Gunnison River Fishing 2003
A Wilderness Canyon Full of Trout
By Steve Probasco, Special to
SOUTHWEST FLY FISHING
Spring 2003 Driving that last couple of miles over the potholed dirt road made me wish I’d had one less cup of java before we began our hour-and-a-half-long drive from Gunnison River Pleasure Park to the canyon rim. The rafts, guides, and essential gear for our three-day float through the Gunnison Gorge were already waiting for us at the river’s edge. All we had to do was pack our personal gear down the 1.1-mile Chukar Trail to the river.
The early-morning sun was already frying the parched landscape. Daytime temperatures had been pushing 100 degrees, but at least there was plenty of water in the Gunnison for our float-more than could be said for many other Colorado rivers after several years of severe Rocky Mountain drought. In fact, the river was running around 700 cubic feet per second on our late-June adventure—a perfect flow for both white-water rafting and fishing.
I had made this trip a few years previous, but when Bill Dvorak, of Dvorak Rafting & Kayaking Expeditions, called with an invitation to fish the Gunnison’s fabled salmonfly (Pteronarcys californica) hatch with him, publisher Steve Cole and I didn’t hesitate to accept the offer. Now we were there, gearing up under the sweltering sun, on the edge of the sparkling Gunnison River, with giant salmonflies clumsily dancing in the morning sun and crashing into anything in their way. I had good vibes.
Altogether there were four rafts in our party, Cole and I were designated to be in Dvorak’s boat, which pleased me, as I recalled a few of the white-knuckle rapids one must negotiate in the course of this float. As a longtime outfitter, Bill has more than 50,000 river miles under his belt. Depending on water flow, there are 17 Class II to ClassIII/IV rapids in the 14 river miles between the Chukar put-in and the exit point at Gunnison River Pleasure Park. Regardless of the fishing, the float alone offers plenty of adventure. But, as any Western fly fisher knows, when the salmonflies are hatching it’s time to hit the water, as even the most cautious of trout show reckless abandon—much like me with my checkbook in a fly shop.
A swift Beginning
With gear stowed, we slipped the rafts into the cold river, took our positions in the boat, and our three-day excursion got underway. Literally seconds after shoving off we were sucked into Chukar Rapids—nothing like jump-starting the adventure with a shot of adrenaline!
The plan was simple. Working our way down-stream, we would cast giant salmonfly imitations to the banks, in-river structure, and current seams. The boat kept a steady pace. We needed to synchronize casts and mends with the rhythm of the river and the strokes of the oarsman. As with most dry-fly fishing, we needed to achieve a drag-free float of the fly or the trout would ignore our imitations. Accurate casts were often rewarded with a rise—not always a take, but a giant swirl is sometimes nearly as exciting.
At first, it was hard to focus on our drifting flies because of the incredible beauty of the canyon unfolding before us. We were torn between just staring in marvel at the panorama into which we were suddenly thrust, and watching our drifting flies like hawks. Needles to say, from the beginning, we missed several fish, simply from lack of concentration on our fishing. But the payoff was worth it. A more spectacular and remote canyon would be hard to imagine, with sheer cliffs rising from the river, and the prospect of surprising mule deer, mountain lions, elk, and a host of other wildlife ever-present. One quickly realizes that catching fish is only part of the package when floating the Gunnison Gorge.
Every now and again, though, we would actually be watching our big Rogue Foam Stones drifting along and observe the rise, set the hook, and play and land a fish—and remember why we were here in the first place.
As the hours passed, and as we drifted deeper into the canyon, we got our rhythm down. Balancing in the raft through the rapids and making quick and precise casts became second nature It seemed a given that one of us would hook into a big fish at the lip of each new rapid, or from the fringes, while bouncing through the white water. Either the fish broke off, or it was hooked and coaxed through the rapid and landed in the calmer water below. More often than not the fish would win.
when bellies started to protest we beached the boats, and the guides made lunch while some of us waded and fished from shore. By lunchtime, though, the heat had intensified in the canyon, and simply finding a small patch of shade and hydrating ourselves seemed to take priority. Lunches were stretched over a couple of hours, with the intent of avoiding the glaring midday sun.
