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Restored stretch of Fraser River opens for public fishing

New fishing spot marks successful start of collaborative push to improve Grand County streams.

Fish are thriving and biting at Grand County’s newest fishing spot north of Winter Park, Colorado.

The county opened a 0.4-mile stretch of the Fraser River for public fishing on May 16.

"There aren’t many fishing spots in the county that are open to the public,” said Rich Cimino, Grand County commissioner. “This opens up a stretch of the Fraser River that was recently restored and is showing signs of recovery.”

Dave Bennett, water resource strategy director at Denver Water, shows off a rainbow trout caught in the restored section of the Fraser River.

The new public section includes parking, a path to the river and foot bridges.

“This is a great stretch of public water,” said Kirk Klancke, president of the Colorado River Headwaters chapter of Trout Unlimited. “We’re seeing brown and rainbow trout up to 18 inches long.”

The opening of the fishing area marks the culmination of the Fraser Flats River Habitat Project, organized by Learning By Doing — a cooperative group of East and West Slope water interests that share a common goal of improving the health of rivers and streams in Grand County.

The group — which includes representatives from Trout UnlimitedGrand CountyDenver Water , Northern Water and the Colorado River District — chose to restore a 0.9-mile stretch of river in the Fraser Flats section that had been impacted by water diversions and ranching. Because of the overwide river channel, the water slows down, deposits sediments, and is shallow when water levels drop late in the year. These factors strain the health of the fishery.

Planning for the Fraser Flats restoration began in 2015, and the work began in 2017 when volunteers planted more than 2,000 willow bushes and 90 cottonwood trees along the banks of the river.

“The trees and bushes will help prevent erosion of the stream banks,” said Jessica Alexander, environmental scientist at Denver Water. “Once they grow, the new vegetation will also help shade the river and keep water temperatures from warming up in the summer months.”

The most noticeable difference is the addition of point bars, which are piles of rock that direct water into a narrower, deeper channel in the center of the stream when water levels drop.

New point bars use rocks to redirect water into the middle of the river when water levels are low.

“The point bars help maintain the river’s velocity, which is critical to supporting a healthy environment for fish and aquatic insects,” Alexander said.

The changes are showing promising results for the fish habitat, according to Jon Ewert, an aquatic biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

“Since the changes were made to the river in September 2017, we saw the number of fish increase four times,” Ewert said. “We’re also seeing more adult fish compared to what we found before the project.”

The improvements to the restored stretch of river have brought the trout population up to similar numbers compared to other stretches of the Fraser River.

“We’ll continue to monitor the trout population in the Fraser Flats, but we expect that with the improvements, the fish should continue to thrive here,” Ewert said.

Grand County rancher Paul Bruchez was among the anglers anxious to try out the new fishing spot.

“It looks good and I like the new features along the river,” Bruchez said. “It’s nice to have this spot available to come fish.”

Devil’s Thumb Ranch and Grand County Water and Sanitation District #1 own the land where the project took place. The public stretch occurs on land owned by the sanitation district. Devil’s Thumb Ranch will maintain the southern half of the restored stretch of river and keep it private for its guests.

Kirk Klancke, president of the Colorado River Headwaters chapter of Trout Unlimited, explains the restoration work to Learning By Doing partners and members of the Grand County community on May 16, 2018.

“It really does take a village to pull projects like this together,” said Arthur Ferrari, chairman of the board for Grand County Water and Sanitation District #1. “It took business owners, government, water utilities and the public to pitch in, and we ended up with a beautiful project that will be here for generations.”

Funding for the $200,000 project came from a variety of sources including Learning By Doing partners, Devil’s Thumb Ranch and a Colorado Parks and Wildlife "Fishing Is Fun" grant through the Sport Fish Restoration Act.

The Fraser Flats project marks a sharp change to how the East and West Slope manage the river compared to the past.

“Denver Water strives to be a responsible steward of our watersheds and rivers,” said Dave Bennett, water resource strategy director at Denver Water. “This project shows how water providers and our communities can work together to restore our rivers and provide public benefits at the same time.”

The Learning By Doing cooperative effort emerged as part of Denver Water’s Gross Reservoir Expansion Project.

Denver Water contributed $50,000 to the Fraser Flats restoration and has committed nearly $4 million to fund similar water quality and watershed health projects in Grand County.

The additional funding will be released once the federal permitting process for the Gross Reservoir Expansion Project has been completed.

The public fishing section of the Fraser River is free to the public and offers great views of Grand County.

Trout Unlimited is another Learning By Doing partner that played a major role overseeing the work on the river.

“The river looks great, and it feels good to see the community come together,” said Mely Whiting, Trout Unlimited counsel. “We were also impressed to see so many younger members of the Learning By Doing organizations get involved and get excited about what we’re doing.”

Fraser Flats marks Learning By Doing’s inaugural project and more projects are in the works.

“We’ve learned a lot from this project,” Alexander said. “Now we can take this experience and the knowledge we’ve gained and use it to improve other rivers and streams here in Grand County.”

The Fraser Flats fishing area is free to the public and located north of Fraser. Parking is accessible from County Road 83/Devil’s Thumb Road, just off State Highway 40 near the Sunset Ridge ponds. It is a catch and release area.