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Falling for the Gunny: Baetis and Kokanee on Colorado's Best Autumn Float Fishery

The Gunnison is no secret, but it does have an unheralded secret season.

Falling for the Gunny: Baetis and Kokanee on Colorado's Best Autumn Float Fishery

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. (Jason Stemple photo)

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.

Vertical photo of a drift boat anchored in the shallows with a fly angler in front. Fall foliage on the banks.
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. (Jason Stemple photo)

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.

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.

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

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A fly angler kneeling in the shallows, smiling with a brown trout.
Moose Hofer’s nearly encyclopedic knowledge of the Gunnison drainage gives guests plenty of options for floating and wading. (Jason Stemple photo)

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.

A fly angler holding a large rainbow trout, squatting in the 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. (Jason Stemple photo)

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.


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




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