Article & Photos By Scott Willoughby
Just on the outskirts of the self-proclaimed “Center of the Universe” at the riverside community known as Rancho Del Rio, the light grows dim and the bats begin their evening swirl. In a moment, the Colorado River begins to boil like a bubbling cauldron of fish. Then the big bang hits. m “There he is,” oarsman Jon Becker booms from the cockpit of his Hyde drift boat. “Nice fish!”
The hardy brown trout turns out to be the nicest among a steady string of “nice fish,” it’s girth amplified by the cloak of twilight yet easily overshadowing others landed and released throughout the afternoon. There’s no measuring tape to verify the size, yet no reason to suspect the fish is anything less than the 18-inch guesstimate of an optimistic angler’s imagination.
“I caught three fish over 20 inches this week,” Rancho Del Rio proprietor Jeff Gibson had matter-of-factly stated before launching into another five-minute tug-o-war near the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) boat ramp at Radium. The fish turned out to be yet another 18-inch brown.
As a riverside resident of more than a quarter century, Gibson enjoys the advantage of perspective from his bohemian homestead between Radium and State Bridge. Smack dab in the middle of the casual commercial compound, triangulated between a kitschy rainbow trout billboard, a dilapidated wooden dory repurposed as a flower pot and the river itself, sits KK’s World Famous BBQ — locally known as “The Center of the Universe.”
GPS coordinates aside, these days the rio surrounding Rancho may very well qualify as the center of the Colorado fishing cosmos.
Gibson has witnessed the evolution of the upper Colorado River fishery outside his front door for just a fragment of its storied history, but he has been there long enough to see it officially “arrive.” That moment occurred last spring, when the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission assigned Gold Medal status to a 24-mile stretch of the Colorado River from the confluence of Canyon Creek — in lower Gore Canyon, about a mile and a half above the Pumphouse Recreation Site — downstream to the confluence of Rock Creek, near the town of McCoy.
In Colorado, Gold Medal status is reserved for state waters that produce a minimum of 60-pounds of trout per acre and 12 trout measuring 14-inches or longer per acre. The only other segment of the Colorado River to meet the criteria is the 23-mile span between the Fraser River and Troublesome Creek, upstream from Kremmling.
Although a 19-mile section of the Blue River above Green Mountain Reservoir was taken off the Gold Medal list last March, a portion of the Blue River below the reservoir that connects with the Colorado at Kremmling remains on the books. In terms of access, fish and scenery, neither compares to this latest addition.
According to Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) Aquatic Biologist Jon Ewert from Hot Sulpher Springs, the recently upgraded section of the Colorado River below Gore Canyon exceeds the minimum requirements for Gold Medal status and has for years.
“Prior to 2008, we didn’t really have good, solid historic information on fish populations in that section of river, basically from Gore Canyon to Dotsero,” Ewert said. “We expected to find really good numbers, which we did, but this is the first time the fishery has ever really been quantified. Since 2008, it has consistently met Gold Medal criteria every year. It’s an excellent fishery.”
While the overall statistics may be impressive, none stands out more than the number “17.” That’s the size, in pounds, of the largest brown trout netted by CPW biologists during electrofishing surveys conducted last fall. The 17-pound brown found within the new Gold Medal section is the largest brown trout ever captured (and released) on the Colorado, Ewert said. The biggest before that was 12.5 pounds.
“Those fish are definitely not the norm, but the biological potential is there. We always pick up one or two fish that throw off the normal growth curve,” Ewert said. “Sixteen-to-seventeen-inch trout are very common. The river is very good at producing that type of fish. Then there’s one out of 1,000 that get over that 6- 8- 10-pound range.”
The surveys confirm anecdotal evidence of increasing fish size on this increasingly popular portion of the Colorado River. Large populations of the giant stonefly, Pteronarcys californica, can be found throughout this reach of river, and the nymphs are present year-round. Their abundance doubles as a significant protein source for growing fish and a productive fly fishing pattern almost any time.
During summer’s peak, however, food is rarely a concern for fish in this wild, self-sustaining sport fishery. Caddis flies, mayflies, midges and an assortment of forage fish are prevalent.
“There are a lot of different prey items that fish can choose from in that part of the river,” Ewert said. “There are a lot of forage fish like sculpin, dace and whitefish, and the insect life is in really good shape. There’s a fantastic collection of giant stoneflies, and the fact that they have a multiyear life cycle means they live in the cobble year-round. It’s worth tying on a big Pat’s Rubber Legs any day of the year up there because the fish always identify that as a food source.”
