High water keeping anglers away from Gunnison River

The mixing of the emerald-green Gunnison River, its color and flows largely controlled by dams upstream, and the sediment-heavy flows of the North Fork are shown in this photo taken Sunday overlooking the confluence. The two rivers finally blend about a half-mile down from the confluence.

AUSTIN — On a recent weekend morning, a visitor to the Gunnison River could hear the river’s voice chatting busily as its waters rolled past the slope-shouldered hills of Gunnison Gorge.

Standing in what is referred to as the west parking lot, just above the confluence of the Gunnison and North Fork rivers across from the Pleasure Park, one could hear other notable sounds, such as the intermittent trill of meadowlarks and the laughter of four rafters floating placidly by, headed toward their takeout a few miles downstream near Austin.

What was missing was the chatter and bustle of anglers as they readied for fishing one of Colorado’s prime trout streams.

The west parking lot, accessed by Delta County Road H75 from the Peach Valley area, was strangely deserted on a morning when you might expect to find six or more vehicles baking in the mid-May sun.

Or maybe not so strange, considering all the news inundating us this spring about forecasts for near-record runoff after another impressive snow year in the high mountains.

The threat (or promise, depending on one’s outlook and rafting ability) of high water remains with us, a promise being made and remade each time a winter-worthy storm sweeps across the high country.

And even though the Gunnison remains deliciously fishable, albeit not without its challenges, the singular lack of anglers may be directly attributed to the river’s robust flows, which recently dropped because of the cool weather but are expected to rise for the foreseeable future.

“Yeah, I’m a little surprised there wasn’t anybody there, but I’m sure it’s because of the high water,” said Phil Trimm, manager of Western Anglers Fly Shop, on Monday. “People don’t like to fish high water even though there’s really no secret to it.”

Western Anglers’ owner Jerry Schaeffer was standing nearby and remarked how even that section of the Gunnison at the East Portal, that premier high-water fishery a short distance below Crystal Dam, also was almost deserted on Sunday.

“I was really shocked to see only a few anglers down there,” said Schaeffer, who added he was down at the river without his fishing equipment, a rare occurrence for him. “I was showing a friend the East Portal and was really wishing I had brought my rod because it looked gorgeous.”

So it’s really no mystery. If you want to have the Gunnison to yourself, go in the dead of winter or the height of runoff.

“I was down there last week with Ned (Mayer) and we didn’t see anybody,” said Trimm, who likely has a season pass to that particularly productive fishery. “I think I caught 15 fish.”

It’s not that runoff is over, heaven forfend.

Flows in the North Fork, strangely similar in color and substance to the dregs in a coffee mug, have bounced around in recent days like a Superball on a trampoline.

After reaching a high of nearly 4,600 cubic feet per second May 8 and 9, the river dizzily dropped to around 1,700 cfs on May 14 after a cold front slowed the runoff.

But another warm spell last weekend pushed the North Fork to around 4,400 cfs before it dropped again.

One cubic foot per second is equal to about 7.5 gallons of water flowing past a given point in a second. One cfs you can step over; 500 cfs is probably over your head.

At 4,400 cfs, the North Fork was flowing at close to 33,000 gallons per second.

Add that to the flows of the main-stem Gunnison, which was forecast to reach 3,150 cfs this weekend but were clamped down to 2,570 after the cool spell, and you start getting into some serious water.

“The cooler weather prompted us to hold (off) on our increases to 3,150,” said Dan Crabtree, lead hydrologist for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in Grand Junction. “We’re going to stay where we’re at — for now, anyway — until things warm up.”

Crabtree, who is on the phone several times each day with the National Weather Service Colorado River Basin Forecasting Center in Salt Lake City, said he will be sending an updated river flow forecast around midweek.

“Right now, it looks like peak operations may be delayed until after Memorial Day,” Crabtree said.

Which might mean the Gunnison River will remain fishable during that long weekend.

Unless, of course, hot weather returns and the Cimarron River adds its complex voice to the growing choir.


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