Blue Mesa Reservoir: June 24, 2021, at 43% pool
Blue Mesa Reservoir: June 21, 2023 at nearly full pool
What a difference above-average snowfall can make.
Two years ago, I was convinced we were witnessing the end of Blue Mesa Reservoir and the west as we knew it.
June 24, 2021: On our first visit, we launched from Elk Creek Marina with a short walk to the dock. This time at Lake Fork Marina, the docks sat at the bottom of a boat ramp so depleted of water that it resembled some of Colorado’s infamous Double Black Diamond ski trails. The high water line was vivid along the banks almost 60 feet above the shimmering surface. It was shocking to see. The cause? There was a lack of snow in the western Rockies, during a year that saw record amounts on the eastern slopes.
Read: Where the Kokanee Run – July 27, 2021 – Images and Story by Mark D Phillips
Fast forward to June 19, 2023, with Crested Butte Ski Area above the reservoir receiving over 314 inches of snow, indicative of the heavy winter snowfall across the Rockies which refilled Blue Mesa. The difference is evident in the images. The reservoir was back but one of the detriments of a melting snow pack was the amount of sediment and flotsam in the water. The Iola basin is the first open water after the Lake City bridge crosses the Gunnison River and Blue Mesa stretches as far as the eyes can see.
In 2021, the water level had dropped nearly 60 feet while bottoming out at 43% of capacity. This time it was like an old friend had returned.
With the reservoir at 90% of capacity just 8 feet below full pool, the Lake Fork arm was our choice for the first full day of fishing. We launched from Lake Fork marina located at the far western end by Blue Mesa Dam, just over 25 miles from Gunnison, CO.
The arm cuts neatly through a canyon that starts after passing beneath the US50 bridge and the last vestiges of civilization. At the end of the canyon is Gateview Campground, accessible over 16 miles of narrow, gravel roads or by boat. I wanted to camp there but using a pontoon boat was not feasible and not allowed by the rental company. Next time, when we pull the boat out here, it is number one on the list. This time we hoped to at least see it.
The visit in 2021 gave a unique perspective to fishing. During that visit, the water was so low that tree tops stood out of the water that normally were 60 feet beneath us. Fishing beside them was one of our most productive and exciting times on Blue Mesa. We couldn’t get lines into the water any faster. Each time the line left the boat, a Rainbow Trout hit the line. My arm still hurts from all the reel action.
With a nearly full pool, we finally determined the location of our underwater forest. Low and behold, the trout once again populated the realm. As we made our way further down the canyon, the walls closed in bringing us to the largest natural float of debris I have seen. That was as far as we could go. Gateview was out of reach.
Returning to the marina, we hit the mother load again as we passed the forest. At the end of the day, Rainbows outnumbered Browns and Kokanee were nowhere to be found. We made up for that on June 20, 2023, in Morrow Point Reservoir.
This was our second time joining Kyle Jones from the Morrow Point Reservoir Guide Service at the Pine Creek Trailhead at 6:45 AM. And once again, we had the perfect morning for a thousand foot hike down into the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Boarding one of the two pontoon boats, Kyle transported us back into the nirvana of fishing holes. Sunrise above the Curecanti Needle preceded a day of monstrous Salmon, Rainbows and Browns pulled from the beautiful 12-mile long reservoir.
Completed in 1968, Morrow Point Dam took away one of the most famous trout streams the world has ever known. Anglers worldwide would travel on the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad along the Gunnison River beginning in 1882. Sports Illustrated listed the Gunnison River as the best trout stream in the world during the 1940s. Today’s Morrow Point Reservoir is the greatest fishing location for Kokanee Salmon in my mind. And the Rainbows are still spectacular even though it’s no longer a wild running river.
The spectacular Chipeta Falls drops down the steep cliffs into Morrow Point, roaring much louder than it had two years ago. Each journey down the Gunnison’s reservoirs puts an immediate hunger to return. Trolling on a quiet pontoon boat along the placid water with no one else in sight, looking up the cliffside rising nearly a thousand feet above, is as far from the rat race as you can get.
At the end of the day, we had our limit of trout and a respectable collection of Kokanee Salmon. I had one run toward the boat on me and I thought I would lose him. Kyle”s quick words of advice brought my best catch of the day onto the boat.
On our final day, we returned to Blue Mesa Reservoir to try our luck on the eastern section, including the Iola basin, Elk Creek and the narrows. The difference in the water quality was astounding. The heavy runoff coming into the basin from the river gave the water a murky consistency. There were many more logs and debris floating on the surface. With few hits on our trolling lines, it turned into a day of watching youth doing what youth like to do….. jump from high heights into the refreshing water of Blue Mesa.
It was a fitting end to three days on the water in Colorado. Even on a slow fish day, Blue Mesa is a jewel at high altitude. The Dillon Pinnacles glow in the distance and daylight ends, the moon and planets begin to glow in the dark sky of Gunnison.
Our fishing trip included a photo shoot of the Milky Way in the darkest spot we could find that gave us a unique image. Hartman Rocks Recreation Area outside Gunnison gave us the type of rock formations we wanted in the foreground and almost zero ambient light. I was like a kid in a candy store, seeing more in the sky than ever possible in the Northeast.
Chuck Bigger is the shooter, Mark D Phillips is the model/stylist……