Lake Nighthorse visitors reeled in fish under both sunny and snowy skies opening weekend, showing a commitment to visiting the lake the city of Durango hopes to see all season.
The city manages recreation at the lake and is planning for attendance to hit about 100,000 visits this year, up from about 50,000 visits last year, said Cathy Metz, director of Parks and Recreation.
The first visitors of the season enjoyed a kids-only fishing event Saturday under sunny skies. A dedicated few braved the snow Sunday morning, lining up before the gates opened to get in.
Matt Ozvat and Kyle Ouzts “caught several smiles – the big variety,” while fishing in the snow, Ouzts reported, but no fish. However, the two will be back, they said.
For some anglers, Sunday marked their first visit to the lake, which opened for the first time to the public last year.
Amadeo Trujillo was among the first-timers and came up from Cedar Hill, a small community on the New Mexico side of the state line, to fly fish. The snow was not a deterrent for Trujillo, who fishes year-round.
“They say the tug is the drug,” he said.
However, he had yet to make it to the lake because it competes with so many other fishing destinations.
“Southwest Colorado is a little bit of a mecca for fishing,” he said.
The city of Durango is planning to draw in many more new visitors like Trujillo, in part, because it is unlikely the region will have the same environmental challenges it did last year, Metz said.
The lake was closed for nine days during the 416 Fire, and the boat ramp was closed for 35 days for construction. Heavy smoke in the area during June and July also hurt attendance, she said.
However, the lake did draw visitors from outside the area, said Tony Miely, co-owner of 4Corners Riversports, a company that rents kayaks and other equipment at the lake.
About half of the visitors of the lake were from outside the area and a few tour buses stopped at the lake allowing tourists to spend about half a day in the area, he said.
“I think it’s going to be a big hit with people visiting,” he said.
The city generated about $194,662 last year, falling short of the $279,250 it had expected to generate in contracts and pass sales, according to city data.
The city split the operational budget shortfall of about $170,000 with the Bureau of Reclamation, a cost sharing the BOR plans to continue in the future.
This year, the city of Durango expects to spend about $400,000 to operate the lake and generate about $300,000 through pass sales and contracts with vendors.
The city also expects to invest in a new picnic area and an accessible fishing pier and boat launch that will be completed while the lake is open for the season, Metz said. The city is also putting in a new well for water needed to clean boats and prevent the spread of zebra and quagga mussels. Mussels have not been introduced to the lake.
The city and BOR will split the estimated $558,800 cost of the projects.
“Any kind of amenities they put up I think will really help the overall experience,” Miely said. “...If people don’t have to bring their own lawn chairs and umbrellas, it would be great.”
City staff are also planning to cover a muddy area of the shoreline near the overflow parking lot with wood chips to make the area more comfortable for visitors who wish to sit on blankets or set up chairs, Metz said.
Hours at the lake are also expanding. From April 5 through April 28, the lake will be open on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Last season, the lake was only open on weekends early in the season. In September, the lake’s hours will be extended an hour in the evening from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. because the city heard from residents they wanted to enjoy the fall evenings at the lake, Metz said.
“We learned a lot in 2018 and we are going to apply that knowledge to this year,” she said.
Peaks and Tides, a sailing company, will also be expanding its offerings at Lake Nighthorse this year to include chartered trips and new classes, said Katie James co-owner and director of youth programs. At the request of interested families, the company is starting a class for young children 5 to 8 years old to learn how to work sails and steer. The other new class is for teenagers with sailing experience and will allow them to practice in the afternoon when the winds are a bit higher, she said. The company also plans to host three sailing races for the community on the last Sunday of the month in June, July and August.
“One of our missions is to create a community around sailing in Durango,” she said.