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A Friend’s Gift of the Gunnison River Gorge

a man on a raft in a body of water

Bill Dvorak
Dvorak Expeditions Est. 1969

I first ran the “Gunny Gorge” in June 1982.  A friend, Tom Beck, who was the chief Black Bear Biologist for the Colorado Department of Wildlife, convinced me, and my buddy Randy to have a look at this incredible gorge.  Tom thought I should start outfitting trips in the gorge and staged the run of the 14-mile stretch below the last dam for us to check it out. 

We followed Tom and one of his temporary employees: (he called them ‘mutants’, this one ended up being a Regional Director for the DOW), down the very hot one-mile hiking trail to the river.  Randy and I hiked with our kayaks on our shoulders, while Tom and his ‘mutant’ had their heads stuck in an upside-down canoe.  Tom was a damn good canoeist – a skill that would be needed in this narrow, technical stretch of class II-III whitewater. 

Wow!  This was one of the best things a friend has ever done for me.  The “Gunny Gorge” is beautiful: steep, deep, isolated, and full of fish – trout to be exact.  This tail-race fishery below the dams of the Blue Mesa Project was one of the first rivers in Colorado to become designated “Gold Medal”. 

a group of people walking down a dirt road

I outfitted my first trip in the gorge that July, the very next month after the initial reconnaissance kayak run.  Over the next 16 years the Black Canyon of the Gunnison Gorge has gained international recognition for both its beauty and outstanding fishery.  It also became a National Park in 1998. 

The Gunnison Gorge is best known for its mid-June Giant Terranarcis Stone Fly Hatch that comes off between late May thru late June.  My basic stonefly nymph rig for this hatch is a 9-foot leader terminating in 2X to 5X tippet, depending on fly size.  At the June peak I use size 4 dry stone flies, which the fish tend to violently “smack” as soon as the fly hits the water, causing the sound to echo off the canyon walls.  

These float trips, (1 to 3 days), are the trip of a lifetime if you hit the hatch right.  However, the fishing is no less excellent throughout the entire season of late April thru late September or even into early October some years. In the later season: July – September, I typically use a 4-weight rod if I am fishing smaller stoneflies (#10-14), but when I need to lob a heavily weighted Kaufmann’s Stone nymph or punch a Rogue Stone dry into a stiff breeze, I use a 6-weight. 

a canyon with a river running through a body of water

In addition, the Gunnison Gorge is also one of the most tightly regulated and difficult to access rivers in the west.  Outfitters have a specific launch calendar with a limit of two commercial launches per day with a trip total of 12 persons maximum, (4 guides and 8 anglers).  Typical logistics are to meet on the morning of day one at the ‘Gunnison Forks Pleasure Park’, (you’ll have to learn the reason for that exceptional name at camp on night one!), where you will then be transported for 1 and 1/2 hours on a 4-wheel drive “road” (more like a track), the final 7 miles of which are the most exciting part of the drive!  This “Cherry Stem” road takes us into the designated wilderness conservation area culminating at the Chukar Trailhead.  There you will prepare to hike down a steep, one-mile trail into the gorge itself, while carrying your own backpack dry bag filled with your personal gear, before you can arrive at the river.  

Once finally at the river the rafts will be ready for you, having been horse packed down and rigged by your guides the day before.  You’ll meet these guides, listen to a river safety talk, get your gear stowed and your rods setup, then load onto the rafts and push off the beach.  If all goes well and you have played your cards right, for the next three days you’ll be fishing and experiencing one of the most incredible resources in the west.  It’s certainly not a flat-water river, but you will have to decide for yourself if the whitewater, the 4×4 trip into the trailhead, or the world-class fishing is the most exciting part of the trip!