Topping out: Snowpack roars into Ruedi Reservoir
By the time you reach this, the gauge watching on the Fryingpan River might be water over the dam.
Last week’s spate of unseasonably hot weather brought a once-thought-depleted snowpack roaring into the upper Fryingpan River and in less than a week filled Ruedi Reservoir to overflowing.
By midmorning Thursday, the reservoir had topped, the Bureau of Reclamation was saying the dam was about to spill and the river watch was on.
That meant anglers below the dam, who usually see river flows around 170 cubic feet per second, suddenly were facing 807 cfs ripping downstream, including 757 from the dam along with 50 cfs or so from Rocky Fork Creek and whatever dribbles were contributed by other tributaries downstream.
The sudden increase in runoff, and the availability of that runoff, surprised a lot of water watchers in the past week or so.
The USDA National Resources Conservation Service estimated the Colorado River basin snowpack at 57 percent of average on June 1, and many observers didn’t think Ruedi would fill this year.
But a blast of hot weather starting June 5 sent the upper Fryingpan surging, going from less than 500 cfs on June 4 to more than 1,900 cfs on June 7.
It receded from that high but even late Thursday the gauges above Ruedi were reading 970 cfs.
That surge surprised many long-time snowpack watchers, said Bureau of Reclamation spokesperson Kara Lamb.
“We didn’t think Ruedi would even fill this year and it filled in five days,” Lamb said Thursday.
“What started as a less than average snowpack has now resulted in full and spilling reservoirs,” she wrote in her regular e-mail update on Ruedi conditions.
She said a “minimal” amount of water, around 100 cfs, is expected to go over the spillway.
“We’re waiting to see what the weather does and are hoping to maintain this 757 through (Friday),” she said. “By then maybe the cooler temperatures will have caught up with us.”
Below the dam, the river has become terribly similar to other rivers in Colorado trapped by the high water of runoff. The water is fast, off-color, no bugs to speak of and the usual trout-holding spots, well, what holding spots?
Anglers this time of year avoiding the torrents of runoff in favor of dam-controlled rivers shouldn’t ignore the ‘Pan even if it looks more like one of the former, not the latter.
“Up below the reservoir the river is really very fishable,” said Kirk Webb of Taylor Creek Fly Shop (970-927-4374) in Basalt. “I was up there the past two nights myself and it was 800 cfs and change.”
The big flows actually play a little into the hands of anglers, Webb said. Those slab-sided rainbows that normally hang out in the deep pools just below the dam move downstream to places anglers can reach, Webb said.
“This is sort of a locals-knowledge type of thing,” he said. “Anytime there’s high water, the locals know the big fish come down into the flats and the upper stretches like the Bend Pool.”
The high releases also push mysis shrimp out of the reservoir “in huge numbers,” Webb said.
Although the river is higher than normal, it’s not much different than everyday fishing on the nearby Roaring Fork or Colorado rivers, Webb said.
“Right below the dam the river widens and shallows and even in the high water, it’s only knee to waist deep,” he said. “If you’re comfortable fishing in those conditions, you won’t have any problems.”
Most anglers are deterred more by water clarity than by the speed and volume of water, he said.
And even in high flows, the Fryingpan offers places to fish where currents and clarity are amenable to fishing.
“There are a handful of spots in the lower end, I’m talking about two to four miles below the dam, where there are spots close to the road you can fish,” Webb said. “They’re just few and far between.”
Webb has been getting phone calls from anglers concerned about the high flows and he makes sure they understand the Fryingpan River they see in the next few days isn’t the one they are accustomed to seeing.
“But even at those volumes, it’s really fishing pretty well,” he said.