OUT Column June 24, 2009

Swollen rivers, bugs getting anglers’ attention

An adult male salmonfly perches on a dried stick during the salmonfly hatch on the Gunnison River.

A lone angler cautiously wades partway into the Fryingpan River to cast a lure for trout. The river is flowing higher than average as snowmelt continues in the high country.

AUSTIN — The clouds scraping across Grand Mesa last week were pewter precursors of more storms raking an already soaked western Colorado.

It’s been great for the wildflowers but plays heck with fishing plans.

“We tell (our clients) to be ready for just about anything,” said Kirk Webb at Taylor Creek Fly Shop in Basalt, where the free-charging Fryingpan River noisily serenaded the conversation.

“The water’s clearing fine and very fishable in the Fryingpan but it’s just still a little high in the Roaring Fork River,” Webb said.

To think of the Fryingpan as being runoff swollen is a bit of a puzzle but a peek at the river Sunday showed it looking an awful lot like a freestone river instead of a river moderated by Ruedi Dam.

Normally, the river’s dam-controlled flows are subdued as the Bureau of Reclamation monitors levels in Ruedi Reservoir, about 12 miles upstream of Basalt.

However, recent rains not only soaked the ground in the mountains above Ruedi but caused what remains from the winter snowpack to melt.

Which means, with Ruedi already a bare half-foot short of being full, any new inflow doesn’t linger but heads right downstream, said Kara Lamb, spokeswoman for the Eastern Colorado office of the Bureau of Reclamation.

“We increased releases twice (on Sunday), once in the morning and again in the evening,” Lamb said Monday. “The current flow in the Fryingpan should be around 577 cubic feet per second. Snow-melt runoff has been on the increase (and) we are almost full in the reservoir. We’ll continue to bypass snow-melt runoff coming into the reservoir on through to the river.”

The Gunnison River, too, continues to run high — about 2,230 cfs as of Monday — as the Bureau of Reclamation finds itself in a similar fix with Blue Mesa Reservoir: Lots of water and increasingly no place to put it.

In a recent e-mail, lead hydrologist Dan Crabtree of the bureau’s Grand Junction office wrote that May runoff into Blue Mesa was 158 percent of average which in turn “is requiring us to significantly increase releases in order to attempt to avoid spilling Blue Mesa Reservoir.”

The bureau’s “tea-cup diagram” of western Colorado reservoirs shows Blue Mesa at less than a half-foot short of being full while Crystal and Morrow Point reservoirs are hovering at 97 percent full.

Which means a week of dry weather will be welcome, indeed.

But it’s the first week of summer, a time when bugs, not water levels, attract the most attention.

The much-awaited salmonfly hatch came and went last week, at least along the lower Gunnison. A visit Thursday to the Gunnison and North Fork confluence revealed a few adults still clinging to the willows, hoping to find a mate.

The main surge of these lumbering, 2-inch insects was somewhere upstream and moving steadily.

Anglers were in evidence — the parking lot on the east side of the river was holding a dozen or so vehicles — but few were seen as most of them had wandered off upstream, trying to catch up with the blizzard of bugs.

While being in the middle of the hatch can provide stories worthy of telling for years, sometimes the very act of trying to fish with so many bugs in the air and on the water can be frustrating.

“It was pretty tough,” said Grand Junction angler Ned Mayer, who spent a day floating and fishing the Gunnison from the Smith Fork down to the Pleasure Park. “You’d think with all those bugs it would be amazing, but we had to work for every fish, they weren’t being stupid.”

It seems Mayer and his companions, Dick Knackendoffel and Mac Cunningham, nearly were victimized by what’s known as a masking hatch, where a plethora of one bug hides the real hatch on which the fish are feeding.

In addition to waves of salmonflies, the trio also saw two other stoneflies, the golden
Stone and the smaller Yellow Sallies, along with pale morning duns and “lots of caddis,” Mayer said.

“We would go through waves (of bugs) with lots of rising fish, but it seemed the fish were keying on the smaller PMDs,” he said. “Later in the day, we went to banging the banks with Stimulator and Golden Stone patterns and did pretty well. But in the middle of the day the fish were very selective and not taking salmon fly patterns.”

Why a feeding trout would ignore the big mouthfuls in favor of smaller, harder-to-catch bugs is one of the mysteries that makes fly fishing so appealing to anglers.

It also is why some of those stonefly patterns have more hair than some anglers.


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