Gold medal fisheries take the booby prize for access

The Gunnison and Taylor Rivers, recently designated as gold medal fisheries, suffer from significant access issues
gunnison river fly fishing colorado
Photo: Justin Forman

In late August of 1989, I sat on the end of my bed inside my Crystal Hall dorm room enduring a bout of internal strife. My roommate hadn’t showed up, and it looked like I might have a single room for my first semester at Western State College of Colorado (Now Western Colorado University). Beer? Or fishing?

I know, I know, don’t they go together like feet and socks? Yes, but this is a nuanced story, so bear with me.

I was an “old” freshman, having managed to wash out at a small liberal arts school in Louisiana that I attended fresh out of high school. I clearly wasn’t ready for the rigors of academia when I enrolled with a modest scholarship, and after a disastrous first semester, my father yanked me out of school and moved me to Jackson, Miss., where he lived and worked at the time. My new mission, as directed by the old man? Get a job. Enroll in the local community college and get your generals out of the way.

I graduated from high school in the spring of 1987 with a ho-hum GPA, but a really good entrance exam score, so pissing away the scholarship really steamed my dad. It didn’t help that I was a moody kid. I grew up in Colorado, only to be plucked from the Rockies and delivered south to East Texas. My goal was to wipe the sticky south off of my boots and find my way back to Colorado, no matter the cost.

And, after three semesters at a community college and a job as a shift manager at a supermarket in suburban Jackson, I’d managed to save some cash and rebuild my academic fortunes. I enrolled at Western and at the end of the spring semester in 1989, I drove my beat-up Toyota Corolla north from Jackson, through Memphis and I eventually caught I-70 at St. Louis and followed it across the plains to Denver, where a lot of my family awaited. I spent the summer fishing the mountain meadows of my youth and working a solid landscaping gig. I had more money in my pocket than I had sense, and I was about to embark on Round 2 of my collegiate journey.

And then I met a girl on my first day at Western. Back then, Colorado had just shifted its alcoholic beverage laws that, in the 1980s, allowed anyone over 18 to purchase beer with an alcohol content of 3.2-percent, and that beer was available in grocery stores. By ‘89, though, the state Legislature nixed the law, and “grandfathered in” people who were 18 at the time the law passed. I made the cut. And I somehow let it slip to this gal I’d just met that I was able to buy beer. And that I had a single room in Crystal Hall.

I bumped into her at orientation class that fateful August afternoon, and I suggested we find a time to get together, with said beer in said dorm room — a recipe for disaster, to be sure. I was expecting a,”Sure, let me know when!” and instead got, “I’ll be there at 3!”

Problem was, I had planned to go fishing that afternoon. So there I sat, about an hour before the planned rendezvous, staring at the phone. Beer? Or fishing?

At the time, it was easily the most cardinal decision I’d ever contemplated.

Let it be known that I chose fishing. And when you’re in a town like Gunnison, Colo., where the fabled Gunnison itself flows just a few miles from campus, and where the equally storied Taylor River flows into the Gunnison about a 15-minute drive north of town, any die-hard angler should be able to understand my choice.

It was a tough phone call. But man, the fishing was good that afternoon on the river below town, and, while it likely cost me the shot with the girl, I entertained a very complex relationship with the Gunnison for years on. And, yes, I spent many an afternoon on the Taylor, too, where big browns and brilliantly painted rainbows up to two feet long would come calling often enough to keep me going back.

These rivers, four hours from the madness of the Denver metro area and lightly fished in the late 1980s, were the perfect place to nurture a fly fishing addiction — one that continues to this day.

And this month, it seems the state of Colorado finally got the memo. Both the Gunnison and the Taylor were officially designated as Gold Medal fisheries by the state’s Parks and Wildlife Department. Just this week, at its meeting in Colorado Springs, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission designated the Gunnison and the Taylor rivers as the newest waters to be registered among the most elite fisheries in Colorado.

But, just like that decision I had to make all those years ago in that lonely little dorm room, there’s a rub. Much of the water designated as Gold Medal is tough for most anglers to access–private land is dominant along the banks of both rivers along the sections that are newly designated. The Taylor was designated as a Gold Medal fishery for the 20 miles from the outlet at Taylor Park Reservoir downstream to the town of Almont, where it meets the East River that flows south out of the Elk Mountains. These two rivers wed at Almont, and that’s where the Gunnison is born.

And the Gunnison is now designated as Gold Medal from Almont south to Twin Bridges near Gunnison.

There is good access directly below the dam on the Taylor — for years, this fishery has been popular with the grip-and-grin hog hunters that catch and release giant trout on sowbugs and mysis shrimp patterns. It’s a tough fishery that offers sight-casting to honest-to-God giant browns and rainbows that have, over the years, earned their PhDs. A one-fish day is a good day, because chances are, that one fish will paint a memory on your brain that’ll last a lifetime.

But, not too far below the dam, a long stretch of private land keeps the Taylor off limits to shore-bound anglers, and Colorado’s archaic access laws make fishing tough for boaters, too. The state’s muddy private land ownership statutes say that landowners have the rights to the river bed, not just the land the river slices through. Bumping the bottom of the river is technically trespassing.

And while there is some access at designated points along the Gunnison below Almont, it’s fleeting and the same thing applies. You can float it, but you can’t anchor and you can’t wade.

So while it’s great to see these great rivers get the recognition they deserve, perhaps it would be better if fisheries managers and trophy-hunting anglers in Colorado stopped worrying about quality fishing designations and started doing something about access to them.

And one angler, Roger Hill, a retired nuclear physicist from Colorado Springs, might be the one to upset Colorado’s river access apple cart. Hill is embroiled in a lawsuit that’s scheduled to be heard by the Colorado Supreme Court in June of this year — he’s suing an Arkansas River landowner who claims the riverbed is private, and, years ago, apparently threw rocks at Hill while he tried to fish a stretch of the river he’s fished for 40 years.

(Oh, and it’s worth noting that the Arkansas, just like the Gunnison and the Taylor, joined the state’s Gold Medal roster earlier this year, too.)

The gist of suit depends on the court’s interpretation or private ownership of the land beneath the water. In other western states, like Montana and Idaho, anglers can walk and wade any stream big enough to float a log down its course, even if that stream crosses private property. If the angler steps into the waterway at a public right-of-way, like a public access point or a highway bridge crossing, he or she only needs to stay within the river’s high-water mark to stay legal. These access laws are sacred to anglers, and, to many, the Colorado law is just plain wrong.

We’ll see what happens this summer, but Hill has a pretty significant fan club among the angling community. His case could be a game-changer in the Centennial State.

Until then, though, it’s good to know that rivers like the Gunnison, the Taylor and the Arkansas all still possess the needed assets that make them fisheries of note. Now, if we could just make them fisheries we could all actually fish.

And no, I never enjoyed a beer with the girl I met on my first day in Gunnison. But I did get my degree. And I got in some pretty damned good fishing, too.

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