WESTERN SLOPE – If you’ve experienced great fishing on rivers in Delta, Montrose, Ouray, and San Miguel counties over the past 20 years, chances are that great experience was, at least in part, made possible due to the efforts of the Gunnison Gorge Anglers chapter of Trout Unlimited.
Conservation efforts concerning water are never an easy task, especially in this part of the state where the list of stakeholders is long and diverse. Always with the improvement of fisheries in the forefront, GGA has been able to work with stakeholders in inventive ways, and looking back to its inception in 1984, the local chapter of Trout Unlimited has an impressive resume of accomplishments. Perhaps what’s most apparent, though, is the region’s renowned fishing possibilities, much of which is due to the work of the fishing club.
A celebration of those accomplishments along with a fundraiser for the GGA chapter is coming Thursday, July 26, as it will once again hold its Trout-a-Palooza event at Telluride’s Ah Haa School from 6:30-9 p.m. The event, which includes dinner, a social hour, raffles and both silent and live auctions for fly-fishing gear, float trips, artwork and sculptures, is intended to help raise the funds needed for the group to continue its conservation work.
“Our main goal is to improve the cold water fisheries that we are blessed to have,” said GGA President Marshall Pendergrass. “Essentially our scope is to work on any water issues in the Gunnison River drainage, the Uncompahgre drainage, the San Miguel drainage, and the upper Dolores River.”
Pendergrass said funds raised at Trout-a-Palooza will go toward achieving some river work GGA has planned ,but before he got into the details of those projects, which include replacing a dangerous diversion dam on the Gunnison River and continuing to improve Uncompahgre River access in Montrose, he offered an outline of some of the impressive work that’s already been done, with GGA’s help, over the years.
Ever fish the manicured waters of the Uncompahgre River below the Ridgway Reservoir? According to Pendergrass, GGA was instrumental in providing the seed money to make the Pa-Co-Chu-Puk area of the Ridgway State Park become a reality in the early 90s.
“We worked in a partnership with [Colorado] State Parks and the Division of Wildlife and provided the upfront money to do the design and engineering of the area,” he said. “They needed a nonprofit, like GGA, to facilitate the project and go after grant money. That’s where we found our key role in that. The result is a mile-and-a-half stretch of Gold Medal water.”
It’s now GGA’s goal to make Pa-Co-Chu-Puk a world class fishery both in the summer and the winter as plans for a hydroelectric power station at the dam take shape. If GGA has its way, the hydro project will use two turbines, one for higher flows and one for lower flows that will make power generation a reality year-round. With those two in place, higher sustained winter flows are possible, and Pa-Co-Chu-Puk could become a year-round fishing destination.
“If we can expect 100 [cubic feet per second] flows during the winter, it will increase the fish habitat tenfold,” Pendergrass said.
Further downstream on the Uncompahgre, GGA is continuing to work with the City of Montrose on river restoration projects with a goal of achieving close to 10 miles of public fishing water in total on the river by the end of the decade.
Perhaps GGA’s biggest achievement in fishing access occurred on the Gunnison River where it meets with the North Fork of the Gunnison, known as Gunnison River Pleasure Park.
“Thirty years ago, it was all private, you couldn’t access the lower gorge on foot,” Pendergrass said. “Along with other sportsmen’s groups, we were able to buy land on both sides of the river, and then it was deeded over the Bureau of Land Management for a dollar. Now the BLM has developed a road system, put in toilets, boat ramps, the Cottonwood Camp…It all started with people having the foresight that this was an important piece of water.”
More recently, Pendergrass said GGA has had a hand in keeping access to the Gunnison River below the Smith Fork open to people with disabilities by weighing in on whether or not a jet boat permit in the area should be re-issued after the famous jetboat operator and outfitter LeRoy Jagodinski died last year.
“We pushed real hard for that jet boat service,” Pendergrass said. Since accessing the Gunnison River in the gorge is so tough, especially for those with disabilities, he said the jetboat would help with access to the river below the Smith Fork. “The jetboat was needed to fish the lower part, and [the BLM] was agreeable to that.”
One of the more innovative issues GGA took part in solving was the problem of ice floes on the San Miguel River. After a long process based on research, it was found that ecosystem-damaging ice floes during the winter months were caused by warm water being pumped from Trout Lake, through the Ames Power Station, and into the South Fork of the San Miguel River. To solve the problem, researchers found that circulators on Trout Lake, along with slowing the pump rate of the water to the power station, would cool the water temperatures enough so it would no longer melt the river’s ice down below.
“I really commend the scientists who worked with BLM and the Forest Service on this,” Pendergrass said. “The ice wiped out bug life and fish – at one time, there were no carryover fish. It was really detrimental. Over the past two or three years, the fishing on the San Miguel has been the best it’s ever been.”
Pendergrass could take the better part of a week explaining all of the accomplishments GGA has achieved. That list includes:
• Work toward designating the San Miguel River as Wild and Scenic, which is still in the process.
• Helping to secure a 300 cfs minimum flow through the Black Canyon National Park.
• Restructuring the banks of the Uncompahgre River near Baldridge and Cerise parks in Montrose.
• Involved in mitigation for the South Canal Hydro Project with the Delta-Montrose Electric Association.
• Helped acquire a mile of Uncompahgre River from Target north to the jogging trail bridge equaling 35 acres and one mile of river.
• Worked to help solve Whirling Disease in the Gunnison River in an effort to bring back a disease-resistant rainbow trout population.
And of course, Pendergrass said GGA’s work is not over. This fall, GGA expects to complete the restructuring of a diversion dam on the Gunnison River below the confluence of the North Fork and hopes to work on improving stream flows below McPhee Reservoir on the Dolores River.
Looking back at the work GGA strives to do, Pendergrass said it’s all comes down to working with people to protect and improve water.
“We believe in the old saw: ‘If you take care of the water, you take care of everybody else.’”
For more information on GGA, visit its website at gunnisongorgeanglers.org/. Reservations are required for the Trout-a-Palooza event on July 26. For tickets, contact John or Tom at Telluride Outside at 970/728-3895. Cost of admission is $50. Additional reporting by Peter Shelton.
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