Fly-fishers from near and far are congregating on the banks of the Gunnison River at Almont for the autumn ritual of playing and releasing kokanee salmon that are running up the river from Blue Mesa Reservoir to spawn at the Roaring Judy Fish Hatchery on the East River.
The anglers may hook and play the salmon but that is where the fun must end. Although valued highly for their food value, all of the salmon are returned to the river immediately. Fishing is restricted to flies and lures only, and all salmon must be released. Releasing them seems an odd thing to do, at first. After all, their run is a one-way trip. Just like sockeye salmon, their saltwater cousins, kokanee salmon die after spawning.
So, what is the harm in taking a few for the table? The harm is in diminishing returns. Every salmon taken from the river before completing its spawning mission at the hatchery results in fewer salmon for the future.
After spending an average of three years roaming the open expanses of Blue Mesa Reservoir, the now sexually mature salmon enter the Gunnison River and swim upstream to the hatchery. There to meet them is the same man that has met the returning salmon for the past 25 years, hatchery manager Terry Robinson. Robinson and his staff annually spawn an average of 20,000 to 30,000 salmon to produce upwards of 7 million fertilized eggs. This number can vary greatly due to climatic conditions, and when numbers are low, every salmon counts. The fertilized eggs are the future of the kokanee fishery at Blue Mesa Reservoir as well as many other Colorado reservoirs.
On a recent sunny October morning, fly fishers lined the banks of the Gunnison River at the large pool situated just below the confluence of the East and Taylor rivers in downtown Almont. In a civilized, almost choreographed manner, some of the anglers fished while others waited patiently for their turn at a casting spots. The anglers-in-waiting lounged around on the rocks beneath the cottonwood trees, cheering in unison when one of the anglers connected with a particularly large and lively salmon.
The fishing method here is relatively simple; anglers stand at waters edge, lob a brightly colored weighted fly upstream, and then drift the offering through the deepest part of the pool. They repeat this action until one of the dozens of salmon holding near the bottom grows tired of dodging the fly and eats it. Fluffy strike indicators fashioned from macramé yarn and other floating materials serve as bobbers to help anglers detect the often subtle strikes.
Kokanee salmon begin their run in the Gunnison River as early as late July. Robinson explained there are typically two waves that come up. The first wave consists of the more natural spawners, which typically swim past the hatchery and continue up the East River to spawn near Crested Butte. The second wave enters the hatchery
Robinson wants anglers to enjoy the annual run of salmon but requests that they go easy on the fish. He said, "I had a guy in here once that said his arms ached from catching so many salmon. Some say they catch seventy or eighty fish a day. The fish can be injured and played out if caught repeatedly. I always see several dead fish below our catch and release area after a day of heavy fishing pressure."
In addition to the popular pools in the Gunnison River below Almont, there are a number of good pools in the East River that are accessed via the parking areas at the Roaring Judy Hatchery. Other pools on the Gunnison River are found at the Van Tuyl State Wildlife Area on the northern outskirts of Gunnison. All of these areas are restricted to catch and release.
On the opposite side of the Continental Divide, anglers with the urge to fly fish for kokanee salmon can find similar action on the South Platte River in South Park.
Although the present run of salmon into the South Platte River from Elevenmile Reservoir is much smaller than the run on the Gunnison River, it appears to be gaining momentum. The action here begins in October and continues into November.
Last November, Jim Gebing of Colorado Springs was all smiles as he repeatedly hooked brick red salmon that were holding in a shallow riffle a quarter of a mile above the reservoir. From his vantage point at the head of the riffle, he cast a weighted fly above the school of salmon and watched his strike indicator as the fly drifted among the fish. Occasionally, one of the male salmon would poke its grossly disfigured head above the water as if it were looking around for something.
On one such drift, Gebing’s strike indicator dove beneath the surface and he lifted his fly rod into a deep arch, setting the hook into a salmon’s hooked jaw. "Red Chironomid," Gebing replied to the usual question about his choice of fly pattern, adding, "They are taking it pretty well, faster than they were earlier".
Two-hundred yards upstream, Division of Wildlife aquatic biologist Jeff Spohn and his crew of biologists and wildlife technicians were trapping the salmon and spawning them artificially in a temporary trailer parked beside the river. Workers mixed eggs with milt in bright yellow tubs, fertilizing the eggs before transporting them to a fish hatchery, where they will grow into fingerlings. Spohn’s allotment of fingerlings in the future will go directly into the South Platte River instead of into Elevenmile Reservoir, as in the past.
"It is not big numbers," said Spohn, referring to the millions of eggs taken at other rivers in the state, "but it is a great start, and kokanee coming from Elevenmile Reservoir are some of the largest in the state because of an abundance of forage. The salmon are averaging about 18 inches, compared to 14 to 16-inches last year."
Fishing in the South Platte between Elevenmile and Spinney Mountain reservoirs is by flies and lures only, and all fish must be returned to the water immediately.
Anglers also will find kokanee spawning runs on the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River, the Blue River above Green Mountain Reservoir, Vallecito Creek, and a small run of wild kokanee salmon at William’s Creek above William’s Creek Reservoir.