Yeah, That's Canyon Fishing

Gunnison Canyon, Colorado. Trout heaven.

  • By: Lawrence Hollins
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Time on the Gunnison

I decided to replace the aged line on my Scientific Angler’s reel the week before boarding the plane from Portland, Maine, to Aspen, Colorado, for a fishing trip down the Gunnison Gorge. After all, I was headed to one of the best fly-fishing theaters in the world and I couldn’t show up looking like some yahoo from the East with half-rotten line. I brought all my gear to the office so my colleague Joe Healy, the editor of Fly Rod & Reel, could give me some tips on the best line for my rig. (I work for FR&R’s sister magazine Down East.)

It was easy to make Joe jealous about the impending trip; after all, we were headed to the Gunnison River. What I wasn’t expecting was his reaction to my 9-foot Powell fiberglass rod. When I pulled it out of its sleeve, Joe’s eyes widened and he remarked, “How old is that?” I figured he would fawn over my Powell and be impressed that the marketing guy who works on the other magazine (Down East) had hit a stream or two in the past. What I got instead was a reminder of how long it had been since I had actually fly-fished. Apparently, my fiberglass beauty had been replaced by graphite many years ago, and my beloved Powell is more akin to a bamboo rod than what is used today.

My Powell being an antique, Joe could see that I’d need all the help I could get. He put in my hand—a new 5-weight, 9-foot Ross, the Essence model, and an Orvis reel. After some test casts on the lawn in front of the office I quickly saw that my lazy Powell was no match for the fast-paced loading action of the Ross.

If we were going to hit the hatch of the Pteronarcys californica, I knew I’d need the power to get that salmonfly into the legendary holes of the Gunnison River. Admittedly, I was sad to not use the Powell, the rod that I learned to fly-fish on. It was, however, a blessing to carry a compact rod on the plane instead of managing my precarious two-piece Powell with its four-foot tube. The Ross in one hand and my wife in the other, we arrived in style at the Aspen airport, surrounded by folks who arrive in their own jets and with state-of-the-art fishing gear.

The 2 1/2 drive west/southwest from Aspen to the Gunnison gorge was awe-inspiring. It was early June, and the Rockies still had snowy peaks. The flats were a lush emerald green that glowed in contrast to the exposed red earth. And just about every river in the state was at or near flood stage, choked with silt. We made a pit stop at Black Canyon of the Gunnison, the national park outside of Montrose, to peer over the edge where the river created a 2,700-foot gorge into the earth to expose black rock that’s nearly two billion years old.

Al DeGrange, our guide and owner of Gunnison River Expeditions, reported that the salmonfly hatch that we’d been dreaming of for months could happen at any time. The stonefly was making its migration from the river’s depths to the shore where it would cast off its shell and make its first flight to find a mate. We also learned that the river was flowing a bit fast due to huge spring runoff. Typically in June, the river flows at 450 cubic feet per second (CFS), but this June it was at 3,000. Luckily, the color of the river (one of its hallmarks) was perfect.

We drove to the Gunnison Gorge at six in the morning on June 16. Without those guides I sincerely doubt we would have found the river, as there’s hardly a sign identifying its location. The roads leading to one of just a few access points to the river traverses treacherous Bureau For Land Management land only suitable for a large four-wheel drive vehicle that gets its shocks replaced several times a year. After hiking down the steep terrain of the chukar trail that bore no sign about where it went, we found our guides and packed boats waiting for us.

The rafts were positioned above class-4 rapids, making for a quick introduction to the trip. Before departing we rigged our rods with 2X leaders, a stonefly nymph, a San Juan Worm dropper and a strike indicator. Reportedly, there was a landslide upstream a week or so prior that had injected the river with a lot of worms: hence the San Juan dropper.

The first rapid with big waves and water just over 40F quickly washed away the 100-degree heat of the canyon. Once we were past, we starting throwing roll casts to drift our rigs through the transition waters along the river’s banks. With the river flowing so fast, the usual holes weren’t occupied and the fish were hugging the bank where the water slowed with the eddies.

We were tossing bulky rigs from the rafts, and I was grateful for the graphite Ross that managed the line quickly. With a lighter nymph I’d often fish an emerger drop with lead hanging off. We pulled off in key locations to fish spots from the bank, and the 5-weight Ross was great for throwing mends. It even worked when I “walked the dog (mending the line back and forth).” By the time lunch came around we had all pulled out some nice browns.

Along the banks we gently lifted rocks out of the river to see what was present. There were the usual suspects: stoneflies and the large Pteronarcys californica. Just as Al DeGrange said, they were near the shore, working their way out of the water. But we weren’t going to see the legendary “Salmon Fly!” hatch on this trip. With the water running so high, we were about a week early. We held out hope, however, that the big fish would start to look up at some point and take dries off the surface. Mayflies were everywhere but as the guide said, a smorgasbord of food drifts along the bottom and those fish have no need to change their eating habits until the Salmon fly gets airborne.

We spent the second day fishing a three-mile stretch of river from the bank. Huge holes, some about 10 feet deep, formed eddies along the banks creating the perfect transition water we needed. Again we drifted nymphs off the bottom, roll-casting our lines out to the edge and stripping them in for long runs. The biggest fish caught that day was a cutt-bow, a cross between rainbow and cutthroat trout. It was easily 24 inches and fat. My brother Hunter landed it on a barbless San Juan worm. The rest of us caught nice-sized browns and admittedly some snids, the local euphemism for small trout.

Feeling lucky, I hiked about a mile downstream to fish an eddy that ran to the top of a ripple. We had already pulled a lot of 14- to 18-inch browns from that spot earlier in the morning. But this was afternoon, and I had to wait until the sun passed the western ridge of the gorge, casting a cool shadow on the water. Until then, the fish rarely move.

The last day on the river was a fast ride that took us through more class-4 rapids and narrow shoots. The speed of the river in this section didn’t leave any holes to fish. Along the walls we could see swarms of salmon flies congregating. The hatch that would turn the heads of every rainbow and brown in the river was just beginning.

Lawrence Hollins is a freelance writer who lives in Maine. When he’s not fishing, he’s the marketing manager for Down East magazine.