Advocacy | Angler Conservation Program | Conservation | Fishing

Want more Gunnison River? Pass the CORE Act

Curecanti provision offers overdue access to top Colorado trout fishery

Photos by Connie Rudd.

How does 12 miles of new public fishing access on one of the West’s best trout fisheries sound to you? I know, probably more like a phishing scam than a bona fide fishing plan. But this time the winning lottery ticket is legit — no Nigerian money transfer required.

The “ticket” is actually a piece of public lands conservation legislation sponsored by Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet and Rep. Joe Neguse titled the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy (CORE) Act that’s currently making its way through Congress. And among its four principle components is a provision calling for the U.S. Interior Department to increase public fishing access in the upper Gunnison River drainage by nearly a dozen miles.

That’s almost 12 miles of future fishing easements in one of the most productive trout (and kokanee salmon) fisheries in the Rockies. And as of now, we’re effectively halfway there.

Thanks to the leadership of freshman Rep. Neguse, the CORE Act took a major step forward last fall by passing in the U.S. House of Representatives, marking the first time in more than a decade that any Colorado-based wilderness legislation had been approved by Congress. The (non-wilderness) Gunnison River access issue that would be resolved through the bill’s Curecanti Boundary Establishment Act provision has been lingering even longer.

Dating back to construction of the federally managed Aspinall Unit of the Colorado Storage Project in 1965, the Curecanti National Recreation Area created through inundation of the surrounding river valley still suffers from a series of administrative snafus that leave its boundaries and administration in question.

Most relevant to anglers, the lack of administrative oversight has allowed the U.S. Interior Department’s Bureau of Reclamation to forego its mandated mitigation obligation to restore some 26 miles of public fishing access as compensation for river habitat lost when the Gunnison was dammed to fill the three reservoirs — Blue Mesa, Morrow Point and Crystal — that comprise Curecanti. Records show that the Bureau has delivered on just a little more than 14 miles of its obligation to date. Trout Unlimited intends to ensure that Colorado receives the remainder.

Working alongside Colorado’s Congressional delegation, state agencies and local sportsmen and women, TU is shining the spotlight on the Curecanti legislation with an emphasis on seeing the debt owed to Colorado anglers by the federal government fulfilled. Having helped the CORE Act pass through the House, we’re building on that momentum as focus shifts to the Senate, encouraging the upper chamber to take up the measure and expanding awareness of the Bureau of Reclamation’s responsibility to make good on its commitment.

Colorado Senator Bennet getting a tour of Curecanti. Photo credit Connie Rudd

At its core, the uniquely American concept of our national system of public lands is equitably rooted in access and conservation. We’re all equal shareholders in a 640-million-acre trust that more often than not includes a management mandate of multiple use. That means you, and your fishing rod, are entitled to just as much land management consideration as any other interests who may attempt to lay claim to these lands and waters, and failure to compensate Coloradans for such a significant loss of accessible habitat is simply unacceptable. Lest we forget, the federal government still works for we the people.

It may be a good time to remind Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee member Cory Gardner that he has the power to request a hearing for this legislation right now, and let Colorado Rep. Scott Tipton know he can all but ensure the bill’s passage by joining his local constituents in support.

Conserving habitat and providing quality fishing access go hand-in-hand as imperatives of growing Colorado’s angling community and associated outdoor recreation economy. And, frankly, 55 years is already far too long to let this debt linger. After all, 12 miles of Gunnison River access is nothing to shake a stick at, unless maybe it’s a 5-weight with an elk hair caddis tied to the end.

How to Fish the Gunnison

It’s a poorly kept secret that the upper Gunnison River has met the state standards for Gold Medal designation for years.

Despite Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s hesitancy to bestow the title, the 18-mile reach from Almont (9 miles north of Gunnison) to the Blue Mesa inlet (5 miles west of Gunnison) boasts about 3,500 brown trout and 1,000 rainbow trout per mile.

The river easily hits the “quality” (a.k.a. big) fish metrics of 60 pounds and 12 fish over 14 inches per acre, weighing in at between 141-234 pounds per acre with 41-70 trout 14 inches or larger present per acre in surveys of the river above town.

And that doesn’t even account the kokanee salmon factor.

The Gunnison and East River feeding into it are home to the largest kokanee salmon run in the United States. These landlocked Sockeyes start their fall spawning run in Blue Mesa Reservoir and end at the Roaring Judy Fish Hatchery where fingerlings are reared over the winter and released to return to Blue Mesa in the spring. While kokanee fishing is strictly regulated during the run, there’s ample catch-and-release opportunity for these broad-shouldered brutes. What’s more, some of the biggest browns and ‘bows of the year can be caught inhaling egg patterns behind salmon pods in the river.

Although much of the upper Gunnison is privately owned, there’s a solid six miles of public access for wade fishing at seven access sites and another five public access points for generally class II (and occasionally III) boating. Guided wade or float trips are available from several local guide services.

Brown trout account for up to 70 percent of angler catch, although rainbows are being landed with increasing frequency. Try Cooper’s Ranch and Neversink access points for excellent rainbow fishing. BWO’s, traditional varieties of nymphs, dry caddis and other dry mayfly patterns rule the fly selection during the heart of the summer fishing season into October. Keep an eye out for the Green Drake hatch migrating upstream in early July, while a good Red Quill pattern is a go-to dry fly during the fall. And never underestimate the power of the Parachute Adams. A variety of sizes from 10-18 will land fish during hatches throughout the season.