Where are the salmon? Kokanee numbers drastically drop in Blue Mesa, Gunnison river

Even if there were several back to back winters with deep snow and Blue Mesa filled to the brim, it would still take years for the kokanee to return to pre-drought population

Dean Krakel
The Colorado Sun
Mars Charlebois, Colorado Parks and Wildlife Fisheries technician, checks a net for kokanee salmon at a Merwin fish trap set. The trap is used to catch spawning kokanee to take to the Roaring Judy Fish Hatchery, where their eggs and milt will be collected.
Dean Krakel/Special to The Colorado Sun

It’s 4 a.m. on a frigid October morning and Debbie Carpenter is first in line for the weekly kokanee salmon giveaway at the Roaring Judy Fish Hatchery north of Gunnison. Carpenter, cuddling in the car with her two young children to stay warm, drove four hours from Grand Junction, arriving early enough to be assured of getting the prized free fish.  

There are eight vehicles lined up behind Carpenter. Just a few years ago, Carpenter says, people camped at the hatchery overnight. There would be dozens of cars lined up before sunrise, the line spilling out onto the highway that runs between Gunnison and Crested Butte.

“Back then a person could drive away with as many as 40 salmon,” she says, adding that the two previous Friday kokanee giveaways in October had been canceled for lack of fish. “Now, sometimes it’s just a few salmon per car.” 

Where are the kokanee? It’s a question asked by everyone in line behind Carpenter. And the anglers plying the waters of Blue Mesa Reservoir and the East and Gunnison rivers. And the merchants who sell licenses and fishing tackle. And the guides and outfitters who count on clients drawn to the salmon.


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