Colorado has over 9,000 miles of rivers and creeks, but only 168 miles of these are considered "gold medal water," making the Blue River an extremely special asset to Summit County's loyal anglers and general local economy.
To earn the rating, rivers and streams must meet the official criteria for gold medal water: 12 trout per acre over 14" or 60-pounds of trout per surface acre. Blue River going through Summit and Grand counties features gold medal waters from Dillon Reservoir to the Green Mountain Reservoir inlet.
"That's a ton of fish," said Erica Stock, Trout Unlimited outreach director. "That's what makes up the bulk of the Blue River fishery. To have fish that size, you need a healthy ecosystem. They live on bugs. In order to have diverse bug life you need a relatively healthy stream."
The Colorado Wildlife Commission has designated these stretches of water as offering the greatest potential for trophy trout fishing. An ecologically healthy river is one that retains its major ecological features and functioning similar to the way it did prior to settlement and which would be able to sustain these characteristics into the future. Healthy streams promote aquatic life and nurture surrounding lands.
"You can tell that a river is viable when there is a healthy trout population," Stock said. "You need to have good oxidation of the water. That comes from having good hydrology. When there's oxygen going into the water trout can grab their food sources."
The record-breaking catch in the Blue River came in 2005 when angler Rob Peckham caught a cutthroat trout measuring 33 inches and weighing over 17 pounds.
"There are a lot of big trout in the Blue River," Stock said. "These are the best places to fish in the state. People come from not just within our state but other places like New York and internationally to come fish - that has a huge impact on our local economy."
There are 13 stretches in Colorado along various rivers that are considered gold medal fisheries including: the Blue River, the Colorado River, the Colorado Gore Creek segment, the Roaring Fork River and certain stretches of the South Platte River.
"There's huge economic benefits of having a gold medal stream in your community," Stock said. "Obviously people are coming in, doing guided trips and buying food, and shopping in the community. This is a key part of the recreation industry - it keeps people employed. There's most certainly a correlation between the economic health in these communities and the rivers that are located there."
The harsh reality is that it's less likely for a stream or river to improve; what's more common is for rivers to become degraded. Rivers can lose their gold medal status if that happens.
In 2004, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported to Congress that 44 percent of the streams in the United States were not clean enough for fishing or swimming. According to the agency, the primary source of pollutants was from nearby
agriculture. In a more recent assessment published in 2010, scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey reported that diverting water from streams was a primary cause of unhealthy streams and that a majority of streams in the country have at least some of their water diverted. These alterations usually lead to losses of native fish and amphibians.
Stock said fisherman have a unique responsibility to the rivers they use.
"Anglers are the eyes and ears of the rivers," Stock said. "We have a huge responsibility to take care of these rivers for the entire West."
Colorado, primarily the northwest region, serves as a headwater state for most of the main rivers throughout the West.
"We must preserve gold medal status of our rivers that hold that honor," Stock said. "If you don't put the fish back into streams, they won't be able to reproduce. Anglers should continue to be engaged in advocacy work and keep an eye on the river."