After an early summer of high flows in the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area, I am happy to report that the fishing is back to phenomenal. And what’s more, I haven’t seen the Gorge this happy in a long, long time.
If you haven’t been through lately, it’s time to schedule a trip.
For almost everyone who keys in on the Gunnison Gorge’s world-famous salmon fly (Pteronarcys californica) hatch, the 2014 hatch was disappointing because it was nearly impossible to fish, thanks to high flows. Those high flows are the result of the 2012 Record of Decision for the Aspinall Unit Operations Final Environmental Impact Statement.
That Congressionally authorized decision basically says the Federal Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the entire Aspinall unit on the Gunnison River Basin, is required to increase river flows periodically to benefit endangered fish species like the humback chub, Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker.
Depending on the forecast of snowmelt flowing into the Blue Mesa Reservoir every spring, Reclamation officials will determine the type and peak flow it will then work to achieve later that spring/summer at the Gunnison River’s Whitewater river flow gauge, just south of Grand Junction.
With above-average snowpack waiting to melt into Blue Mesa Reservoir, Reclamation officials decided that this could be the year that the high river flow requirement, as outlined in the Record of Decision, would be a possibility. It was announced that May 23 would be the day that Reclamation officials would begin releasing water from the Aspinall Unit’s three dams (Blue Mesa, Morrow Point, Crystal) and increase river flows through the Gunnison Gorge. At a minimum of 500 cubic-feet-per-second of water per day, river flows would be increased to around 9,000 cfs by June 2. Those flows, in combination with the North Fork of the Gunnison Flows and the Uncompahgre River flows both downstream, would meet Reclamation’s targeted flows at the Whitewater gauge.
Except for having to delay their peak flows for awhile, because cool temperatures caused lower flows on the North Fork, the plan went forward, and the Gunnison Gorge saw more than 9,000 cfs of water.
Unfortunately, that flush of water came at the same time as the world famous stonefly hatch, so for several weeks, the Gorge was a whitewater playground, not a fly-fishing wonderland.
Anglers from all over the country eager to see a large brown trout crush their large orange dry fly this year were disappointed. I know an Alabama-based, trout-crazed cousin of mine was disappointed when I told him to stow his fly rod away, because our trip through the gorge at 5,000 cfs would be for whitewater fun only. (And what great fun it was!)
Many outfitters cancelled their trips, because of the high flows. Those cancelled trips meant many of the area’s fly-fishing guides were left without work. No doubt, there was a negative economic impact because of the high flows through the Gunnison Gorge this year and it sucks. After reading some guest commentaries published in newspapers around the region and hearing a story broadcast on a Grand Junction news station, I am afraid the negative economic impact of the high water flush has put a dark cloud over the Gunnison Gorge.
I heard accusations that the high water flush didn’t actually help the endangered species of fish downstream. I heard a suggestion that the high flows were actually bad for the trout fishery in the Gunnison Gorge, and detrimental to the Gorge’s aquatic insects. I heard that it was completely mismanaged by Reclamation.
I will be the first to tell you that I am no water engineer. I am no biologist. I am no entomologist. But I will sit here an tell you the 9,000 cfs flow was just what the doctor ordered for the fish, the bugs and the entire Gorge. That place needed a cleanse. Yes, it sucked for the anglers and the guides who make a living off that resource, but that flush flow is only going to make the fishing better for years to come. That flush flow was anything but depressing.
Depressing to me are consecutive drought years where the river flows barely go above 300 cfs all summer. Yes, the stone fly hatch comes off like clockwork in early June, but don’t tell me those fish are happy in a mere 300 cfs. So with that 9,000 flow behind us, we have only good fishing to look forward to, and already the Gorge is showing signs that really good things are to come.
Torie and I fished our way through as the water dropped back down from the peak flow at about 3,000 cfs. Despite the changing water flows, which often put them down for a day or two, big rainbows and big browns were on the banks and rock walls hammering anything big that was thrown at them; they were hungry and excited to eat.
There was an awesome caddis hatch in the evening hours in Ute Park. We went back through two weeks ago. The dry fly fishing had slowed down. The nymphing, however, was spot-on. Now there are big stonefly nymphs everywhere. Put on a large girdle bug pattern and see if they are eating them. I know you will be pleasantly surprised.
My point here is this: Don’t let anyone tell you that the Gunnison Gorge’s fishing was ruined by the high water flows. From my point of view, that flush is only going to make the fishing stronger and more addictive over the next few years. It’s what the resource needed. It’s my hope that the improved fishing, thanks to the flush, will make up for the economic losses we felt this year, over the next few years.
As the hopper fishing begins to take hold in the next month or so, the dry-fly fishing will go crazy. Below the Smith Fork, big browns are already eyeing the bank for a big juicy green hopper.
The summer is still young. Call your favorite Gunny Gorge outfitter and set up a trip. Grab a box of Chernobyl ants, hoppers, girdle bugs, red copper Johns and prince nymphs. There’s no reason to be a Debby downer because of the past high flows. Fishing the Gunnison Gorge is better than ever.