I have to say, it was alarming to see two bulldozers moving material in the main channel of the North Platte River just below the Poplar Street Bridge a few weeks ago. This part of the river has always been a source of mild interest for me. Like many of the fly fishermen who fish out of Casper, my first move is always to fill up my gas tank and drive upstream to where the trout numbers are absurd and there’s plenty of public access. I’ve drifted through town a few times, chucking big streamers against the banks. There are rumors of big fish in this section too, but it’s a less interesting area from a fishing perspective. It lacks structure, and likely holding areas for fish. Most of us choose to spend our time upstream where something magical can happen if you put in your time.
But what if things were different? What if the fishing within the city limits was comparable to the fishing one finds up stream? What if the river, as it courses through the city, became the central characteristic of our town? If you’re going to dream, you might as well dream in style. Can you see boutique shops and condos perched along the river the way you do in ski towns and mountain villages like Aspen, Lyons, Jackson Hole, and Livingston? Imagine outdoor concerts along our riverbank. Imagine a river that sings as it tumbles over rapids and braided channels. While you might have a hard time envisioning this, there are groups of dedicated locals who have already set this dream into motion.
The Platte River Revival is a long-term restoration and clean-up project that will change the way we view the North Platte River. Since 2006, this group has been pursuing a vision of Casper where the river is the central economic and cultural characteristic of the city. With a proposed budget of over 26 million dollars, this group has launched one of the most progressive restoration projects in the nation. They plan to restore 13.5 miles of riparian habitat, and remove invasive plant species like Russian Olives, replacing them with native species like willows and cottonwoods. Natural channel restoration will provide better habitat top to bottom. They are mitigating further pollution by using wetlands at the various outfalls along the river. Vaguely, I have been aware of the work done by this group. Vaguely, I know a bit about what the Two Fly Foundation does. But this week I became fully aware of the ambitious undertaking by the City of Casper and these various groups to fundamentally change our perspective and our collective futures.
Assistant City Manager Jolene Martinez invited me to a press conference held along the left bank on the North Platte River where the next phase of construction and pollution mitigation is taking place. Recently, engineers discovered a cache of pollution and they have suffered setbacks to their timeline. The press conference was held to explain this, and to help alleviate some of the anxiety that residents like me feel when they see heavy machinery in the river.
Hydraulic engineers, Game and Fish staff, ecologists, river enthusiasts, a representative from Audubon, and various city officials met on a breezy, winter day. The thrum of heavy machinery could be heard from downstream where, it appeared to me, a boat ramp was being constructed. You could see a dramatic rocky bight in the river where engineers had built a temporary isolation lagoon. Bank and channel restoration was taking place right below us. And you could see floating booms that were in place to absorb any hydrocarbon contamination set free by the recent work.
“We’re democratizing, to a degree, the ability to fish and enjoy the natural resources this area has. You’re going to hear us talk about fish a lot,” said Martinez.
Martinez walked us through the history of the project. In Casper’s distant past, waste from the Amoco refinery was dumped into the river. In 1948, a survey of the water quality in the North Platte declared that the river was “so grossly polluted by human and refinery wastes that it is doubtful that recovery can ever be obtained.” Brian Connelly, Director of Natrona County Weed and Pest, is a member of the Platte River Revival Committee. Connelly, who has dedicated much of his life removing the invasive and much-maligned Russian Olive trees, painted a grim picture of Casper’s past. “We had refineries--both banks--all the way up the river. We had slaughterhouses. We had every kind of poison back in those days—we were pumping it into this river,” shared Connelly. He also noted that these restoration projects are a chance to shape our future.
Like so many stories from that period, rivers were not valued for their recreational or aesthetic potential, but rather used pell-mell for industrial purposes. But ever so slowly, people’s attitudes about rivers have evolved. You see river towns like Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Denver, Chattanooga and even my hometown of Newport News, Virginia that took a shameful legacy of misuse and pollution and turned it around. Now, those riverfronts bustle with restaurants and cafes. Riverfronts drive the economies for those cities. Why can’t we do the same here?
In the 1990’s, stories about the incredible fishing in Casper began to leak out. By the time I arrived in Casper, the refineries were gone, replaced by Three Crowns Golf Course, complete with honking geese and walking paths. Fly fishing magazines began to run articles about the amazing fishing that could be had at Grey Reef. (I sold my first article to American Angler about how great our fishing was west of town.) A few trout shops sprung up; a few guys sported trout-themed tattoos. Next, the white water park appeared. Then walking paths. Then a yoga labyrinth. Steadily, a culture of fly fishing has grown out of this hardscrabble landscape—it’s nothing to see two or three drift boats heading against the flow of morning traffic. It’s common to see trout bums dressed in waders waiting in line at Starbucks. These are the telltale signs of a culture that is changing slowly, and an economy that is emerging. These improvements in the river through town will accelerate this change.
The Platte River Revival council has lofty goals and doesn’t shrink from challenges. Recently, the bank restoration and the removal of Russian Olives at Morad Park was completed and already, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department is reporting an increase in the size and number of trout in this stretch. But Morad Park is just the beginning of this project. What we are seeing at the Poplar Street Bridge is another step in the ambitious undertaking to revive and recover the whole river system. But it’s not happening without lots of planning and work.
The projects you see are the results of both private and public money, “Two Fly Foundation money paid for the master plan at $70,000 dollars. And city council matched the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource trust money that gave us the design for the master plan. And we were on our way,” said Martinez.
Randy Walsh, an ecologist for Stantec, the environmental engineering company that is doing this phase of the work, says that there are fish in this stretch of the river. “The problem is,” he says, “that there isn’t a lot of good holding cover. In the city limits, the fish are migrating. They’re moving up and down, but you don’t get many resident fish.” He talked about the various projects and how they will diversify the habitat for invertebrates and fish. He also mentioned that by restoring the river channel, they can create ambush cover for big fish, and back eddies where juveniles can thrive. There would be spawning beds. No doubt, birds and wildlife will flourish. When the project is complete, we could possibly have lights-out fishing right through the city and beyond.
The press conferences ended. A flight of geese crossed overhead. I asked Walsh for his business card. He said he’s living in Asheville, North Carolina now, but brings his fly rod up when he comes to work in Casper. Then, after he made sure no one was listening, as serious fishermen often do, he said just under his breath, “You can’t believe how many fish I’m catching at Morad.”