The Gunnison Gorge Wilderness
The Gunnison Gorge Wilderness is approximately 9 mile northwest of Montrose, Co. It follows the Gunnison River just downstream of The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. The water comes from the bottom of the dam that forms Blue Mountain Reservoir so it is usually clear. The river float is 14 miles long with numerous Class III rapids and one Class IV rapid. The water has been designated as Gold Metal Water by the State because of the high number of trout over 14 inches that reside there.
Exploring Gunnison Gorge By 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The fishing is open all year but fishers typically do not fish in winter.