Building Bridges: A weekend fundraiser aims to help restore the Gold Medal waters of the Blue River | SummitDaily.com
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Building Bridges: A weekend fundraiser aims to help restore the Gold Medal waters of the Blue River

SILVERTHORNE – John Neiley will never forget the cold, snowy day he landed a 23-inch, bright red rainbow trout in the Lower Blue River near the Dillon Dam.”It was an absolute rush,” the Summit Cove man said. “I hooked him just below the bridge, and he went upstream, then downstream, he came out of the water three or four times – he did everything to break me off. I felt fortunate to have landed him on the shore.”But times have changed.The Blue, while still a superb fishing stream, has become a “black-diamond fishery,” Neiley said. “You have to have the tiniest of flies, the finest of tippet. Ten years ago, with a little diligence and a little luck, you could land a nice, hefty fish in the 16- to 20-inch range. Now, you have to know your stuff. You have to be willing to go out at odd hours, in inclement weather and work at it a lot more.”A variety of factors has contributed to the gradual decline of fish habitat in the Lower Blue. Whirling disease in state hatcheries in the late 1990s forced the state Division of Wildlife (DOW) to stop stocking the Blue River until last year. It’s been six years since water behind the dam spilled over into the Glory Hole and flushed out the river below. More recently, Denver Water has released only the minimum required streamflow – 52 cubic feet per second (cfs) – from the reservoir above.Denver Water officials now say people should expect low streamflows to be the norm in the future.”I’ve been fishing that section for 15 or 20 years,” Neiley said. “And I’ve noticed a steady decline in the quality of the fishing experience and attribute it to lower water levels. I worry about the long-term impacts if they continue to run it at 52 cfs. Also, the fishing pressure has increased over that time. The fish get hammered pretty hard; they’re wary and difficult to catch.”Low water flows have resulted in a shapeless, shallow river that’s not conducive to trout habitat. And Andy Gentry, president of the local chapter of Trout Unlimited, believes people owe Mother Nature a little help for having dammed the Blue River for the past 40 years.”A lot of the river is very shallow, and there’s not a lot of water in the river,” Gentry said. “One of the things fish need is habitat. Even if a stream is healthy, if you don’t have good habitat, you don’t have healthy fish.”Habitat includes pools, eddies and areas in which to hide and reproduce.The town of Silverthorne, with the help of the U.S. Forest Service, the DOW, Summit and Grand counties, the Bureau of Land Management, Denver Water and Trout Unlimited, hopes to change that by preserving the fish habitat, the river’s Gold Medal status and the money fishing brings to the area.Part of that includes the inaugural Blue River Festival fundraising event Saturday at the Silverthorne Pavilion. Organizers will raise funds to match a $94,750 National Forest Foundation grant – the largest of only eight the organization doled out this year. Work on the river from the dam to the Interstate 70 bridge near Wildernest Road will include realigning the river channel, making it deeper, planting vegetation to prevent erosion and moving boulders to provide pools and eddies for the fish.The Blue River is one of 12 Gold Medal streams in the state – meaning the fish are big and there are a lot of them, Gentry said.In its heyday, the Lower Blue River boasted 4,000-5,000 fish per mile. Today, that number is down to 300-400 fish per mile – and in some places, as few as 150 fish, Gentry said. A typical fish there measures 16 inches in length, although there are some in excess of 30 inches and 12 pounds.One thing that keeps fish healthy is the mysis shrimp prevalent in the reservoir above. The shrimp are high in protein and fat.”It’s like sitting in McDonald’s and have someone bringing you french fries all day,” Gentry said. “The fish sit there all day and just eat.”The fishing, he added, is still superb despite the challenges fish have faced in recent years.”It’s still a good fishery,” Gentry said. “It’s just on a decline. We’ve got to do something to turn around the decline to keep it Gold Medal. We just want to help Mother Nature out a bit.”—When & WhereThe Blue River Festival runs from 4-8 p.m. Saturday, April 26, at the Silverthorne Pavilion. Tickets are $15. The festival includes:- interactive fly tying and casting clinics- silent and live auctions on hundreds of items ranging from guided fly-fishing trips to top-brand fly-fishing equipment and other merchandise- music by Sal Mancini- fun photos with a gigantic trout- poster signing by Lana McCleary- appetizers and a cash bar


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