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Dunking for dinks

Scott Willoughby

By Scott Willoughby”You’re already one behind,” Karm said from his riverside Lay-Z-Boy on the backyard beach. “I caught one right here.”He was pointing to the best hole on the river, or at least the best hole where the Eagle River ran past his property in Minturn. Competitive edge, I surmised.I don’t typically make a habit of competing against my fishing partners, although I have a running joke with one I like to refer to as the “Assistant to the Director of Fishing.” First, most and biggest are the standard bets, and since the Director of Fishing hurt his rowing shoulder this spring, there’s little competition involved. The Assistant rows, and the Director, well, let’s just say he leads by example.But we were wade fishing on this particular day, slipping into the cool, free-flowing waters of the Upper Eagle to trick a few trout between beers on the beach. Karm was already rigged up with a pair of dry flies by the time I arrived, dabbing his line in the river and pulling out a mid-sized brown trout before my rod was out of its case. Or so he claims, anyway. I never actually saw the fish, just Karm wading through the hole I had considered second best in sight. I couldn’t decide if he simply didn’t know better, or was a sneaky, competitive bastard after all, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt and quietly moved on to my third choice.It was a small but relatively deep pool behind a large boulder that separated the stream into two braids, the majority of water flowing toward my perch a few yards downstream. I’d never fished it, but it was an idyllic little holding area, like so many of the pocket eddies on the Eagle. I measured my line with a few casts just right of the seam dividing the slow and fast currents. When I had the right length, I aimed the cast onto the seam and watched as a flash of gold moved for the trailing fly beneath the river’s surface.Quickly, I lifted the rod tip, setting the hook as a healthy brown tugged hard against my line. He turned into the river’s main channel, adding tension to the line and wiggling free from the barbless hook soon thereafter. Two behind now, I thought.But the pool was big enough to hold more fish. I gathered the line, checked my fly and made another cast. The next fish struck like a bolt of lightning, this time on the dry fly I had selected as much as a strike indicator as an attractor. With a violent, aggressive slash, the fish charged from the safety of a nearby rock and attacked the fake bug on the river’s surface. Not wanting to lose another fish, I jerked the rod up and back in an equally aggressive motion, ducking to the left as a brown trout barely bigger than my size 12 Stimulator (that’s a fly) flew past my right ear and into the river behind me. I reeled up the line and removed the hook from the mouth of a 4-inch brown trout, in fly fishing vernacular, a dink.Karm laughed at the sight, while I stopped to consider for a moment. In the 10 years I’ve been fishing the Upper Eagle through Minturn, I recall catching a seemingly countless number of such dinks. I always put them back, yet I can only recall catching fish as large as 14 or 15 inches on a handful of occasions. Roughly 8-12 inches is the norm, leaning toward the lower end of that scale.But other than Karm and few other dedicated catch and release anglers, I’ve never seen much fishing traffic on that stretch of river either. So it makes little sense as to why there aren’t more large fish nearby. A trout ought to get pretty big over the course of 10 years.The easy answer is, of course, the now-defunct Eagle Mine upstream near Gilman. It was about 12 years ago when leaching metals from the abandoned mine nearly killed off the river completely, up to the point where it merges with Gore Creek. Fish, bugs, even plants along the bank were exterminated as the contaminated water seeped downstream.In many ways, the Eagle River has since been a success story, coming back to life through a dedicated clean-up effort by a variety of agencies. But even after the upstream mine cleanup was determined complete a few years back, the river recovery appears to have hit a plateau.That’s soon to change.Eagle River fishing fans should do themselves a favor and fish hard this coming week, because it may be the last good week of fishing the river has to offer this summer. It is, as they say, tough telling, not knowing. But odds are good that once the Eagle River Restoration Project gets under way in earnest on Aug. 1, a good chunk of the waterway below Minturn is going to be mucked up bad until mid-October, when they pull the heavy machinery back out of water long enough to let the brown trout spawn.The ultimate goal of the million-dollar project is to “restore the river to its natural condition,” according to Minturn Mayor Earl Bidez, meaning that the stream will be made narrower and deeper as it flows through town, ideally providing better habitat for the fish to grow. More native vegetation will also be added along the banks and much of the industrial trash removed.The shallow side of the braid I was fishing, for example, will likely disappear at lower water flows, as the improved riverbed will focus the flow toward the deeper area. But in order to do that, some pretty major rock-moving machines are going to be parked smack dab in the middle of the fishery for more than two months. Expect the mud and muck to flow downstream, although it’s hard to say how far.The end result, however, ought to be healthy river with plenty of deep water for the dinks to grow up in as they eat more bugs that should also thrive from the additional riverside vegetation. It will take a couple years to determine just how successful the project is, but according to project point man Troy Thompson, an aquatic engineer from Boulder’s Ecological Resource Consultants Inc., there’s one sure way to tell it worked.”Fish are a very good indicator of a healthy river,” Thompson said. “A lot of fishermen is a sign of successful restoration.”


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