By midafternoon the salmonflies diminished, but the trout still remembered the giant bugs and our dry patterns continued to produce a fish now and then. More productive were the droppers we were using. Small Princes or other nymphs were attached to the bend of the hook on our salmonfly imitations with 2 feet of 4X tippet material and weighted just enough to sink a couple of feet below the floating bug. Although the system occasionally tangled, the rewards were obvious, as the greater percentage of the fish hooked during the heat of the day fell for the sunken fly.
We usually fished this system until the shadows grew long and we arrived at our preassigned campsite. There are 14 boater camps in the canyon. Floaters must register for each night’s stay prior to starting the float. In addition to the boater camps, 11 hiker camps are located along the river, positioned near the four trails leading down into the canyon.
Due to the steepness of the canyon, every flat area seemed to be one of the designated camps. A wooden post with a white number marks all sites. The rules for these low-impact camps are strictly enforced. Campers must preregister and pay a fee of $10 per person per day; the maximum length of stay in the canyon is two nights; wood fires are not allowed; washable, reusable toilet systems are also required; and all trash must be packed out, including human waste and the ashes from fire pans. As a result of these stringent regulations, when you arrive at camp, you wouldn’t even know it was a camp at all if it weren’t for the numbered post and the leveled tent areas.
Once at camp, we gathered our dry bags containing personal gear and everyone chose their sleeping spot. Some put up tents; others chose to simply throw down a pad and sleeping bag and sleep under the stars. There was no chance of rain, and no mosquitoes to worry about, so this option was favored by at least half of our party.
After we made our nest, most of us hit the water again, wading and fishing until the whistle for hors d’oeuvres and wine came from camp. Then it was time for a hearty meal cooked over charcoal. Evenings were spent with camaraderie and stargazing, until it cooled off enough for the peaceful rhythm of the river to lull all into a deep slumber.
The Gunnison River starts in the small town of Almont, where the Taylor and East rivers merge, about 10 miles north of the town of Gunnison. It flows for approximately 20 miles before spilling into Blue Mesa Reservoir, the largest reservoir in Colorado. The river then flows a short distance to Crystal Reservoir. Known as the upper Gunnison, the stretch from Almont down to the reservoir is the most accessible section of the river. It is also the most heavily fished. Rainbow, brown, cutthroat, and cuttbow trout are found in the upper river, as well as Kokanee salmon that run each fall from Blue Mesa Reservoir to the Roaring Judy fish hatchery on East River.
Below Crystal Reservoir the river drops down into the famous Black Canyon. Access here is limited to a few steep trails from the canyon rim, which towers 2,700 feet above the river in some places. Below the Black Canyon the river enters the Gunnison River Gorge—the section of our float—which extends to the junction with the North Fork of the Gunnison. The river from Blue Mesa Reservoir down to the North Fork is designated as “Gold Medal Water” by the state of Colorado. The entire river from Crystal Reservoir to the confluence with the North Fork is open to the public for fishing.
From the North Fork downstream, the river flows mostly through ranchland, with little access, all the way to its confluence with the Colorado River in the city of Grand Junction. The Gunnison River holds the distinction of being the largest river in Colorado whose entire basin lies within the boundaries of the state.
Fishing the Gorge
There are a few options when fishing the Gunnison Gorge. Taking a guided rafting/fishing excursion with a licensed outfitter, where all you need to be concerned with is your fishing and when the next meal will be placed in front of you, seems the most luxurious yet practical option, due to the canyon’s limited access. All you have to do is show up and hike down to the river. The rafting and camping gear has already been transported down to the river by the guides or by horses.
Private parties can do the float, but if you choose to do so you must transport all of you own gear or hire Larry Franks, a licensed horse packer,(970) 323-0115, to pack your gear in for you. Take-out is at Gunnison River Pleasure Park, just past the confluence with the North Fork. Call Pleasure Park, (970) 872-2525, for shuttles and arrangements if you plan to float the river on your own. You can also hire Leroy Jagodinski, proprietor of Pleasure Park, to run you upstream to the Smith Fork in his jet boat (Jagodinski holds the only license to do this), where you can then either float out in small boat or wade back down to the Pleasure Park.
