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Colorado

Fall Fishing on the Gunnison River

by Jason Stemple   |  August 20th, 2018 0
Gunnison River

When the summer tourists are gone, the river is teeming with salmon, and Baetis hatch most afternoons, it’s hard not to fall in love with the upper Gunnison River. Photo by Jason Stemple

Every angler has a favorite stretch of water, their honey hole, their go-to spot. It may have been love at first sight or it might have been a relationship years in the making. For me, it’s a particular mile-long stretch of the Gunnison River. Running through a section of private property that rarely gets fished from dry land, this stretch of river has swift currents, big boulders, and deep slots where it takes a skilled oarsman and a proficient mender to come tight to a trout. It’s team fishing at its finest—similar to the teamwork needed between poler and angler on a flats boat.

The first time I saw this stretch, I knew it held numbers of big fish, but it took years for me to feel confident when I rounded the bend and the start of that special mile came into view. I think I have a soft spot for this section because it’s representative of the entire upper Gunnison River—one of Colorado’s finest trout streams. Although not yet designated as an official Gold Medal Water, the Gunny eclipses the entry qualifications in every category. It holds an average of 4,500 trout per mile, yet unlike other more famous Western rivers, its size and demeanor are much more friendly to visiting anglers.

The Gunny begins at the confluence of the East and Taylor rivers among a gathering of cabins and a couple of resorts, which make up the “town” of Almont. From here it rambles through a couple of miles of public access before disappearing into private ranchland for the rest of its journey south toward its namesake town.

As the river skirts the edge of Gunnison, there is another 1.5 miles of public access called the VanTuyl Easement, with views of a stunning cliff formation. Passing town, the river meanders to the west through a widening valley where there’s another 2 miles of wading access at Neversink Trail and Cooper Ranch—both part of the Curecanti National Recreation Area. While these access points provide 6 miles of great wade fishing, that is only about a third of the water available to floating anglers on the Gunnison above Blue Mesa Reservoir. 

Gunnison River

While there are 6 miles of public wading access spread across the upper Gunnison between Almont and Blue Mesa Reservoir, the river is still primarily a float fishery. Photo by Jason Stemple

Since my humble fishing beginnings I’ve always felt that a boat is an essential tool to my success and happiness as a fly fisher. Wading is great, and I normally mix it into my days of fishing no matter where I am, but to me there is no finer way to fish than from the front of a boat (the back is okay too, I guess).

A boat gives you access, mobility, maneuverability, and an elevated platform to increase your vision and make casting and mending easier. What’s not to love? Maybe that’s another reason I love the Gunnison—while many of Colorado’s other top waters are limited to wading, the Gunnison is a float-fishing paradise. The Gunnison floats well in all seasons, with the exception of huge snow years when runoff sometimes extends well into the summer, or in exceptionally dry years when the fall floating gets a little thin and rocky.

After ice-out and before peak runoff there is usually a good month or so of float fishing. Usually by mid-June the water clears, and although still high and swift, it begins to fish well as the water warms and hatches begin to build. Caddis, stoneflies, and a variety of mayflies including the popular Green Drake hatch all come and go during the short Rocky Mountain summer.

During the late spring and summer, the Gunnison River Valley witnesses a migration of fishermen and other tourists, and the river sees its fair share of wading anglers, guided float trips, rafters, and kayakers.

The Gunnison is no secret, but it does have an unheralded secret season. When I was a guide on the Gunnison, I booked as many trips as possible during the busy summer, but I always anticipated the coming fall when the crowds thinned, fishing turned on, and my guide buddy Jason Booth (gunnisonriverguides.com) and I could trade turns on the oars. I learned much from him in those years, and when I return to the valley I always plan for the fall season and float a few days with him.

Autumn Splendor

Fall arrives early in the Rockies. It’s not uncommon for the cottonwoods that line the banks of the river to begin changing by the end of August, with fresh snow on the peaks by September. The falling temperatures bring changes to the river as well. The variety of summer hatches tails off, and the daily Baetis hatch becomes the focus of feeding trout both on the surface and below.

By September, thousands of Kokanee salmon are well into their annual migration from Blue Mesa Reservoir toward their not quite ancestral birthplace at Roaring Judy Hatchery on the East River. The Kokanee eggs play an important ecological role each fall by fattening the trout before the long, cold winter arrives. 

Gunnison River

The average trout in the Gunnison is 12 to 16 inches, but in the fall, much larger specimens follow Kokanee salmon up the river to feed on eggs. Photo by Jason Stemple

When the salmon are thick they can provide an easy, solid tug followed by a screaming drag and great aerials. But it’s what they do for the trout fishing that makes this time of year special. Resident trout lurk behind the salmon schools, waiting for the eggs to drop, but the real treasure are the large trout from Blue Mesa Reservoir that follow the salmon up into the river. An “average” trout in the Gunny is from 12 to 16 inches, but during the Kokanee run you’ll find much, much larger trout. My biggest was a 32-inch, 10-pound rainbow that looked more like a steelhead than a resident river trout. Blue Mesa Reservoir is also a home to big brown trout, and they also feel the urge to migrate. While browns also feed on Kokanee eggs, they become increasingly aggressive in anticipation of the upcoming spawn, and streamer fishing for them can be excellent.

