Gunnison Gorge: Colorado's Finest Wilderness Float
January 21, 2020
There was no riseform to speak of, but the splash mark where the trout took the fly was suddenly as plain as the rings on a slow, glassy tailout. As we drifted downstream I could see ahead of us another spot where an erratic spray of water revealed the feeding location of a different trout I hadn’t yet seen. Now I was on the same page as McCannel. I cast just about 18 inches upstream of the splash mark, and my Flush Floater rode in the wash just an inch from the cliff face—but potentially in water 6 feet deep. The trout erupted into the sunshine, grabbed my fly like a thief, and again sprayed water onto the cliff face as he made his escape.
The Gunnison starts near the town of Almont, Colorado where the East and the Taylor rivers meet. The river flows for a little over 20 miles through open ranchlands where it is a popular trout fishery for oarsmen of all skill levels. The river flows into Blue Mesa Reservoir—one of Colorado’s largest impoundments—and becomes a river again at the start of Black Canyon National Park. The Black Canyon is impossibly deep and inaccessible. No outfitters are permitted in the Black Canyon, you can’t float the river in any fishing craft without portage, and the only foot accesses are via hazardous and precipitously eroded washes.
The Gunnison Gorge National Recreation Area starts right where the national park ends. The river flows from public land regulated by the federal government onto more public land. The only thing that changes is that the landscape becomes just a little bit more accessible and the use and management of it becomes marginally less prohibitive.
This is still highly protected federal land, but a select few outfitters have permits to run float trips through the Gunnison Gorge, all of them multi-day affairs because once you bring food, water, camping gear, and inflatable rafts—using pack mules—to the river via the Chukar Trail, it’s a 14-mile float to the boat ramp at Pleasure Park Road.
The hike in along Chukar Trail is a relatively easy 1-mile downhill jaunt, but you must carry all your own personal belongings, so pack wisely. The early morning walk gives you a first look at the Ute Indian fault—one of the most spectacularly exposed faults in Colorado. The Gunnison River cuts through the middle of the Gunnison Uplift, and the Ute Fault generally follows the gorge northward, crossing the Gunnison River at several places. It’s amazing to see firsthand how the river eroded the basement rocks of the Precambrian Era while the mountains pushed upward around it. These two opposing geologic forces created one of America’s most spectacular landscapes.
The BLM permits only two commercial launches daily, with a maximum party size of 12 people in each launch (including the guides), making it one of the most commercially limited river sections in the entire country. Inside that stretch there are 13 designated boater camps, and 10 hiker camps. You must register daily to use the campsites, so each group enjoys the riverside solitude that helped make the river legendary. Due to the physical difficulties in accessing the Gorge, and careful regulation, only a lucky few see this part of the river each year.
Freddy Bensch, founder of SweetWater Brewing Company, and I planned the trip with RIGS Fly Shop and Guide Service, based in Ridgway, Colorado, more than a year in advance to get two of the limited spots available during what we hoped would be the height of the Salmonfly hatch. We planned our float for June 19, hoping to hit prime time. But due to the massive snowpack in Colorado in the spring of 2019, the river below Blue Mesa Reservoir was still churning at more than 10,000 cfs just a week before we arrived at Chukar Trail.
There was a point when conditions looked untenable, but we planned on running the river no matter the conditions, even if it was just to see the canyon and drink a few cases of Guide Beer that Freddy shipped in from Atlanta. Luck was on our side though, as the BLM turned down the faucet just two days before we arrived, and the Salmonflies cooperated en masse. Instead of “you should have been here last week,” we heard those rare words “you just got lucky.”
While the last two weeks of June seem to be a common hatch range, RIGS owner Tim Patterson says that there is no way to reliably predict exactly when the giant insects will appear. “I have seen it as early as mid-may, and as late as the 4th of July,” says Patterson. “It’s totally dependent on a collision of water and air temperatures balanced with dam releases. There’s always the potential that high water blows it all out anyways—good luck predicting it!”
When we launched our raft at Chukar Trail there was little visible evidence of a Salmonfly hatch, but a quick look under a few rocks in fast water showed that in the shallows every rock was loaded with handfuls of fat Salmonfly nymphs ready to crawl out onto riverside rocks and shrubs, split their exoskeletons, and emerge as winged adults.
So we started the day with two setups: Freddy is a Gunnison Gorge veteran and immediately started streamer fishing with black #8 Woolly Buggers near the bank. In dirty water anytime of year, a Black Woolly Bugger near the bank is a good starting strategy, but in the days leading up to the Salmonfly hatch, its simplicity works magic. The fish mug it, and the only reason to strip the line is just to keep the fly out of the rocks and to keep the line tight so you can feel the strikes.
I stubbornly started with a Flush Floater and a #10 Beadhead Pheasant Tail dropper in hopes that I could raise a fish or two, and while I did catch a few on the dropper, Freddy’s more serious subsurface attack was far more lethal.
