For this installment of F3T 2020 Behind the Lens, we spoke with the guys behind Project Rainbow–Ben Bortner, Skyler Moore, Josh Berendes, and Aaron Snyder of Hog Leg Fly Fishing.
“Project Rainbow” tells the story of how the accidental introduction of whirling disease caused the famed Gunnison River’s rainbow trout population to fall from nearly 10,000 trout in a 2-mile stretch to only 86 a decade later. The film explores the history of this treasured fishery, how whirling disease has impacted it, and the role that man and mother nature have played in the comeback story of the Gunnison River’s Rainbows. The resurgence of the river’s rainbow trout population in recent years, not only provides more opportunities for anglers traveling to the Gunnison Gorge, but also offers learning lessons and hope for other fisheries around North America that are feeling the impact of whirling disease.
Flylords: How did the idea for Project Rainbow originate?
Skyler Moore: We wanted to tell a story that was based in the Western US. Something that was relatable to the vast majority of The Fly Fishing Film Tour (F3T) audience. We were also looking for a location that was very visually appealing. Living in Colorado ourselves the Gunnison Gorge was an obvious choice. Ben reached out to Matt McCannel to see what his thoughts were, and he mentioned that a film about the river’s rainbow trout might be an interesting idea.
Flylords: How did the story develop from there?
Ben Bortner: My background is as a research analyst, so from there I started really digging into the story and learning more about it. During this process a handful of names kept coming up: Barry Nehring, Eric Fetherman, Dan Kowalski, and Eric Gardunio of Colorado Parks and Wildlife as well as Joel Evans of the Gunnison Gorge Anglers chapter of Trout Unlimited. I reached out to all of them and held preliminary phone interviews with each to learn more about the story and all the work that they have been doing for over 25 years now.
Flylords: Can you guys shed some light on what exactly whirling disease is and how the disease infected the Gunnison?
Hog Leg Fly Fishing: Whirling disease is a disease that causes skeletal deformities in juvenile fish. These deformities eventually kill the fish. The parasite mainly affects rainbow, cutthroat, and brook trout. Brown trout also carry the disease, but they are not very susceptible to its symptoms.
Whirling disease was first introduced into the Gunnison in 1993 when some hatchery fish that were unknowingly infected (not much was known about whirling disease back then) were stocked into a river upstream of the Gunnison. That was a high runoff year and those hatchery fish got washed downstream, over the dams, and into the Gunnison.
Flylords: How dire was the whirling disease situation on the Gunnison River?
Hog Leg Fly Fishing: When whirling disease was first discovered, many people did not think it was going to be a big deal. However, over a matter of a few months it killed off essentially all of the juvenile rainbow trout in the Gunnison Gorge. Over the following decade the number of wild rainbow trout on a two-mile stretch of river in the lower section of the canyon dropped from 10,000 to just 86, according to Barry Nehring.
Flylords: After watching Project Rainbow, is it safe to say wild rainbows are making a strong—and dare I say, unforeseen—recovery?
Hog Leg Fly Fishing: The fishery still has a way to go, but it is making a comeback and it is much more common to catch rainbow trout in the lower section now than it was even five years ago. However, it is important to note that while the Gunnison may be coming back, there are many other fisheries, like the Bow River in Canada, that are just starting to feel the impacts of whirling disease. Hopefully, the learning lesson from the past 25 years in the Gunnison will help these other fisheries overcome the new challenges they are also facing.
Flylords: Tell us about the tremendous work and effort that facilitated the Gunnison’s recovery.
Hog Leg Fly Fishing: The more we learned about this story, the more amazed we were at the work that went into this comeback. For the first 15-20 years after the disease was introduced, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife would harvest the eggs from the mature rainbow trout of the Gunnison during the spawn, raise those fish in hatcheries until they were big enough to not be impacted by whirling disease, and then release them back into the Gunnison. This was an artificial way of maintaining the river’s rainbow trout population. It also seemingly helped speed up the natural evolution process.