Typical Day

When fall comes, there’s no need to get up early. With lows in the 30s each night, the fish take a little time to get fired up. After a leisurely morning, I meet Jason at one of the four public launch sites, and we load a boat with gear including a healthy selection of rods: two 4-weights rigged with 5X tippet, one with a Baetis pattern in the size 16 to 20 range (Parachute Adams usually works just fine) and the other with a hopper/dropper rig with a beadhead mayfly nymph; two 5-weights rigged for nymphing with an attractor pattern (an egg, San Juan Worm, or Prince Nymph) and a more imitative size 16 or 18 Baetis nymph such as a Pheasant Tail, Two-bit Hooker, or RS2. We also keep a 6-weight streamer rod with two tandem streamers, which sometimes just drives big fish crazy. All those rods may seem excessive but it’s all part of the floating game. As you float through different water types, different rigs become more effective, and as you cycle through the different set-ups, you’ll discover what the fish are keying on much more quickly.

I begin every fall day on the Gunnison with a nymphing rod in my hand. For the first hour or two, the attractor nymphs pick up more fish, but around midday the trout usually transition to exclusively mayfly patterns. Some days the Baetis hatch can be strong without producing much surface feeding action, so we just stick to nymphing. Even on the best fall dry-fly days, most of the rising trout are in isolated slicked-out eddies or backwaters, so switching between the nymph rig and dry-fly rods picks up far more fish than trying to be a purist and fish exclusively dry flies.

If you have cloud cover or rain, you can find pods of risers and, with a little patience and stalking, you can pick off a few nice sippers from each group using little Parachute Adams. The afternoon hatch often lasts from 1 to 3 P.M. and then you’ll generally switch back to nymphing or streamers.

Through the day, keep your eyes peeled for schools of Kokanee, and fish through and behind them with a double-nymph rig containing an egg pattern.

Summer days on the Gunnison are always fun, but a crisp fall day floating the river offers so much variety, and so many different opportunities at quality wild trout of all sizes, that to me, it’s the premier fall float fishery in Colorado and among the best in the West. It was love at first sight for me, and my guess is that most fly fishers, when they see it, just can’t help falling for the Gunny. 

In the West. It was love at first sight for me, and my guess is that most fly fishers, when they see it, just can’t help falling for the Gunny.

Jason Stemple (jasonstemple.com) is a professional photographer and a former guide on the Gunnison.


Taking it to Eleven

In the uber-classic This is Spinal Tap (1984)—the film that started the mockumentary genre—the character Nigel Tufnel shows off his guitar amplifier, which has knobs that uncharacteristically range from one to eleven. “You’re on ten on your guitar, where can you go from there? Where?  Tufnel asks his interviewer. “What we do, is if we need that extra push over the cliff, do you know what we do? Eleven. It’s one louder.”

If you’ve already got a 10 out of 10 experience just by being in a setting like Crested Butte—with the Gunnison, Taylor, and East rivers carving their way through some of the most majestic snow-capped mountain scenes in Colorado—what do you do to take everything to a new level? You turn it all the way up to Eleven. The Eleven Experience is a new premium destination company with its flagship Scarp Ridge Lodge in Crested Butte and 41 new buildings under construction in five other locations including: Taylor River Lodge, Colorado; The Bahamas House Inn, Bahamas; Chalet Pelerin, France; and the Deplar Farm, Iceland.

Gunnison River

Scarp Ridge Lodge is in a historic building in Crested Butte, Colorado, near the headwaters of the Gunnison River. While there is a complete spa inside, the rooftop hot tub provides relaxation after a long day of fishing, and views of Mount Crested Butte. Photo courtesy of The Eleven Experience

Located in downtown Crested Butte in a meticulously restored historic building, Scarp Ridge Lodge is named after the geographic feature connecting Ruby Mountain and Owen Mountain, and overlooking the Oh-Be-Joyful Valley. In the winter, ski and snowboard guests at Scarp Ridge Lodge access this deep, varied terrain via snowcat, then navigate the powder back downhill toward Crested Butte and their rooftop hot tub. In winter the adventures center around snow sports, and in the summer the lodge is a fly-fishing lodge, but Eleven distinguishes itself with an uncanny ability to put together any kind of custom package. For non-fly fishers, there is also mountain biking, rock climbing, river rafting, horseback riding, and the hiking and July wildflowers of the Crested Butte basin are breathtaking.

The full-time fly-fishing guides Moose Hofer and Ian Havlick focus mostly on floating the upper Gunnison using new Boulder Boat Works dories. They also wade fish on the Taylor River (home to many of Colorado’s largest rainbow and brown trout), and have a long menu of less celebrated and dare I write “secret” venues that most locals don’t even know about.

Gunnison River

Moose Hofer’s nearly encyclopedic knowledge of the Gunnison drainage gives guests plenty of options for floating and wading. Ross Purnell photo

When I fished with Havlick, we spent the morning and early afternoon sight casting to 16- to 21-inch trout on the Taylor. In the morning the big rainbows and browns fed exclusively on nymphs but after lunch when the water warmed, caddis, Yellow Sallies, and an assortment of mayflies brought fish to the surface. I landed a 5-pound rainbow on a Royal Stimulator, then we packed the rods away and climbed the 325-foot granite cliffs directly above the river to finish the day. Havlick assured me that we could have easily achieved a “triple play” by skiing the same day (late June), but my downhill skills are a little rusty. . .

Hofer and I the next day took his bass boat out on the massive Blue Mesa Reservoir, where he catches pike, lake trout, and bass on his days off. We roared up a canyon arm of the lake and parked the boat at the mouth of a clear, slightly tannin-stained stream that looked like the twin of the more famous Williams Fork of the Colorado. 

We spent most of that day walking and wading upstream on public Bureau of Land Management property. Like the Williams Fork, the stream was simply loaded with brown trout from 12 to 16 inches, and in the afternoon they turned up when the water warmed just a few degrees, slashing attractor dry flies on the surface. While we didn’t see any other people or signs of human development, we did run into a male and female moose. It was the most pristine wilderness experience I’ve had below treeline in Colorado, and I’ve fished that state for more than 25 years.

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