Our guide Matt McCannel had high hopes for the coming days and said that as we progressed down the canyon into warmer water and more sunshine, we’d see more and more winged adults, and the dry-fly fishing would improve dramatically. In the coming days the hatch would progress upstream past Chukar Trail and all the way to Blue Mesa Dam. McCannel said the peak of the dry-fly fishing in the Gorge would be after the insects mate, and the females start dragging their abdomens on the water to release their fertilized eggs. In his estimation, the egg-laying flights provide the most frenzied surface action.
After our first day on the river we camped at Upper Duncan, and the next day we floated down into Ute Park where there was more sunshine, fewer nymphs in the shallows, and more and more Salmonfly adults clinging on the willows and clumped on up rock faces where they were either freshly emerged and drying their wings, or else mating in clumps of three or four insects. It was not like flicking a switch in terms of fly strategy, but as the day wore on, Freddy started catching fewer fish on black streamers, and I had my Aha! moment with wet splash marks on the sandstone cliffs at the lower end of Ute Park.
Soon we were both fishing dry flies with no dropper at all, and catching rainbows and browns with fat bellies packed full of Salmonflies. According to McCannel, the Salmonfly hatch provides 75% of the protein consumed by the trout annually in the river, but they aren’t the only creatures depending the Salmonflies. Hawks, garter snakes, and ringtail cats also prowl the riverbanks feasting on adult Salmonflies. The swallows with their mud nests even seem to plan the arrival of their hatchlings to coincide with the arrival of the Salmonflies.
Brightly colored eastern collared lizards—which normally thrive in the high desert scrubland above the Gorge—even creep down into the canyon annually to gorge themselves on Salmonflies. We even saw a lizard that had apparently eaten himself to death lying upside down on the trail along the river with a grotesquely swollen belly and a half-eaten Salmonfly sticking out of his mouth that he had perhaps choked on.
In the evening of our second day we camped at a glorious campsite called T-Dyke, name after the white quartzite T emblazoned on the dark metamorphic gneiss of the canyon wall high above the river. The three RIGS guides (for six total anglers) pitched tents on soft sandy platforms perched on level areas above the high-water mark. We were sleeping under open Colorado skies, but with none of the hardships I’ve always associated with DIY hardscrabble camping. We ate medium-rare ribeye steaks, mushrooms, dark chocolate, drank fine red wine, and watched shooting stars blaze across a night sky unspoiled by city lights.
During the day we drank cold beer chilled in a net bag, and floated in self-bailing rafts capable of handling the Gorge’s many named whitewater rapids such as Cable Falls, Rock & Roll, and Grand Finale. Depending on the flows, the difficulty of some of the rapids rises to Class III or Class IV, enough spice that the experienced guides told us sit down and stop fishing to run the rapids.
Amateur boaters should give serious pause before they push off at Chukar Trail, and scout each rapid carefully. Navigation changes at every water level, and every experienced raft guide has flipped a boat at one time or another. Wear a life jacket at all times, and keep all of your personal gear buckled in with the rest of the raft contents. RIGS provides a 75-liter Yeti Panga duffel bag to keep your gear safe and dry.
By our third day the trout seemed completely attuned to the dry flies, particularly on those steep cliff faces where the trout seemed affixed to that underwater topography. The water was often fast in these areas, but it was deep water directly under steep terrain where the Salmonflies could fall directly into the water.
At the Entrada Wall (named after the Entrada sandstone formation) we hooked one fish after another, using the slow water on the opposite bank to row back upstream and take multiple passes at the splash marks of rising browns and rainbows. The catching was so good that our guide Matt McCannel even got a nice trout when I begged him for a chance at rowing. It seemed that merry-go-round could have gone on all day, but eventually we needed to move down to Pleasure Park where a van was waiting to pick us up.
The fishing only slowed down when we neared the boundary of the National Recreation Area, an area where people could walk in from South River Road. The big fish were still there, but as with any heavily pressured area, the trout get caught a few times and they start getting really picky. And with bellies already full of Salmonflies, it’s easy to pass on anything that seems suspicious.
The Rest of the Year
While the Salmonfly hatch is “the big one” on this portion of remote river, the jury is out on whether it actually provides the best fishing of the year. The big hatch also means big, off-color water, and the insects are so meaty, and there are so many of them, that many of the fish were simply full.
Patterson says that while the Salmonfly hatch gets a lot of the attention, the month after the hatch provides better fishing conditions with lower, clearer water, and hatches of Golden Stones, Yellow Sallies, caddis, and PMDs that supply more dependable and slightly more technical fishing conditions.
“Those fish are there all year, and in that spectacular setting, any time is a good time to be there,” says Patterson. “When I plan my own trips in the Gorge, I also factor things in like water clarity, solitude, predictable weather patterns, and cooler air temps. It’s hot down there in the Gorge during Salmonfly season! The fringe seasons—early and late in the year—are actually my favorite times to be down there.”
Ross Purnell is the editor of Fly Fisherman.