This rapid evolutionary process, along with some cross breeding with the Hofer strain of rainbow trout from Germany, has resulted in what is now being called the “Gunnison River Rainbow.” This strain of rainbow trout is capable of both thriving in a wild and rugged environment like the Gunnison Gorge, but is also resistant to whirling disease. The Hofer strain of rainbow trout has developed its resistance to Whirling Disease after being exposed to it for over 100 years in hatcheries across Europe. However, during this time the fish became totally domesticated. For example, when we went to a hatchery in Colorado to interview Eric Fetherman, we walked up to a holding tank full of Hofers and they all literally came running over as if it was feeding time. Not a good trait for the wild!
Flylords: For our cinematography-minded readers, can you tell us about some of the equipment you used for your film?
Aaron Snyder: We had two camera setups and two dedicated cameramen. I shot most of the footage with a Canon 1DX MKII on a Ronin – S. Josh Berendes, our second cameraman, shot most of his footage on a Sony FS5 and a Sony A6300. The drone footage was all shot on a Mavic Pro 2.
Flylords: Did Project Rainbow present you with any unforeseen filming issues/difficulties?
Ben Bortner: There were a lot of filming and logistical challenges to putting this project together. First, given that we filmed in both the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area, we had to obtain film permits from both the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management. That was a bit of a process. It also meant that we could not fly a drone in 95% of the locations we were shooting.
Aaron Snyder: It was also a challenge keeping our gear from overheating due to the 95-100 degree heat at the bottom of the canyon. Another big challenge was filming from moving rafts in whitewater, which made keeping our gear dry a serious challenge–especially while passing through some of the class-3 and 4 rapids. Finally, one of the biggest challenges was simply keeping our camera, stabilizer, drone, and laptop batteries charged up for a three day wilderness trip and many hours of filming. Thankfully, Goal Zero provided us with some solar panels and power banks for our trip. The person in charge of the gear boat would set up these solar panels whenever they stopped to set up lunch or camp.
Flylords: How did your sponsors help make Project Rainbow happen?
Hog Leg Fly Fishing: We definitely want to thank our sponsors: Sage, Orvis, Hatch Outdoors, Scientific Anglers, and RIGS Fly Shop for helping make this film, as well as providing some awesome gear to fish and film with! We also want to thank Goal Zero for powering our trip. Making this film truly would not have been possible without all their support.
Flylords: Please tell me throughout this project you got to throw some casts at these resilient fish?
Hog Leg Fly Fishing: Absolutely! We went on an amazing three day float through the gorge with RIGS Fly Shop and their fantastic guide crew. For anyone who has not experienced the Gunnison Gorge it is truly is a magical place. You are totally cut off from the outside world when you’re down there. And the fishing is incredible. We caught more browns than we could count and dozens of big, strong rainbows. The rainbows are incredibly strong for their size and put up a great fight!
Flylords: This film is dominated by conservation tones. Do you have any messages for our readers to take from Project Rainbow?
Hog Leg Fly Fishing: While rainbow trout are not a native species to the Gunnison, it is important to understand the recreational value that wild rainbow trout provide to all anglers. Additionally, to protect our wild trout populations, it is important for anglers to clean their gear when going stream to stream. Also, if you’re keeping any fish, do not dispose of their remains into the water. Especially not a different river or lake than where they were harvested. Finally, many people seem to think that whirling disease is no longer a problem. In reality, it is actually continuing to spread to new fisheries around North America. A number of rivers across Canada, including the Bow River, are starting to see the effects of whirling disease. We hope that the work being done in Colorado can provide some learning lessons as well as serve as a beacon of hope to these fisheries.
Special thanks to Ben Bortner, Skyler Moore, Josh Berendes, and Aaron Snyder of Hog Leg Fly Fishing for taking the time to discuss their film, and be sure to check out Project Rainbow in the 2020 F3T.
Also, follow along with the film tour @flyfishingfilmtour to see where they will be next!
Find out when F3T is in your town, and buy tickets before they sell out!