how uncommon it really is. Be sure to treat it like the endangered species that it is.

Andy “Otter” Smith, Guide and Content Writer