Nonfloating anglers have a few choices as well. The Gunnison Gorge Trails offer limited access to the river and the hiker campgrounds. The Chukar Trail (1.1 miles), the most heavily used trail, has a 550-foot drop and gives access to a short stretch of river and two hiker camps. The bobcat Trail (1,5 miles) has an 800-foot drop and is steep and loose, but it provides access to 1.6 miles of river and two camps. The Duncan Trail (1.5 miles) has a steep 840-foot drop to the river, with access to three hiker camps. The well-used Ute Trail (4.5 miles) droops 1,200 feet and gives wading anglers access to more than 4 miles of river and four camps. The Smith Fork Trail (4miles), the lowest trail, climbs 200 feet and accesses the lowest 4 miles of the gorge float. To reach the Smith Fork Trail you must first cross the North Fork, near Pleasure Park.
There was a time when rainbow and brown trout were an even mix in the Gunnison Gorge. Over the past several years whirling disease has changed this ratio drastically. Most of the trout caught now are browns. Rainbows are still found in some of the faster water—riffles and rapids—but the numbers are diminished. However, most of the rainbows taken these days are big: more than 20 inches is the norm. The brown trout, which are abundant, run to several pounds. Catch-and-release fishing mandated by the outfitters assures this will remain a healthy fishery.
Tackle, hatches, and Flies
All of the water through the gorge can be fished easily with a 4- to 7-weight system. A weight-forward floating line will cover most of the action. Except during major hatches, the gorge is largely a nymphing show. Hatches include the general Western river selection: BWOs, PMDs, cadisflies, midges, stoneflies, ect. Flies like the Prince, Gold Ribbed hare’s Ear, Pheasant Tail, and other general imitations in sizes 10 to 16 should be included in your arsenal.
Streamers also produce well here, and a popular method while floating is to pound the banks with large rubber-legged creations or sculpin imitations. Casts are punched within inches of the bank, followed by a few quick strips, and the process is repeated. When a big brown shoots from cover to intercept your offering it can be a heart-stopping event.
Gunnison River Pleasure Park is a good source for finding out which flies are hot at the moment. Everyone who floats the gorge stops in, and information flies freely. All of the most productive flies are available in the fly shop, and there is no charge for Leroy’s advice, of which there is plenty.
Out of the Canyon
The second day of our float was a carbon copy of the first: float, fish, eat, catch fish like crazy, admire the surroundings, camp. Our final day began much the same. We were coming to the end of the canyon, but first we had to negotiate a few of the more technical rapids—rapids such as the Squeeze, the Drops, Cable, Jumpin’ Jack Splash, the Gate Keeper, and Grande Finale, whose names conjured up all sorts of visions.
Approaching one of the rapids, we came upon several beach boats and a commotion downstream in the middle of the rapid. A raft was wrapped around a large protruding boulder midstream. The boat’s occupants were standing atop the boulder, and other rafters had a white-water rescue in progress. Lines were attached to the swamped boat, which was then removed from its predicament. Rescue lines were also secured to the stranded rafters, and one by one they were pulled to shore to regroup and continue their float. It was a textbook white-water rescue, which came off without a hitch.
We ran Grande Finale, the last of the rapids on the gorge float, without incident. From that point on, it was a completely different Gunnison River-long, calm flats and gentle riffles replaced the tight squeezes, drops, and white water of the gorge. Below the Smith Fork we began to see hiking and wading anglers fishing this popular stretch of river. We lackadaisically floated along those last couple of miles, half-heartedly casting to only the best water—and still hooking into a fish now and then. But hookups didn’t matter anymore. We were spent. Our casting arms were tired, and our fishing itch was temporarily scratched. All we could think of now was air conditioning, and a cold beer back at Pleasure Park. Leroy was sure to have some on ice!
Steve Probasco is the editor of Northwest Fly Fishing and Southwest Fly Fishing Magazines.