July 2, 2008

Gold Medal Waters Have Crowds Rising in Big Numbers

The lines of anglers waiting to cover prime trout beats bear witness to a need Colorado might someday rise to meet, if anyone heeds a small change in wording of a policy paper wildlife commissioners approved last month.

For decades, trout fishers have been growing in number. The crowding is conspicuous, especially among fly fishers who favor quality trout habitats, which Colorado calls Gold Medal waters.

No one is making streams anymore (and few reservoirs). Meanwhile, public access has declined dramatically as development and sporting clubs shut down quality waters where landowners previously permitted angling. With sparse exceptions, no one has been designating more Gold Medal waters, either. The last bit added to the list was a four- mile stretch of the Animas River through Durango, in 1977.

The Colorado Division of Wildlife's Gold Medal list now stands at 13 waters, which is about a half-dozen fewer than in the 1980s. Gold Medal stream miles have slumped about 20 miles, to now 168 miles.

That's a pitiful showing, given the flocks of fishing pilgrims clamoring for elbow room and considering their economic potential in Colorado's tourism scheme.

At the bottom of the Wild Trout and Gold Medal Trout Management policy the Wildlife Commission revised June 12 are these dreamy words:

"The commission . . . expects the division to manage for an increase of Gold Medal waters throughout the state."

By definition, that would mean more quality waters actually would open to the public because - according to the policy - "Gold Medal water designation can only be applied to waters of the State that are accessible for fishing by the general angling public."

The devil in the details is that any additional Gold Medal mileage could be simply converted from more ordinary waters already open to the public.

That would provide the desired boost in quality trout fishing. But another policy is needed to address the critical need for more public trout fishing in general.

What the new policy does provide, in theory, is climate and momentum (and, hopefully, some funding) for fish managers to work at improving more trout fisheries - biology willing.

To that end, the Gold Medal portion of the policy specifically allows stocking to enhance or repair fisheries.

The wildlife division judges waters to be of Gold Medal quality if they support an average of at least 60 pounds of trout and at least 12 "quality trout" per acre. Quality trout size starts at 14 inches.

WILD TROUT: Colorado's wild trout waters also have lagged miserably behind. While trout reproduce in many rivers and streams, only 18 waters statewide are designated and managed exclusively for naturally reproducing trout, including native cutthroats.

Naturally, even self-sustaining trout populations need a boost from time to time. Some need a new start altogether.

To that end, the policy the Wildlife Commission approved June 12 allows fish managers to stock trout in Wild Trout waters. Fry and fingerlings will be preferred in waters needing restoration. In rare cases where predators are a problem, larger fish can be stocked.

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