Even though this writer never managed to convince her kids that a sea monster prowls Smith Lake, visitors to Washington Park are discovering that some of the park’s aquatic creatures grow to sizes that are, well, monstrous.
Just ask Pedie Sosa, an experienced angler, who has pulled 18-inch-long largemouth bass out of his favorite park fishing hole — a spot he cagily refuses to name.
Or check with anyone who strolls around Smith Lake on summer mornings. They’ve probably watched in disbelief as enormous, golden-brown carp explode out of the water, hurl themselves several feet into the air and plunge back in. Sometimes the splash can be heard on the opposite shore.
Senior park ranger Regan Carriere, who helps supervise the school fishing programs that regularly visit the park, has also encountered some `monsters’ — at least by crayfish standards. She reported that young anglers sometimes catch lake-dwelling crayfish the size of small lobsters.
“The biggest one I’ve seen was probably five-to-six inches long,” said the ranger, who currently works out of the Eugene Field House near Smith Lake.
Netting the small crayfish who inhabit Smith Ditch, the canal flowing through Washington Park, is a time-honored kids’ pastime. But in the lakes, the crayfish live longer and grow bigger because it’s harder for predators to find them, according to Brian Aucone, senior vice president for life sciences at the Denver Zoo.
Aucone also had an explanation for the leaping carp.
“They are probably females, trying to escape a group of males who want to breed,” he said.
These lake monsters, who eat only vegetation, can measure two-to-three feet long and weigh more than 30 pounds.
In addition to voracious largemouth bass, the nation’s most popular game fish, Colorado Parks and Wildlife regularly stocks park lakes with rainbow trout, perch and channel catfish, along with sunfish varieties such as bluegill and crappie.
Many of these varieties, like rainbow trout, stay relatively small. But in pond environments with a generous buffet of sunfish, crustaceans, plants and bottom debris, channel catfish can attain monster-hood at weights of 50 pounds or more. Wash Park catfish are probably smaller — but lakes are places of mystery. Who knows exactly what lurks in those watery depths?
Another one of the park’s oversized aquatic animals is the American bullfrog, the largest species of frog in North America. Currently, bullfrogs are making themselves at home among the rushes of the Lily Pond, a children’s fishing hole in the park’s northeastern section. Bullfrogs, an invasive species with a gluttonous appetite, can grow up to eight inches long and weigh as much as a pound. Wildlife biologists hope they won’t.
Who else lives in the waters of Washington Park?
One local monster hunter claims he recently sighted a snapping turtle the size of a large pizza swimming in the canal near Smith Lake. Entirely possible, since snapping turtles are native to Colorado and their shells can reach an intimidating 20 inches in diameter.
According to Aucone, the lakes are home to at least two other varieties of turtles: the native western painted turtle, a handsome fellow with red, yellow and olive markings; and the non-native red-eared slider, once sold at pet shops and flea markets. Sliders sport a red stripe on each side of the head. Since these two species rarely exceed 10 inches in length, neither is apt to inspire a creature feature. But they are fun to watch — especially when sunning themselves on logs or floating just below the surface with their heads poking out.
Aquatic creatures in the park have many fans. The kids in June Bugs, a local day camp for children age 3 to 7, spend summer mornings splashing through Smith Ditch in search of crayfish and water striders. Equipped with nets and field guides, the June Bugs visit watery locations throughout the park. Camp director Nikki Hudon said the kids love to observe wildlife around the Lily Pond, where they recently netted some mega-size bullfrog tadpoles.
Park goers may wonder: what happens to our watery denizens when summer comes to an end? On Nov. 1 each year, the waterflow in Smith Ditch shuts off and as winter takes hold, the lakes frequently ice over. But unlike the ocean, lakes do not get colder at greater depths.
“Once you get below 18 inches in depth, the water temperature moderates and stays stable,” Aucone said.
He added that turtles will head for the bottom of the lakes — approximately 10 feet down — in Smith and Grasmere. There they’ll burrow into the mud and enter a state of torpor, which slows their biological processes. In this state, they skip eating and absorb oxygen from the water.
Crayfish also burrow, earning their nickname, mudbugs.
Aucone said fish stay active in the winter, although they prefer the moderate temperatures in the lake’s lower depths.
Things may quiet down below the ice, but on the surface, senior park ranger Jessica Johnson has observed some lively animal activity.
“When the lakes freeze over in the winter,” she said, “the foxes love to play on the ice.”
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