Out of water

With his young Labrador retriever Sprig monitoring the action, Gene Hart of Gunnison brings to hand a 17-inch brown trout caught recently from the Gunnison River just upstream of Blue Mesa Reservoir. Low water in the reservoir has dropped the river, revealing structures not seen for nearly 30 years.

Three bead-head, soft-hackle pheasant tail nymphs tied by Gene Hart of Gunnison. The one on the right hasn’t been used while the other two are trout-chewed but even more effective due to their acquired buggy appearance.


hart continues tying detailed patterns despite nerve disease

It seems foolish to waste on trout the intricate flies Gene Hart ties by hand.

A recent, reluctant donation to tough-mouthed Gunnison River trout included several bead-head, soft-hackle pheasant tail nymphs, a trifle compared to the hundreds of flies Hart has tied this summer even though he continues to suffer from Multifocal Motor Neuropathy, a progressive degenerative nerve disease similar to ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease) robbing him of function and feeling in his hands and feet.

While the cure for MMN so far is unknown, Hart has regained the ability to fish and tie his detailed fly patterns (and hunt the waterfowl that supply the feathers) thanks to some specialized treatment from the Grand Junction Veterans Administration Medical Center.

“Once a week I go to Grand Junction for treatment,” said Hart as he held out a couple of well-chewed flies that he’s “semiretired” from fishing. “But my doctor at the VA transferred, so I have to find another one to write the prescription for my treatment. Otherwise, who knows?”

Well, two things for sure: The trout on the Gunnison River won’t be fooled nearly as often, and a treasured angling companion again will be sidelined.

GUNNISON – What’s old is new again.

Those words jog dormant memories as you wade into the Gunnison River 200 yards or so above the Lake City Bridge, its concrete pillars at the upper end of Blue Mesa Reservoir sometimes used as the de facto demarcation of where the river stops and the reservoir begins.

Actually, given this year’s draw-down of the reservoir, your position is still well short of the actual juncture between river and reservoir, which for the first time in a decade is downstream of the bridge.

The reservoir Monday was 53 feet down, the lowest since 2003, when the last such drought gripped Colorado’s high country.

And before that? Well, 1967 is a good guess, when the new reservoir still was being filled, but there have been several years since that the reservoir has fallen below 50 feet down.

There was 1977, a dry winter remembered by skiers not only for the boom in the ski repair business but also as the year many ski resorts decided to install snowmaking.

And there were 1982 and 1983 when the reservoir dipped to 7,435 elevation, 84 feet down. Those winters were so snowy the Bureau of Reclamation wisely drew down the reservoir in anticipation of the deluge-like runoff that was sure to come.

And come it did, filling not just the three dams of the Aspinall Unit (runoff in 1984 on the Gunnison was 167 percent of normal) but Lake Powell as well, where runoff that same year reached 206 percent of normal.

All that history comes down to this: When Gene Hart stepped into the Gunnison last week he was walking into a river not seen for a generation.

“You can see some of the foundations from the old cabins and resorts before the dam was built,” said Hart, standing near several bleached-out concrete slabs on which once stood riverside cabins used by anglers. “And notice how the plumbing drains right into the river. No septic tanks back then.”

Hart has fished the Gunnison since 1983, through the high years and the low years, and he’s seen the tops of foundations from resorts once lining the river drown, emerge, drown again and re-emerge.

“This river always is changing, and you wonder what the old-timers might say if they could see it now, this low,” he mused. “I wonder if they’d even recognize it.”

He wanted to say more, but he was interrupted by a fleshy brown trout trying to break his fishing rod.

“He took the soft-hackle,” whooped Hart as the fish splashed across the river.

Hart released the fish and then offered a visitor a selection of his size 16 bead-head, soft-hackle pheasant tail nymphs.

“Put this on and then put this 18 inches down,” he advised, holding out a size 18 bead-head Zebra nymph in a stylish black and silver.

“The fish change during the day,” Hart noted. “In the morning they were chewing up the soft-hackle but since about 10 or so they’ve been hitting the Zebra more often.”

In his palm were three of the soft-hackle nymphs, two of them well-chewed as proof of their efficacy but still fishable.

“Heck, they probably work even better than a new one because now they look so ‘buggy,’ ” Hart said with a laugh.

He caught fish throughout the day, something his companions, which included regular fishing buddy Mindy Sturm of Crested Butte, found challenging.

“How is it you always catch fish?” she asked, during a midafternoon lunch break.

“I don’t know,” said Hart, musing on his own memories of years past and years to come. “I do, though, don’t I?”


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