A typical brookie in the lower lake where we worked in Weminuche Wilderness.
By Kevin Terry
Colorado is blessed by an abundance of public land and spectacular mountain landscapes. This is the reason many of us live here to begin with. A significant part of this public playground is preserved by designation as wilderness.
In southern Colorado, the Weminuche wilderness is the state’s largest at 487,912 acres. First designated in 1975, the Weminuche lies in the San Juan Mountains and houses the headwaters of several of the West’s most notable rivers, including the Rio Grande, and the San Juan. The Continental Divide splits the Weminuche, separating these rivers and creating the boundary that separated the Rio Grande Cutthroat from the Colorado River Cutthroat in evolutionary time.
I have had the privilege to explore this area on both sides for almost a decade. The diversity of fishing opportunities is incredible, and there is always a new adventure awaiting. A few years ago, I was playing around with my mapping software, planning a three-day backpack trip for my wife and me. I decided to go for a loop hike in the headwaters of the South Fork of the Rio Grande with lakeside camping both nights. The first lake was just as expected, right off the trail and packed with Brookies. The second night was more of an adventure, as the two lakes we were going to camp at were, as it turned out, off the trail a little bit. My wife would probably tell it a little different, but after convincing her to have faith in my homemade map and trusty GPS, we stumbled upon two remarkable lakes that were truly “hidden” gems. I mean, this is the kind of place that is truly wild, right?
Well, it turns out that the answer is yes and no in this case. While the lakes are in a spot that must have held natural water based on the topography, both lakes also have dams that enhanced the storage capacity substantially in each—and also created two tremendous fishing lakes. There wasn’t any signage or any other indicator of who had done this work and when. This is, after all, Wilderness, right? Yes, a quick check of the map showed that indeed, we were within the boundaries. Well, it remained a mystery, at least for a couple of years.
Fast forward to the summer of 2013. I have just started my new job with Trout Unlimited as the Rio Grande Basin project manager, and I am trying to make new contacts in the area the best way I know how, on a boat on the Rio Grande. I’ve met a new fishing buddy, and as fate would have it, he begins to tell me about a problem his friend has way up in the Weminuche Wilderness with two lakes that his family first built in 1926. He goes on to say that the lakes were rehabbed sometime in the1940s, but that there are now some problems with the dams according to the State Engineers Office.
I quickly connect the dots and, to his surprise, name these mystery lakes right off. Well, it turns out that the lakes are now part of a partnership called the Conservation Pool Program with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. The program works by keeping some lakes full for the purpose of fishing, while the farmers’ water rights from them are transferred to another reservoir and delivered to their farms. This program is particularly good for this situation, as the remote location and restrictions of the Wilderness designation would make water delivery and ditch maintenance very challenging. This is a win-all agreement that has a benefit to every stakeholder, including the USFS, CPW, the farmers, and the general public. However, the water right holders have the sole responsibility to maintain the dams to state standards.
So how do they maintain this infrastructure in the middle of the wilderness? That’s a good question, and one that started me on my first project with Trout Unlimited. After all, I knew that these lakes were valuable fisheries available to the public and that these folks needed help from someone to maintain them.
The first step was to meet with the farmers and look through the state engineer’s latest inspection reports. The partners included Rick Davie of the Davie Ranch, David Colville of the Corset Ranch and Harold Peck of HSP farms. These gentlemen and their families own the water rights and have been ranching and farming the Rio Grande for generations. They are very busy, hard-working people and they were all relieved to have TU step up and offer a hand. We took a collective look at the reports and listed the major actions required to bring the dams into compliance and maintain the current full storage level. The primary duty was to remove decades of waterlogged trees that have fallen into the lakes and drifted onto the surface of the dams and in the spillways. This area has been hit hard by beetle kill in the last 10 years—over 100 logs needed to be removed in the lower lake alone. Another requirement was to inspect the outlet pipes visually, and to service the outlet wheel works that open and close the pipes in case the lakes need to be drained for an emergency.
We determined that we would do our best with horses and hands and give it a shot. I was tasked with getting something together for the pipe inspection and bringing some good old TU volunteers. The farmers were responsible for the horses and to bring some of that ingenuity that allowed their forefathers to persevere in the first place. As we were restricted by Wilderness rules, banning mechanized equipment, this would be a significant task. Over the next couple of weeks we talked occasionally and finally decided on a date for the trip.
Ranchers brought draft horses to help with the heavy lifting . . .
For the inspection, we rented a high tech video camera attached to an apparatus much like a sewer snake, which allowed us to record our inspection of the pipe works. We used an inverter to allow the use of DC power from a battery and we had solar chargers in place to keep the power flowing. For the logs, the farmers brought in a team of draft horses that were gargantuan by my standards of very limited experience with horses, as well as a few come-a-long hand winches and plenty of muscled ranch hands to crank them. We threw in an inflatable boat to help with the logs by floating some of them up lake to drag onto shore by hand or to tie in with other log debris to maintain and create fish habitat. After a couple of long hard days, we had done our best to comply with the required actions, and the work accomplished was astonishing. Everyone truly came together to get the job done and preserve something special.
After the work was done, TU’s crew went to work fishing for dinner. This was a simple task in the upper lake, which is teeming with 8-12 inch brook trout. A reward for almost every cast. The lower lake is another story, as densities are lower and the average size greater. A bonus in the lower lake is the presence of big Rio Grande Cutthroat. We caught one at 19 inches that avoided a picture, and we saw another well over 20 inches lurking around in the shallows. Next time we’ll get them!
I repeatedly failed to mention the names of these lakes throughout this blog. The clues are in place and finding them will not be a challenge, if you are so inclined. It is an unforgettable adventure that I highly recommend to anyone who likes remote fishing lakes and peace and quiet. Hopefully the work we have done will preserve this opportunity well into the future. It’s a feel-good situation to have been a part of this project, and I am proud to be part of a group like Trout Unlimited that enables projects like this and encourages partnerships that protect fisheries. A huge thank you goes out to the five TU volunteers who hiked 14 miles and worked their butts off for this effort: Matt Pelletier, Doug Manley, Eric Peterson, Matt Peterson, and Andrew Terry. They are the essence of TU and our cause.
Kevin Terry is TU’s Rio Grande River Basin project manager.
TU volunteers (from left): Matt Pelletier, Matt Peterson, Kevin Terry, Eric Peterson, Andrew Terry,
and Doug Manley. Many thanks, gents!