THE EXCEPTIONAL GUNNISON RIVER
Healthy water flows benefit trout and anglers
AUSTIN — There’s plenty of water in the lower Gunnison River, something that hasn’t been true of other Colorado rivers this summer.
Not that the others are dry, but the drought hasn’t been kind to Western rivers, most of which suffered this year from low water and high water temperatures and, in the most drastic cases, restrictions on fishing and recreational boating.
The Gunnison has been the most-notable exception, thanks to several prior obligations including water flows for the Black Canyon of the Gunnison and the endangered native fish downstream of Delta.
These meant the river below Crystal Dam never dropped below 450 cubic feet per second flows, supplying water enough for fish, anglers and the lure of white-water rafting.
None of this, of course, escaped the eyes of outfitter Al DeGrange, owner of Gunnison River Expeditions (970-874-8184) and purveyor of all of the above services.
“This year we had the only water to speak of,” said DeGrange, sitting in the main room at the Gunnison River Pleasure Park, where he moved his headquarters in 2011. “It didn’t take long for the word to get out, and we got known for our great fishing.”
If you run an angling service, water, of course, is vital, but so are fish.
As it was all across Colorado, the Gunnison River’s rainbow trout nearly disappeared after whirling disease struck in 1994.
It took countless hours of research cross-breeding Gunnison rainbows with a disease-resistant strain of rainbows discovered in Germany to develop a fish displaying the muscularity of the Gunnison genes and the disease resistance that allows wild trout spawning.
“The upper river is fishing great but isn’t quite back to what it was,” said Gunnison River Expeditions fishing guide Gale Doudy, pausing at the oars midway on a recent trip on the river. “But the lower river is fishing better than it ever has.”
Doudy should know. The Delta County native has more than five decades fishing the Gunnison, and for years he has lived a long double-haul from the river.
“It was pretty bad for a lot of years, but it’s really improved, thanks to the stocking with the (German) Hofer trout,” he said.
He estimated Colorado Parks and Wildlife and volunteers from local Trout Unlimited chapters have stocked 800,000 of the hybrid fingerling trout in the river since 2002.
“I think there’s something like 3,000 to 5,000 fish per mile in the lower river, which is a lot of fish,” he said.
The lower river is the reach downstream from the Pleasure Park at the North Fork confluence. The upper river, which has perhaps twice as many fish per mile as the lower, is the four miles from the Smith Fork confluence down to the Pleasure Park.
Starting your day at the Smith Fork means a quick and chilly ride at daybreak in DeGrange’s jet boat, a rare privilege because the Smith Fork lies inside the Gunnison Gorge Wilderness.
“When (former Pleasure Park operator) Leroy (Jagodinski) passed in 2001, I think a lot of people thought the jet-boat passed with him,” said DeGrange, who worked for Jagodinski and his wife, Caroline, who now operates the Pleasure Park, for 18 years prior to taking over Gunnison River Expeditions.
DeGrange said a meeting with the director of the Bureau of Land Management “convinced him of the importance of keeping the permit alive.”
DeGrange goes upriver well before walk-in anglers are on the river and offers a variety of services ranging from drop-off to fully guided trips.
It’s from the Smith Fork that Doudy and I began our day, hoping to reach the lower river takeout before the expected rain began.
We got drenched, of course, but the day went quickly, catching hefty trout on Doudy’s hand-tied size 20 midge emergers and talking about fishing and river management.
“I remember one time I was fishing with (his wife) Donna, and she said, ‘I think I’m stuck on the bottom,’ ” Doudy recalled while describing how the fishery has rebounded. “Then the ‘bottom’ began to move. That was a real nice fish.”