OUT: East Portal May 06, 2009

After years of restrictive regulations, higher flows and stocking of whirling disease-resistant hybrids, the rainbow trout is s

JASON BOOTH releases a RAINBOW TROUT into the East Portal section of the Gunnison River east of Montrose. Booth is co-owner of Gunnison River Guides in Gunnison.

EAST PORTAL, Gunnison River — Draped over Jason Booth’s hands, with plenty to spare on either end, was an example of why so many anglers risk the hair-raising ride down the rock-pocked ribbon of pavement into the East Portal section of the Gunnison River.

Like a ghost returning from a time before whirling disease took its toll, a magnificent carmine-striped rainbow struggled into Booth’s net, was held briefly for the camera and then eased into the river.

Booth, co-owner with Joel Aslanian of Gunnison River Guides (http://www.gunnisonriverguides.com), was taking a bit of busman’s holiday on the Gunnison River.

Between what seemed a strike every minute or so, he gave a nosy visitor a few tips on fishing the Gunnison’s pea-green waters,  a reminder of the runoff charging from the high county.

“I’m surprised to see the water this color, but you have to adapt to the situation,” said Booth, who has more than 15 years’ experience guiding on waters in the Gunnison and Crested
Butte area. “Actually, it’s probably good for the fish since it offers them a little more protection.”

It’s spawning time for rainbow trout, and in those years when spawn precedes the runoff (the layers of dust from winter storms can be blamed for the early melt) anglers can see redds up and down the Gunnison River.

They are particularly obvious around East Portal, and it’s not uncommon to see more than a few unscrupulous or simply clueless anglers carelessly wading across the redds, endangering whatever reproduction might occur.

If you were doing this to, say, yellow perch, a pesky interloper whose populations aren’t reduced by disease and habitat loss, it wouldn’t matter.

But the thoughtless trodding across the redds of Gunnison’s rainbow trout, the collective objects of many years and many dollars of restoration practices, has sparked more than a few verbal confrontations between the miscreants and conservation-minded anglers.

“Maybe people won’t wade out because the flows are high and they can’t see where they’re going,” offered Booth, who managed to hook and release a dozen or more fish merely by wandering up and down a 20-foot section of bank without getting in the water.

Upstream, his fishing and business partner, Aslanian, was chasing after a 17- or 18-inch rainbow charging downstream after being hooked.

By the time Aslanian, a former Alaska fishing guide, caught up with and landed the hunk of fish about a quarter-mile below the East Portal roller dam, both man and fish were ready for a rest.

“That was wild,” Aslanian said. “I really didn’t think I would land that one. What a fish.”

Both Aslanian and Booth, along with Eli Wilder, one of their guides accompanying them on this early season “R and D” trip, were using a system made popular in Alaska: peg a plastic bead (or three, as Booth did) a few inches above a small (size 16) hook.

Spawn means fish eggs available to foraging trout, so the multi-colored beads (predominantly orange) attract bites and the hook sticks them in the corner of the mouth.

“I saw this being used down here and called my buddies in Alaska and said, ‘Guess what?

They’re using beads down here,’ ” said Aslanian with a laugh. “They said, ‘No way, how’d they know?’ ”

Booth has adapted the technique to the off-color water by pegging three beads together and then pegging another two or three a few inches away before adding a simple scud hook from his tying bench.

“I think having more beads allows the fish to see them better,” said Booth, who can be reached at 970-596-3054. “I should get a strike right through here.”

He cast less than 20 feet off the bank, allowed the beads to sink out of sight and almost immediately was into a fish.

Twenty years ago, the Gunnison River was known for its productivity. Rainbow trout up to 24 inches long weren’t uncommon and it took a really big fish to raise the eyebrows of local anglers.

But then whirling disease struck and the fishery nearly disappeared. Brown trout became dominant, because of both the loss of rainbows and the drought that brought lower, warmer flows of the sort brown trout prefer.

Brown trout, of course, are worthy quarry, and many pleasant hours were spent catching the Gunnison’s resident browns. But the memories remained of big-shouldered rainbow trout dancing across the water like their sea-run salmon cousins.

Now, after years of restrictive regulations, some higher flows thanks greatly to a last year’s massive runoff, and some thoughtful stocking by the Division of Wildlife of whirling disease-resistant rainbow hybrids (whose full benefit has yet to be realized), the rainbow trout fishery appears to be making a comeback.

That’s the good news. The bad news is the road still is the same.

Getting There:

The East Portal is off the South Rim Road of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.
Drive 9 miles east of Montrose on U.S. Highway 50, turn left at the Black Canyon signs and ask at the entrance station.

Fees: National Park entrance fees apply.

Fishing regulations: Gold Medal Trout Water, flies and artificial lures only, catch and release on all rainbow trout, other regulations apply.


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