The Baby Grand Gunnison River Gorge
The Gunnison River Gorge – Colorado
“The Baby Grand” by Bill Dvorak
“You pay your dues to get into the Gunny Gorge!” That’s one of my standard cliches when someone asks me about floating and fishing what many consider to be the best “Big Fish” fishery – not only in Colorado, but the entire Rocky Mountain west. It’s often referred to as the “Baby Grand”. www.DvorakExpeditions.com The journey starts off with a bone-jarring 9 mile four wheel drive trip on the Chukar Road after leaving the main Peach Valley Road and then there’s still a 1.1 mile trail to hike down to the river. By the way, the Chukar Road becomes impassable after any substantial rain as it’s primarily made of ‘caliche’ clay which is like red snot when wet.
You then need to either backpack all your gear down that trail into the Gorge or contact local horse packer, Larry Franks, to reserve at horse-pack for a charge of around $100 per horse with a five horse minimum. He’s also a bit cranky on what kinds of loads he packs in and if your frame and oars don’t breakdown to his liking or are too heavy you’ll be packing them yourself. Be sure to bring ample drinking water for multiple trips up and down the trail if you’re planning to pack down your own gear!
What makes the ‘Gunny’ worth all the effort? Aside from its inaccessibility, it’s also managed by the Bureau of Land Management as a wilderness area although it’s actually a National Conservation Area within the confines of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. This management program allows only two commercial launches per day and all groups must number 12 or fewer persons. There are currently no limits on the number of private groups that can launch per day, however the aforementioned logistics seem to keep the number of those trips to a manageable number. In addition, each group may only spend a maximum of two nights in the 14 miles of the Gorge.
However, the main thing that makes the ‘Gunny’ so good is the fish! It takes 60 pounds of fish per acre to qualify as a “Gold Medal Stream” and this section of the Gunnison River has 400 pounds per acre. There are about 6800 fish per mile over six inches in length, almost 1000 fish per mile over fourteen inches and well over 100 per mile over eighteen inches. It is mainly a Brown Trout fishery at present as most of the Rainbow Trout from the early days have passed their prime and whirling disease took out the progeny. While it is still classed as a wild fishery, Hofer Rainbows from Germany – resistant to whirling disease, were introduced a few years ago and are now starting to have a stronger presence. The river is 100% catch and release on all Rainbows, but the Division of Wildlife encourages catching and eating a few Browns to make room for a comeback of more Rainbows.
While this section is world famous for its fabled June “Stonefly hatch” (latin name: Pteronarcys Californica ), the ‘Gunny’ fishes well from May to September and later. It is worth noting that the horse packer takes his horses and goes hunting in October so it’s a bit more work to get your gear to the river after September unless you are willing to pack it down yourself! A typical fly fishing rig in the Gorge is a big dry fly as an indicator followed by 1-2 nymphs while fishing from the raft. Nymphing and stripping-in streamers can also be effective, particularly in the middle of the day, but there’s usually some kind of hatch going on all summer. I’ve seen as many as five different bugs coming off at the same time; caddis, golden stones, yellow salleys, blue winged olives, olive stones, pale morning duns and hoppers are the most frequently used patterns.
Other non-fishing aspects that make the ‘Gunny’ special are the quality of the whitewater and magnificence of the scenery. There are seventeen class II-III+ rapids in the fourteen mile stretch and at water levels that are good for fishing, most rapids would be considered ‘technical’ – requiring many moves with dips and tucks of your oars at just the right instant mandatory. One of the major rapids, “Boulder Garden” was dammed by a massive flash flood on August 19, 2010. It will be interesting to see if this year’s flushing flows in late May will restore the rapid. While the Gunnison Gorge is a dam controlled resource, the Bureau of Reclamation does try to mimic the natural hydrograph as closely as possible. In general, this section will run between 1000 and 1500 cfs * in early spring and then peak to as high as 6000+ cfs in late May, later stepping down to 1200 to 600 cfs for the remainder of the season. All flows are reliant upon snowpack and vary based on how the spring melt comes off. Regarding the scenery, much of the Gorge is in a steep canyon consisting of walls of black igneous rock streaked with veins of quartz that come straight into the river and tower over a 1000 ft. above you. They are also the reason that the only way to fish the entire gorge is from a raft. There are four hiking trails that come into the gorge: the Chukar, Bobcat, Duncan and Ute, which will all bluff out after one to two miles of accessible shoreline.
My recommendation for a first-time trip in the Gunnison Gorge is to go with someone who knows it well. An outfitter or an experienced acquaintance will be able to show you the protocols and rapid scouts, recommend safe lines, explain the camping rules, etc. However if you do get there I’m sure you’ll agree that it is truly worth it to “pay your dues” and it’s a very special place this ‘Baby Grand’.
* Cubic feet per second (cfs): http://www.coloradoriverdistrict.org/page_98
* 1 cubic foot = 7.4805 gallons.
* 1 cubic foot per second = 7.4805 gallons flowing by a particular point in 1 second.
* 1 cfs = 1.983 acre-feet per day = 646,320 gallons = 2447 cubic meters of water.
* 1 cfs is equivalent to 448.8 gallons of water flowing per minute.
* 1 cfs will produce 724 acre-feet of water per year.
* 1 cfs = 38.4 miner’s inches of water.
On August 19, 2010 heavy rains created flash flooding within the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area. These flash floods impacted many designated camp sites and also changed the character of the river in a few locations. BLM river rangers and Gunnison Gorge NCA managers have begun to assess the impacts of this event to determine any necessary mitigation. The purpose of this write up is to inform the public of the changes so that they are aware and can plan accordingly. Below is a synopsis of the most notable changes that may have an impact on recreation. Please note that not all changes are documented and expect to find minor changes though out the entire Gunnison Gorge.
The Bobcat Trail received moderate flooding which caused large amounts of rock to deposit on the trail itself. Heavy rock deposit becomes greater as you get closer to the river and on the steeper slopes. The trail is still passable but will require greater attention. Hiker site #5 at the base of the Bobcat Trail received heavy deposits of mud and rock which will make finding a tent pad more difficult. This site is still usable but is very muddy. https://www.blm.gov/co/st/en/fo/ufo/0.html