Searching for gold on the Eagle River
EAGLE COUNTY – Fishing, like beauty, may be in the eye of the beholder. So while the Eagle River doesn’t have the fish to qualify it for Gold Medal status – a distinction only 13 streams, rivers and lakes in Colorado have – the fishing is as good as gold to Rick Messmer. “My opinion, in having lived here for nine years, and having fished this river since I was a boy, is that the Eagle is fishing better now than it ever has,” said Messmer, who is the general manager of the Gore Creek Fly Fishers guide company. Still, tourism-minded town and county leaders lately have wondered aloud when the Eagle River will have the stuff to deem it a Gold Medal water. There’s no doubt that the label – given by the state’s Division of Wildlife only to those waterways that have at least one dozen 14-inch trout per acre – attracts anglers from all over. The river’s troubled past doesn’t help things. Pollution, mainly zinc, from the now-defunct Eagle Mine killed all aquatic life in the Eagle River from Gilman to Dowd Junction. That prompted the Environmental Protection Agency in the mid-1980s to include the mine and the river in the Superfund program, making the cleanup effort eligible for federal funds. The cleanup has had positive results, anglers and state wildlife officials agree. But achieving Gold Medal status may be unrealistic for the Eagle River, said Dave Blauch, an ecologist who has spent the last few years restoring a stretch of the river.”The better question may be: Was it ever Gold Medal quality?” he said. What it takes
The question came up during a recent Board of County Commissioners meeting. State wildlife officials were there to give an update on the goings-on in Eagle County. When asked if the Eagle River was nearing Gold Medal status, wildlife biologist Bill Andree said the fish aren’t big enough. “I don’t know if the Eagle River will ever be Gold Medal,” Andree responded.Outside of that meeting, Andree said contamination from the mine is only one reason. Most Gold Medal rivers are “tail waters”, meaning they are below a dam. A dam controls the water flow. The Eagle River, which is not dammed, has high and low flows. Both can be hard on fish, Andree said. “And you just have the problem that it’s a river right along the interstate with development on all sides,” he said. Gold Medal waterways have at least a dozen 14-inch trout per acre, or 60 pounds of trout per acre. To acheive the Gold Medal distinction there must be at least a two-mile section that meets the criteria. “There are some areas of the Eagle that might qualify, but they aren’t long enough,” Andree said. No doubt, having Gold Medal rivers nearby draws anglers to Eagle County, even to the Eagle River, Messmer said. Gore Creek has the distinction, as do the nearby Roaring Fork and Frying Pan rivers. The Gore Creek was named a Gold Medal river in the early ’80s. So many fishers came that local anglers asked wildlife officials to remove the distinction, Andree said. But Messmer questions how profitable a Gold Medal rating for the Eagle River would be for local business, he said. “Gold Medal doesn’t necessarily mean that the Eagle is world-known,” he said.Rather, Messmer likes the label more for the special protections that can come with it.
Most Gold Medal waters adopt some restrictions, Andree said. For example, some Gold Medal rivers have limits on the number of fish and type of fish anglers can keep. Or anglers are forbidden from using live bait. Such restrictions preserve the quality of fishing, Messmer said. Things looking up or down?Blauch’s company, Ecological Resources Consultants, Inc., was hired in 2002 to restore the overall ecosystem of one mile of Eagle River running through Minturn. The focus was not on creating ideal trout habitat, but to restore the river to how it was before erosion and nearby construction took their toll, Blauch said. Restoring the river to a more natural state, however, did create a more ideal habitat for trout, he said.For example, years of unregulated land use altered the shape of the Eagle River, making it as much as 120-feet wide and only an inch deep. Ideal fish habitat requires deep pools of water, he said. The restoration project was finished in late 2003, but the company continues to monitor and maintain that stretch of river. The mine cleanup efforts, as well as the river restoration, do seem to be having a positive effect, Blauch said. “There were no trout in that river 10 years ago,” he said. “It was almost completely dead. Now there is a self-sustaining trout population.” But man has done as much as it can to create a better trout habitat, Blauch said. The rest, he said, is up to nature.
While annual fish surveys have shown a steady increase in the number of fish, brown trout numbers in the Eagle River declined by 30 percent in 2004. State biologists suspect zinc, coupled with other development-based factors, may have contributed to the decline.There have been outbreaks of certain types of diseases along the Eagle River, Andree said. Those can be due to low flows and high temperatures. “It’s a stress on the river,” Andress said. “The more stress you place on the river, the more stress you place on the fish.”High runoff – when the snowpack begins to melt in the spring and flow into local rivers – can wash away fish, Andree said. A couple years of that can prevent a river from acheiving Gold Medal status, too.But Messmer said things haven’t looked better. He’s seen the number of large fish – those more than 12 inches or more – go up. Messmer has also seen green drake, a type of fish that he said will only live in clean, unpolluted water. “Just because the Division of Wildlife doesn’t see the numbers per acre doesn’t necessarily mean that the river isn’t fantastic,” he said. Staff Writer Tamara Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 607, or email@example.com.Vail, Colorado