Low water reveals hidden structures in Blue Mesa Reservoir

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 oldtimers 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 softhackle nymphs, two of them wellchewed 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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