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State sends 3 million kokanee salmon into Blue Mesa Reservoir

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Photo courtesy Colorado Parks & Wildlife Kokanee salmon fingerlings raised in the Roaring Judy Hatchery upstream from Blue Mesa Reservoir were released last week. The release is one step in the life cycle of the salmon, which will mature in the reservoir

In an annual ritual conducted to provide anglers with a unique sport-fishing opportunity, Colorado Parks and Wildlife sent 3.1 million kokanee fingerlings to Blue Mountain Reservoir on the evening of April 24.

After hatching at the Roaring Judy Hatchery north of Gunnison last fall, the fingerlings were released from the hatchery raceways into the East River as they are every year. The young kokanee move with the flowing water about three miles to the confluence of the Gunnison River; and then they travel another 20 miles into Blue Mesa Reservoir where they grow up.

"The habitat for these land-locked sockeye salmon is spot-on at Blue Mesa Reservoir," said Seth Firestone, hatchery manager at Roaring Judy. "There's lots of deep, open water and there's abundant zooplankton for the kokanee to feed on."

Kokanee taste excellent and CPW allows a generous daily bag limit of five fish and a 10-fish possession limit per license holder. But besides anglers, kokanee salmon provide an excellent food source for lake trout, some of which grow to trophy size of 32 inches or more. While many people fish for kokanee, a smaller but dedicated contingent search for lake trout at the reservoir.

Kokanee fingerlings have been stocked in Blue Mesa by CPW since 1965, and the annual stocking from Roaring Judy has occurred since 1967. This year marks the 53rd consecutive year for the operation.

In late summer, kokanee that are usually 3-4 years old follow their natural instincts and start moving back up river toward the hatchery where they were released. At the hatchery, staff spawn the fish and place the fertilized eggs in hatcheries. In 2018, CPW collected 9.2 million eggs, and sent about 5 million eggs to other hatcheries around the state. The kokanee spawn production is the largest from any reservoir in Colorado and helps supply 26 waters throughout the state.

And here's an amazing aquatic statistic: The 9.2 million eggs collected last fall came from spawning just 15,800 fish -- 7,800 females and 7,800 males.

"It only takes that many fish to keep our kokanee program going at Roaring Judy," Firestone said.

Water conditions at Blue Mesa should be much better than last summer when the reservoir was drawn down to just 30 percent of full pool. Water managers are predicting that, thanks to the winter's abundant snow fall, the reservoir will fill to 70 percent.

The prime time for kokanee fishing is normally from mid-June to late-July. For more information about Colorado's fisheries, go to: https://cpw.state.co.us/.

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