7 minute read

FRIENDS OF THE FISH

3,400 feet of river. $1,586,000.

Development. Floodplain. Flow modifications. Encroachments. Bank stabilization. Storm water. Functional ecosystem. Channel alignment. Marginal fish habitat. Improved fish habitat. Angling access. Reservoir releases. Land donation. Native vegetation. Overly wide channel. Riparian habitat. Altered flows. Mineral content.

Urban Renewal Authority. $784,000 in grants. Colorado Water Conservation Board. Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Colorado Healthy Rivers. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Like puzzle pieces waiting to be joined, these numbers and buzzwords and partners have indeed been joined at the Uncompahgre River in Montrose. Follow me on a journey of the Uncompahgre River – past, present, and future.

Past – Colorado has mountains, mountains have snow, snow makes rivers. If you were to read a Colorado fishing guidebook of 10 or more years ago, well known rivers would make for chapter after chapter. But unlikely to be found among the chapters would be the Uncompahgre River in west central Colorado.

Change for the better began in 1987 with the completion of Ridgway Reservoir near Ridgway, Colorado. The Uncompahgre headwaters south of Ouray, flows 75 miles north thru the Uncompahgre Valley in the vicinity of Montrose, eventually joining the Gunnison River at Delta.

Historically a river of sediment, high mineral content, and warm temperatures, the trout fishery was marginal. Ridgway Reservoir, built primarily for agricultural irrigation storage, changed the river dynamic. The reservoir collects sediments and the Uncompahgre River exits cleaner and cooler. The reservoir is also a Colorado state park, important for public access.

Present – Except for a significant city park section within the city limits of Montrose, the Uncompahgre River flows mostly thru private land. One such piece of undeveloped private land within the city limits, acres actually, is on the northern / downstream end of Montrose. Enter Colorado Outdoors.

Colorado Outdoors is a private development company that purchased 164 acres of land just a few years ago, including Uncompahgre River frontage on the north side of Montrose. Colorado Outdoors is building an outdoor industry campus, to be built out over multiple years.

Not coincidentally, the owners of Colorado Outdoors are also the owners of Mayfly Outdoors, which manufactures fly fishing brands Ross Reels, Abel Reels, and Airflo flylines. Ross Reels has been headquartered and manufactured in Montrose for decades under different ownership. Mayfly built the first structure in the new river property development and moved the Ross manufacturing operation to the new facility. Other buildings are in process.

Very important to this story, is that because of the fly fishing passion, Colorado Outdoors donated the recently acquired river portion of the development to the City of Montrose via the Montrose Urban Renewal Authority.

Yes, that is correct, a private land developer didn’t just allow public access to the river, they deeded the river corridor to the City. So previously private land is now public.

Over the past two years, an advisory river committee met and guided a significant river habitat improvement project. Partners include: Colorado Outdoors, Gunnison Gorge Anglers the local Trout Unlimited chapter, Friends of the River Uncompahgre, Telluride Outside, a local fly shop, Montrose Urban Renewal Authority, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and City of Montrose.

Recall my opening numbers - 3,400 feet of river and $1,586,000? This represents the linear feet of river being treated and the cost.

The 3,400 feet, over one-half mile, is Phase 1, which was com-

pleted this past spring 2021. Work started the previous winter while flows were naturally low, allowing extensive in-stream improvements, with professionally designed pool and riffle sequences using natural materials to mimic a natural stream look. Ecological Resource Consultants did the design and Naranjo Civil Constructors did the work.

Future - Phase 2 and Phase 3, construction to be completed later, will add another 5,300 feet making the total over one and one-half miles. But even without improvements, the yet to be treated Phase 1 and Phase 2 sections have some natural habitat and hold fish, and importantly, are open to public fishing.

I’ll come back to the present and the Uncompahgre and the Colorado Outdoors story, but some background first to give a perspective of why this latest work is significant.

As I mentioned, the Uncompahgre River has historically not been a healthy trout fishery, but change began with the building of Ridgway Reservoir and Ridgway State Park. The park boundary included about a mile of river below the dam. Coincident with the completion of the dam, due to the efforts of the Gunnison Gorge Anglers, the local chapter of Trout Unlimited, plans were in place for a major river habitat restoration for the tailwater.

Pac-Co-Chu-Puk, a Ute Indian name for the park section below the dam, is indeed now a well-known fishery on the Uncompahgre River. New river fishing guides do now have an Uncompahgre River chapter. I won’t go into access and fishing detail about Pac-CoChu-Puk here, as that is not the point of this story.

What’s important for this story is that Pac-Co-ChuPuk, due to money and cooperative efforts of many interested but divergent partners, has become an outstanding fishery, demonstrating that the Uncompahgre River, in spite of being fish habitat-challenged and with minimal public access, can be transformed. A model for other habitat improvement projects.

One other such river habitat project occurred a few years ago, in two phases, within the Montrose City limits. Riverbottom Park, a longtime city park, includes the Uncompahgre River, which flows not just near Montrose, but actually within Montrose. Again, the Gunnison Gorge Anglers spearheaded the restoration idea, and with grant money from the Colorado Parks and Wildlife and funding from the City of Montrose, about a mile of public river is now a quality fishery.

See a trend here? The story I want to tell is that the Uncompahgre River has great potential, and while one isolated habitat improvement by itself is wonderful, it is the cumulative addition of each project that gives critical environmental mass. The story I want to

tell is that the recent Colorado Outdoors project not only adds to the linear footage of improved river, it is a fishery tipping point that connects with previous work; it began not with public property, but private property, all within the city limits of a town.

Today, within the Colorado Outdoors property, 41 acres of river corridor has been donated to the public, a concrete walking path extends along the river, the river has significant trout habitat with more river work to come, and presumably of great interest to you and me, a large biomass of trout is present for us to fool with a fly.

This town section of the Uncompahgre is somewhat different in its annual flow regime. Due to irrigation inflows and outflows at multiple points upstream of Montrose, the river thru town is non-typical in that flows in summer don’t abate after spring run-off. Irrigation flows remain high until late summer or early fall.

While fishable year-round, when irrigation flows discontinue, fishing heats up. To protect and improve the fishing, the Colorado Outdoors section is fly and lure only, and catch and release. The Colorado Parks and Wildlife has stocked rainbows, and due to the water quality and habitat improvement, along with the restrictive fishing regulation, there is a wild population of fish—primarily browns with a few rainbows— some measured in pounds instead of inches.

Visionary thinking projects a future with additional habitat work and public access. Sometimes a river is a naturally excellent fishery, and sometimes, like the Uncompahgre, it just needs a friend.

About The Author

Joel Evans is a fly fishing writer, photographer, and long-time member of Trout Unlimited from Montrose, CO. You can contact him via the HCA editor at frank@hcamagazine.com.

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