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Exploring Gunnison Gorge
Paul B Downing
A class IV rapid. I had never been down a class IV rapid but there was no going back. Cliffs soared to the sky on either side of the river so there was no way to go around either. Hanging above the rapid, all I saw was water disappearing over the edge. The current grabbed us and down we plunged through a narrow shoot toward a stone wall. The front of our rubber raft hit the rock wall and bounced back. Just at the right moment our guide turned the raft 90 degrees to the left and we plunged down another narrow shoot and into another stone wall. Again we bounced off the wall. Our guide turned us 90 degrees to the right. Another narrow shoot but this one let us out into calm water. We were through. It was over in seconds. What looked like inconsequential white water from the top turned out to be three six foot drops. It isn’t something I would want to do every day, but I can see why people get into it. Those seconds live in my memory years afterward.
We encountered this rapid, called Boulder Garden, on the third day of our trip through the Gunnison Gorge Wilderness. For three days we had not seen or heard a sole other than our group nor had we seen a building or overhead wires. We were deep into the wilderness. One might think we were in Idaho or Alaska but we weren’t. We were in Colorado.
Our trip started with a rough Jeep ride to the trailhead followed by a one mile hike down the Chukar Trail to the Gunnison River. I was enthralled by the beauty of this place. Rock walls 2000 feet high surrounded me. The river broke over Chukar Rapid and turned left, seemingly disappearing into those towering bluffs. The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park was just upstream. The Park offers spectacular views from the top of the canyon with the river, dotted with white water rapids, seemingly straight down. A long ways down! The Wilderness lies directly downstream of the Park.
The Gunnison Gorge Wilderness trip is no ordinary day float. Rather, it is a three-day expedition, complete with wilderness tent camps, sixteen Class III rapids and one Class IV rapid. Some take the trip just for the scenery and the white water. We were here for the fishing.
The Colorado Parks and Wildlife has classified this section of the Gunnison as Gold Metal Water because of the numerous large trout found here. It is estimated that there are 7000 catchable trout per mile here with over 1000 being 14 inches or larger. I was about to float past 98,000 trout during the 14 miles of the trip. I hoped some were interested in my offerings.
We started our trip in early June in order to catch the stonefly hatch. Reports suggested that we were there for the start of the hatch, almost perfect timing. Settled in our raft, I set up a nymphing rig with a big stonefly nymph and a prince nymph below the indicator and cast my rig toward a current break near shore. Stonefly nymphs head toward shore to crawl out on rocks to hatch so the trout stack up along the shoreline structure to intercept them. As my indicator settled, I looked around. The scenery was enthralling. What an extraordinary place.
Oh, yes, the indicator. My attention was drawn back as it stopped, seemingly stuck on a rock. I lifted my rod to feel a head shake. Moments later the “rock” headed into the fast water and downstream in a hurry. As the backing started to peel out of the reel, the fish abandoned the fast water and worked its way back toward me. The rest of the fight was uneventful. The fish stayed in slower water and easily came to net. A sight to rival the Gorge, this beautiful 17 inch brown was one of many caught on this trip.
We ran Chukar Rapid and stopped the rafts to fish the shore. Nymphing among the shoreline rocks, I hooked up on a 16 inch brown. In a few seconds he was gone. That was to be the story of my first day. I landed a number of browns between 10 and 14 inches, but all six fish I hooked over 16 inches escaped. One 20 incher that took the prince nymph was particularly frustrating. He came to the surface, rolled and took off into the fast water. He was off in an instant. A rainbow, the only one I hooked, ran straight at me and jumped on slack line. Gone again! Still another good brown took out 20 feet of line before wrapping itself around a boulder and breaking off. Well, you get the picture. It is amazing how well we remember the fish that get away.
We spent a leisurely day floating down river with frequent stops to fish. Along the way we ran two Class III rapids. There were lots more to come.
Camp was at Otter II, just a couple of miles downstream from the put-in. Even though the sun had ducked behind the bluffs, there was plenty of daylight left to set up camp and fish the shoreline while the guides made dinner. After dinner I fished until there was no more light, then settled into my sleeping bag.
At 4 AM the sky was ablaze with stars, the Milky Way filling the narrow band visible above the canyon walls. By 6 AM it was drizzling. After breakfast the group fished the water at camp with some success. A nice 16 inch brown took my Tellico nymph, a Tennessee pattern. It worked well for Gunnison trout on day two.
The morning was spent fishing from our rafts or from shore. After running some more rapids, we had a late lunch at the Ute II campsite in Ute Park. Here the canyon opens up to offer meadows and a couple of miles of riffle/run water that looked mighty inviting. We were to spend our afternoon and overnight here.
