Bob BerwynSummit County correspondent

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October 12, 2006
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It's snagging season

SUMMIT COUNTY - It's a crisp fall day in the High Country, and along the banks of the Blue River, just upstream of Green Mountain Reservoir, there's a buzz in the air. The Kokanee salmon have started their fall spawning run, challenging the rapids and riffles with powerful fin strokes and surfacing every now and then with splashes of silvery-pink.It's futile effort for the schools of fish. These landlocked Pacific sockeye salmon don't reproduce naturally in these waters. But it looks to be a productive day for a horde of Carhart-clad anglers along the banks of the river, who are plucking the plump red fish out of the water one after another.By midday, most of the men (and it's pretty much all men on this chilly Saturday) have reached their limit of 10 fish, most weighing in between one and two pounds.But the fish aren't biting, at least not much. They're not particularly interested in worms, Powerbait or even lures. In fact, at this point in their three-year life cycle, they only one thing on their mind, the ancestral, genetically driven urge to spawn. Then they die.And so the way the fishermen catch these salmon is by snagging, essentially casting large, weighted (about 2 oounces each) treble hooks as far as they can out across the river, then simultaneously reeling and jerking the line back toward the shore. Some of the anglers use a side-arm method, which keeps the hook near the river bottom, while others jerk their rigs upward, bringing the hook up nearer the surface.

In each case, they hope to snare one of the fish by the body or the tail, then drag it back to shore. There's nothing pretty about it, and the idea is simply to put some meat on the table and in the freezer.Littleton resident Rich Leimweber is one of the anglers who scored his full allotment, and as he started to clean his fish near the water while his wife waited in the car, he explained that he hadn't participated in the fall snagging season in about 15 years."I just got that urge. Fishing fever, I guess," he said, gutting a scarlet-hued female with a belly full of bright orange eggs.Many of the anglers come to the area specifically for this event, year after year, said Melody Lodge owner Dale Mitchener. The Summit old-timer has seen many repeat customers at his tiny tackle shop, where he sells the massive hooks for less than a dollar a piece."In a good year, we might go through a few thousand of these," Mitchener said, holding up a cluster of the weighted hooks, tightly knotted in a ball with tangles of abandoned fishing line, just some of the flotsam that ends up at the bottom of the river each year.If the salmon run coincides with Labor Day weekend, it can be a boost for his business, Mitchener said."I was starting to wonder if they were going to show up this year," he said, explaining that this year's crop of Kokanee were stocked in 2002, the worst drought year on record. The fingerlings eat plankton for most of their life, thus helping to keep the reservoir clean, Mitchener explained. "But they've forgotten all about eating now," he added."It's just a different world," he said, explaining the snagging scene in the river. "It's a party atmosphere. It's the working-class fishermen. I could here them up here, hooting and hollering, putting meat in the freezer."There is an art to it. There's more to it than just standing on the shore, slinging lead. You have to know where the fish are, where the rocks are, where the bottom is," he explained. In years past, residents of the area organized community salmon bakes during the fall spawning run, and as he thumbed through a photo scrapbook, Mitchener fondly recalled several visiting anglers who returned to the Blue River year after year to stock up on fresh fish.At another bait and tackle shop in the area, the snagging scene was described as "combat fishing.""I've seen fist fights break out," said Cara York, of Master Bait and Tackle, describing the tension that can arise as the anglers stand elbow to elbow, sometimes so crowded that their lines become tangled together.

But not everyone is excited about salmon snagging. Colorado Trout Unlimited (TU), a fishery conservation group, has concerns about whether the anglers are accidentally catching other fish, including prized brown trout, which are already under enormous pressure in the Gold Medal fishing waters of the Blue River."I know there are many anglers who think it's unsporting and unethical," said Dave Nickum, executive director of Colorado TU. "The potential for bycatch makes us nervous. We'd really like to see the Colorado Division of Wildlife do some more studies to show that the snagging isn't affecting other important aquatic resources," Nickum said.The conservation group hasn't made a big push on the issue, but has worked behind the scenes to influence the state agency."We have repeatedly expressed concern about the bycatch," Nickum said. "You're going to have trout in some of these areas, and we haven't seen any studies showing us that there is no impact (to trout). So you're dealing with a professional opinion that we hope is based on science and fact," Nickum added.Andy Gentry, who leads Summit County's TU chapter, expressed similar concerns, and said he was fairly certain that there is some inadvertent and unavoidable snagging of other fish species associated with the salmon season. Even if it's only a few fish per day, the total could be significant over the course of the season in all the locations where snagging is permitted.

The Colorado Division of Wildlife regulates the snagging carefully, with a limited three-month season at a few locations around the state, including the Williams Fork and in the tributaries to Blue Mesa Reservoir, near Gunnison."The idea of dragging a treble hook across the body of a fish doesn't appeal to anyone," said Shannon Schwab, one of the division of wildlife managers in Summit County. "But some of these fish are going to die anyway. This is the most viable way to take them," Schwab said.The wildlife agency introduced the Kokanee into Colorado reservoirs because they do well in the cold waters and provide some diversity for game fishing. Aquatic biologists capture some of the females each year and milk the spawn, hatching the eggs in fish hatcheries and then releasing the fingerlings the following year, she explained. Since the fish will die in any case, the agency doesn't have a problem with the snagging season."I was starting to wonder if they were going to show up this year," he said, explaining that this year's crop of Kokanee were stocked in 2002, the worst drought year on record. The fingerlings eat plankton for most of their life, thus helping to keep the reservoir clean, Mitchener explained. "But they've forgotten all about eating now," he added."It's just a different world," he said, explaining the snagging scene in the river. "It's a party atmosphere. It's the working-class fishermen. I could here them up here, hooting and hollering, putting meat in the freezer."There is an art to it. There's more to it than just standing on the shore, slinging lead. You have to know where the fish are, where the rocks are, where the bottom is," he explained. In years past, residents of the area organized community salmon bakes during the fall spawning run, and as he thumbed through a photo scrapbook, Mitchener fondly recalled several visiting anglers who returned to the Blue River year after year to stock up on fresh fish.At another bait and tackle shop in the area, the snagging scene was described as "combat fishing.""I've seen fist fights break out," said Cara York, of Master Bait and Tackle, describing the tension that can arise as the anglers stand elbow to elbow, sometimes so crowded that their lines become tangled together.


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The Aspen Times Updated Oct 12, 2006 10:44AM Published Oct 12, 2006 10:25AM Copyright 2006 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.