Ewert’s surveys in the Radium area have shown a steady increase from 24 fish per acre measuring larger than 14 inches in 2008 to 56 fish per acre over 14 inches in 2015.
Consecutive mild winters in 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 (and again in 2014-2015) are credited with increasing the total brown trout numbers and the condition of the fish, as they were likely able to continue feeding and gaining weight throughout the winter months when large sections of the river are normally icebound. Although fewer in number, rainbow trout also have seen some increase in size, potentially as a result of larger fish washing downstream from privately stocked sections of the river and lakes upstream.
Increased awareness of the volume and size of fish in the upper Colorado River corridor has drawn more anglers to the area — especially on weekends — and motivated the BLM to install a second boat ramp a couple years ago in order to improve access at Radium. In an effort to spread out the fishing pressure on peak days, overnight river camps have also been improved and the Eagle County Open Space program has opened additional boat ramps and wade-fishing access downstream.
The Eagle County Board of Commissioners embarked on a mission several years ago designed to connect the disjointed segments of the Colorado River as it passes through some 55 miles of Eagle County. The effort is responsible for multiple new public access points for boat launches, wade fishing, camping and hunting opportunities along the corridor.
Below Rancho del Rio, Eagle County acquired boat ramps and adjacent property at State Bridge Landing along Colorado 131 and an additional boat ramp 5 miles downstream at the Two Bridges launch near Bond that includes several hundred acres of public land open to sportsmen along the river. The convenient segment of river has proven particularly popular among anglers, and a series of improved river camps linking upstream access at Pumphouse all the way to the Eagle County boat ramp at Dotsero has increased the number of overnight floaters on the corridor as well.
“That Two Bridges ramp changed things a lot. Now you’re not committed to floating another eight or nine miles down to Catamount, so having that access point really opened up that stretch of river and people have been taking advantage of it,” Ewert said. “It’s good that people realize it’s such a great resource because that stretch of the Colorado has historically been under-appreciated. So it’s good that people are waking up to it.”
One angler who hasn’t needed any nudging to appreciate the Colorado River downstream from State Bridge is Jack Bombardier, owner of the Confluence Casting guide service near Burns. Although Bombardier’s favorite segment of the “lower upper” Colorado falls outside the river’s new Gold Medal parameters, he has been touting the quality of the fishery for years.
A couple of recently established launch sites and camps at Red Dirt Creek (primitive) and Horse Creek (a two-acre easement on the 1,000-acre Colorado River Ranch about 12 miles north of Interstate 70 at Dotsero) have brought a modest bump in traffic past Bombardier’s riverside home, but for the most part he appreciates it. After all, he was starting to get lonely.
“It’s amazing how few people come down here,” said Bombardier, who has logged more than 500 floats down the secluded section of the Colorado River.
Aside from the relatively recent addition of Paul Newman’s Roundup River Ranch camp for chronically ill kids, Bombardier will tell you that opening the boat ramp at Horse Creek may be the biggest thing to happen to a neighborhood that otherwise hasn’t really changed in more than 25 years.
“I think it’s a good thing,” he said. “It’s a beautiful area, and I don’t mind sharing it with people. Maybe I’ll feel differently in a couple years, but right now I doubt it.”
Although a public access ramp for river rafting can seem like a small thing, the reality is it’s a pretty big deal. Loss of access to fishing and hunting habitat is regularly cited as the most pressing issue among sportsmen. So the addition of even one new access point is a step in the right direction. The five provided by Eagle County are a veritable godsend.
“Our objective overall was to conserve significant habitat, and we’ve done that by setting aside over four miles of riverfront and over 1,250 acres along the Colorado,” Eagle County Open Space Program Director Toby Sprunk said.
Opening of the Horse Creek River Access is one of the last links in the Colorado River public access chain as it flows through Eagle County. Combined with established BLM access points and Eagle County ramps managed by the BLM, it effectively connects the river in segments of less than 10 miles between boat ramps, and even more miles between “No Trespassing” signs.
As boaters make their way downstream, the water is more prone to turbidity due to the gully-washing effects of summer monsoons. But for adventurous souls seeking solitude on the river, the scenario is nothing short of ideal.
“I won’t fish unless there’s at least a foot of visibility,” Bombardier said, adding that water clarity usually returns quickly after a rainstorm. “But it’s such a beautiful canyon, half the time fishing rods aren’t necessary anyway.”
Scott Willoughby is a freelance writer and former Outdoors Editor at The Denver Post.