Hundreds of cliff swallows were flying back and forth inches above the water snacking on a caddis hatch. Visions of trout smashing my elkhair floated through my mind. But it was not to be. The fish ignored the caddis. Instead they keyed on stonefly nymphs. I guess the fish preferred one big mouthful (size 8-10 flies) to numerous small ones.
At dinner my companions relived the highlights of the day. Tales of 18 to 20 inch trout rose above the campfire. All in all, it was a good day of fishing with fewer fish, but bigger ones that the first day.
The next morning broke to an overcast sky with hints of blue to the west. If the clouds stayed and the rain held off, it promised to be an excellent day for fishing. They did…and it was! As we left Ute Park the canyon narrowed considerably so we fished mainly from the rafts. Shortly we were at Boulder Garden. This was not the last rapid but all the Class II’s seemed tame in comparison.
After two days of indicator nymphing, I was ready to try something else. I settled on a black cone head wooly bugger trailed by a big black rubber-legged stonefly nymph. When cast to shoreline pockets and current breaks, it proved deadly. My partner and I were raising a fish every couple of casts. We would cast to a likely shoreline pocket. The flies would float through the pocket with the current for a few seconds. A couple of strips and the flies were too far from the bank to be effective so we would lift and cast again. Rapid casts and short drifts produced fish after fish between 12- and 16-inches, all browns. About two-thirds of them took the stonefly. Why would such a fly fished on a pause and strip work? We saw several stonefly nymphs who had not made it to adulthood floating in the current. The browns were keying in on these unfortunate non-survivors.
As we enjoyed a day of great fishing with our stripping technique, others were having an equally successful day casting big stimulators into similar pockets. Even though there were no stoneflies hatching yet, the trout were looking up and were not about to let such a tasty morsel get away.
After the last rapid the canyon opened. Slower water produced a more leisurely pace for our last afternoon. Except for the fish! They were extraordinarily cooperative. Still casting our streamer and nymph combo toward shoreline structure, we enticed fish after fish to hit. What a fantastic day!
Gunnison Gorge can be experienced in several ways. You can hike into the Wilderness on several trails on day hikes or overnight. The most popular trail is the Ute Trail, a 4.5 mile trail that drops 1200 feet from the rim. Rated a moderate hike, I suspect the return up the trail would be quite a task. Hikers can stay in the canyon only two nights.
As the canyon opens at the bottom there is access via hiking trails on both sides of the river and lower down at the North Fork confluence there is the take-out and a store/bar in a place called Pleasure Park. Here you can go up river a short ways in a jet and spend the day floating back down in an individual pontoon boat, stopping to wade the best water.
But to experience the real Gunnison Gorge Wilderness you have to take the three day raft trip. The Bureau of Land Management, which administers the Wilderness, only allows 250 trips a year, many of which are not fishing trips. No more than two launches are allowed on any day with four rafts (12 people) maximum per launch. Most trips are run through a guide service. These services have specific dates that they offer trips so check with them for open dates. The Gunnison Gorge Wilderness is managed carefully by the BLM. A permit is needed even for a day hike and everything must be packed out. Check with the BLM office in Montrose, just nine miles away, to get the current regulations. Fishing is by flies and lures only and 4 trout can be kept but I have never seen anyone keep one.
While fishing is excellent all summer, mid summer temperatures can easily reach 100 degrees. The most popular time to fish is during the June stonefly hatch. September is another great time as the browns enter the pre-spawn and become very aggressive. That is a great time to try a hopper/dropper combination.
Fishing Methods: The river is restricted to fishing with flies and lures only. While it is legal to keep 4 trout, nobody does so. The river is best fished with a fly rod. During the spring stonefly hatch, late May to mid June, big stonefly nymphs like a size 8 girdle bug and a black wooly bugger in a two fly rig or combine one with a big attractor fly like a size 8 orange stimulators are usually best. In summer, look for caddis or mayfly hatches. An elkhair caddis dry and a beadhead pheasanttail work well. If there are May flies around try a parachute Adams with the dropper. Late summer to fall is the time for hopper/dropper combinations. Try a Dave’s hopper, size 10, and the same pheasanttail or a hare’s ear. Wooly buggers are always good as the browns get more aggressive preparing for the spawn.
The float is 14 miles, usually done over three days. Best flows are in the 500 to 1,000 cfs range. Flows above 5,000 cfs are potentially dangerous and flows below 300 cfs render the rapids highly technical. A mile or so of water is available on day hikes into the canyon or working upstream from Pleasure Park.
Access: Float trips start at the Chukar Trail Head and finish at Pleasure Park. There are several trails down to the river, rated moderate to difficult. These are available for day trips or wilderness camping with a limit of two days. BLM permits are required.
Weather: The weather is usually mild in spring, often very hot in summer, and cool and crisp in the fall. This is high desert so rain is fairly rare.
Seasons: The fishing is open all year but fishers typically do not fish in winter.