(Re-printed from Chaffee County Times)

Posted: Thursday, February 13, 2014 11:51 am

By Kim Marquis  / Times correspondent

About 40 members of the local chapter of Trout Unlimited gathered Wednesday night to hear how two decades of work on the Arkansas River led to this year’s Gold Medal Trout Waters designation on more than 100 miles of river through both Salida and Buena Vista.

Many of the fishermen were familiar with details of the presentation by Colorado Parks and Wildlife aquatic biologist Greg Policky, who said he relied on volunteer hours for projects such as fin-clipping trout so scientists could differentiate them as stocked fish.

Others in attendance at the Roadhouse in Buena Vista realized river improvements over the years through much better fishing. Brown trout are twice as big and live three times as long as they did in the early 1990s, and rainbow trout — nonexistent back then — now make up a quarter of the catch.

The Arkansas for some time has been a popular fishery. But January’s Gold Medal designation by the Colorado Wildlife Commission puts the fishery into an elite category. Of 9,000 stream miles in the state, only 322 are Gold Medal.

It hasn’t always been that way, Policky explained Wednesday.

The hearty brown trout had been the only fish to survive the aquatic disaster that became the Arkansas River once the gold and silver rushes hit the Leadville area in the late 1800s.

Mining activities caused the river to carry cadmium and copper downstream and into the banks, riverbed and even the internal organs of the fish. By the 1990s, heavy metals could be found in the internal organs of brown trout as far downstream as Salida, where they lived to be only 3 years old. Closer to Leadville, fish didn’t live at all in the moving waters of the Arkansas River.

In 1992, more than 100 years after the silver rush of the late-1880s, water treatment plants were installed at Yak Tunnel and the Leadville Mine Drainage Tunnel to stop toxic leakage into the Arkansas River.

“That was significant,” Policky said. “You get a pretty immediate response when you take heavy metals out of the equation.”

After he arrived in 1993, the cleanup expanded under Policky’s direction to include the removal of heavy metals from riverside deposits located downstream of the originating foulness — a project that went on for two decades.

With the killing source removed and the fish given a chance to live, Policky said he focused on improving living and eating conditions so fish could grow. Gold Medal standards require that at least a dozen trout 14 inches or larger exist in every acre of water, or about every 1,000 feet on the Arkansas River.

Plants and bug life improved in the ‘90s but there was still one part missing, Policky said. The flows were too high during important times of the year for the fish to grow and reproduce.

“I don’t care how much groceries you have in the river, if the fish can’t catch the bugs and eat them, they won’t get fat,” he said. “The size just wasn’t there.”

Policky said he tried unsuccessfully for a decade to change flow management policies. Through the Voluntary Flow Management Program, the whitewater boating industry is guaranteed 700 cubic feet per second of flow from July 1 through Aug. 15, yet fish thrive at much lower flows of 250-400 cfs.

“There was a lot of conflict with the whitewater community,” Policky said. “But I realized by the mid-nineties that wasn’t going to change. If I wanted to get bigger fish, I had to try to get away from that summer flow period and concentrate on the rest of the year.”

It wasn’t until the 2002 drought that Policky could produce necessary data showing a relationship between low flows and strong fish growth, and convinced water managers to lower flows during the early spring and fall.

New flow management policies began in 2009, the same year Policky introduced the Hofer-Colorado River Rainbow Cross to the river. The rainbow began to provide catch diversity for anglers and reproduced on their own for the first time in 2012, the same year the Arkansas River for the second time was voted angler’s favorite Colorado destination.

“If you build it they will come,” Policky said.

Policky on Wednesday also talked about ongoing efforts to improve the fishery.

A project at Hayden Meadows south of Leadville, paid for by $20.5 million in Superfund settlement money from past mining companies, continues to improve the river as a habitat for fish.

This spring for the third time, Policky will bring the two-inch-long stonefly from the Colorado River to stocking areas north and south of Salida. The Pteronarcys californica could become another source of fish food and an exciting hatch for future fishermen.

Thanking the Trout Unlimited members in attendance Wednesday, Policky said the projects could not have been completed without a lot of help from organizations, individuals and chapters like the Collegiate Peaks Anglers.

“It takes a community to build a fishery like this and now to sustain it, that’s the goal,” he said.

 For many years volunteers collected water samples from tributaries of the Arkansas River.  These included from below a mine on Chalk Creek and above the new Buena Vista State Wildlife Access site on Cottonwood Creek.  This was done in snow, sleet, rain and heat, year-round by dedicated volunteers.

 Data was periodically sent to the Division of Wildlife for insect analysis.

Currently school groups are now doing River Watch sampling.

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