Guides and outfitting services in America come in all flavors. Rivers and lakes require almost completely different skill sets on the part of the guide, and if boats are involved, then this is a whole different level of game with extensive training and certifications being necessarily needed. Captain status in salt water is another high bar that’s worthy of respect. All of this licensed competency in the public interest, as, despite what people may think, it’s serious business to take people out fishing for a day.
“Best” guide and outfitter candidates are subject to vote and consensus, and guide services all have to figure out how to successfully deal with the unique conditions of the environment they operate in. Highly pressured river tailwaters require technical rigging and combat parking lot skills on the part of the guide, but remote back country pack trips with horses need to have a fishy wrangler who can multitask 24/7, or longer. The point here is that it’s apples and oranges. Most guide services who have been around for any length of time are very, very good at what they do, and are committed professionals.
As above, conditions and available natural resources dictate how you gotta deal. Flying in with a bush plane gets automatic adventure points, as does operating anywhere with bears, sharks or crocodiles. River float guides have their own mess of concurrent dynamics going on too, from trailering, launching, maintaining and equipping the boat to re-rigging the client’s rods and serving up lunch — all while rowing the thing.
I think a vote for most hardcore guide service in America should potentially go to Gunnison River Expeditions, out of Hotchkiss, Colorado. GRE operates on one of the wildest trout rivers in the country, float and wade guiding in the Gunnison Gorge below a recently designated national park, Black Canyon of the Gunnison. While the park itself is famous for rock walls rivaling those of Yosemite in size, the 11-mile gorge down river to Hotchkiss is nothing to sneeze at in terms of beauty, remoteness and potential pucker factor as a fishing objective. The Gunnison river itself is famous for one of the biggest June Stonefly hatches in the West, and trips during the high water event are always booked solid for the month. This is not to say that the river isn’t a world class fishery other times of the year — once the Stonefly event tapers off, the Grasshopper fishing in mid to late summer is like nothing outside of Patagonia.
Al DeGrange founded GRE over three decades ago, figuring out how to run trips in the Gorge using powerful jet boats to ferry clients and dories upriver in the flatter lower section of the river. GRE also offers once in a lifetime adventure trips, involving packing inflatable rafts down from jeep roads into the Upper Gorge, running long sections of class 4 rapids to give fishermen a shot at a large population of hefty Brown trout that have seen few flies.
As an Owner / Operator, DeGrange handles all aspects of the business, from managing the guide staff to bartending in the evenings at the lodge. Most impressive is Al’s ability to handle the jet boat operation, which is about as outrageous an undertaking as you’ll ever see. Hard sided river dories are staged on the beach, where they are then slid on top the nose of the 19’ jet boat — balanced to obscure the pilot’s view of the river ahead — and then run upriver at 30 mph while deftly avoiding rocks and sandbars, and dropped to float down for the day.
The white water float trips in the Upper Gorge are equally impressive from a perspective of guide management. Just getting to the trailhead involves a couple hours of 4wd road from Hotchkiss, where 12’ framed rafts are typically backpacked down the last mile and a half of steep trail to be inflated and rigged for the run down the Gorge. This is not a casual affair. Miles of powerful Class 4 rapids pinball boats down under cliff faces that are hundreds of feet high, with huge boulders midstream that hold big trout behind them. Dump a boat in here and there is nobody coming to get you for at least a day, not that you could get a message out anyway, as there is definitely no cell service and even satellite phones are limited by the tight overhead lines of sight.
Despite the objective hazards, GRE runs like a Swiss train, with an impressive safety record and a long client list of the rich and famous, including former president Jimmy Carter, who has savored multi-day trips in the Upper Gorge with a security team in tow for 30 years, (Props to President Carter here, btw, who pulled off his last Upper Gorge trip at age 88.)
Guides in the Gorge are highly trained in white water rescue, and extremely psyched to show you a good time. Jacob Richards is a relative newcomer to the guide staff, but has risen through the ranks quickly. A strong oarsman and too smart for his own good, Richards ran for City Council in nearby Grand Junction in his mid-20’s, but has since given up politics himself for seasonal life on the river, and guiding elk hunts in the high country in the Fall. He told me the guide life on the Gunnison is just too beautiful to pass up.
While other watersheds in the West are dealing with drought and low water conditions in 2018, the Gunnison is sitting on fat conditions owing to its status as a high-volume tailwater with guaranteed minimum flows. As the river flows to the Colorado, and multiple states downstream have claims to that water, the legally mandated releases on the Gunnison ensure excellent fishing conditions year-round.
If you’re looking for a bucket-list adventure hosted by some of the more ballsy guides in the business, you might want to consider making a call to these guys. With repeat customers that include past residents of the Oval Office, you’ll be in good hands and good company.