For those who brave the hike into Black Canyon National Park, the reward is spectacular scenery, a remote experience, and, yes, fantastic trout fishing!
By Joel Evans
The Rocky Mountains give birth to many creeks, streams and rivers. A few are legendary. Legendary rivers earn their reputation, and the Gunnison's is unquestionably deserved.
Born out of high-country snowpack, the Gunnison grows from a trickle to a roar by the time it pounds its way through a canyon that is over 2,700 feet deep within Black Canyon National Park. This gold medal water is western Colorado's showcase of colorful, forearm-filling rainbows and browns so numerous that catching one is almost too easy.
Over 200,000 visitors come to the park each year, most driving the scenic rim road along the top, occasionally exiting their cars at designated overlooks to peer into the canyon's depths. Few experience the river and its trout firsthand.
Fishing the Gunnison River within the Black Canyon National Park is not for the weak legged or feint heart. Steep canyon trails require significant physical effort just to get to the river, but, oh, is it worth it! Assuming the lung-numbing climb out doesn't dissuade you, the scenery alone will convince you to return.
Throw in a mix of wildlife such as peregrine falcon, otter, beaver, mule deer, bighorn sheep, and then add the trout, and you have a drink of life that quenches the soul's thirst.
Located near Montrose, Colo., Black Canyon National Park is one of our nation's newest national parks, but the area's rich history goes way back. For centuries, Ute Indians lived throughout the Gunnison River basin. Fur trappers discovered the canyon in the early 1800s, leading to government exploration.
Fishing Black Canyon is best at midday - the only time sun hits the valley floor. Photo by Joel Evans
THE GUNNISON NAME The river bears the name of Captain John W. Gunnison, who explored the area but avoided the canyon, describing it as inaccessible. Railroad chiefs wanted to run a track through the canyon during the mining boom of the late 1800s, but abandoned the idea. The canyon remained unexplored until 1901, when William Torrence and Lincoln Fellows bravely entered the inner canyon to locate a site to dig a diversion tunnel through solid rock to irrigate the thirsty crops of the Uncompahgre Valley; President Taft came to Montrose in 1909 to dedicate the water tunnel. President Hoover designated the Black Canyon as a national monument in 1933, which it remained until becoming the nation's 55th national park in 1999.
Downstream and adjoining the park is the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area, a spectacular stretch with excellent fishing. Together the two wild areas encompass more than 80,000 acres.
Access to the 12 miles of river within the park is primarily by foot down steep, rocky trails. A backcountry permit is required. "If you are interested in hiking into the canyon, contact the visitor's center for information and a free permit," said Myron Chase, resource management specialist for the National Park Service. "The permit helps us keep track of how many folks are using the trails, and in case of an emergency, we know who to contact."
The only drive-to access and inner-canyon campground is at the upstream boundary of the park down East Portal Road. Originally a crude construction track, East Portal Road is a real brake-burner. Narrow, steep, winding curves put you on the river just below Crystal Dam, one of three upstream hydroelectric and irrigation water storage reservoirs.
EAST PORTAL ACCESS The East Portal Road gives those fishermen unwilling to hike into the canyon their only chance to fish the river within the park boundary. Here one has a chance to land a tail-wagging rainbow exceeding 20 inches and hook feisty browns to 15 inches. Deep pools and fast riffles are equally suited for spin or fly-fishing.
Although the Gunnison had not been stocked for many years, whirling disease has made it necessary to do some stocking in recent years to boost trout populations. The Colorado Division of Wildlife has stocked 66,000, 5-inch Colorado River rainbows in the Gunnison Gorge according to Sherman Hebein, senior biologist for the CDOW. "The stocked rainbows are doing very well," said Hebein. "It's good to know the larger fish are surviving. We plan to stock another 90,000 next year."
Named the Black Canyon because the deep, narrow walls allow little sunlight to reach the valley floor, the Gunnison fishes best at midday, when the bright sun is directly on the water.
Most bladed spinners or wobbling spoons will catch fish. Popular hardware includes a yellow/black spotted Panther Martin, a silver Aglia Mepps, or a large diving trout Rapala. Working the top half of deep green pools below riffles and whitewater with smaller sizes will garner numerous juvenile browns up to 12 inches; the big boys are partial to larger prey in deeper water. Use a medium-action spinning rod to run lures deep into the slow pools; tumble the metal through the faster water for browns over 15 inches and rainbows to 5 pounds.
|Equipping for Black Canyon|
Hiking into the unforgiving remoteness of the Black Canyon, even for a day trip, requires dependable equipment.
Once you get to the bottom, you are on your own. Be prepared to get out on your own or spend the night, if necessary. The primary rule is, "Take what you need, and nothing more." Think light, think small, think less. Your needs should match your expected length of stay. Remember: What goes down must come back up!
Day-hikers require only a medium pack. Water is critical, especially for the hike out in summer. Instead of carrying enough for a round trip, carry a water filter and one or more water bottles to replenish your supply from the river. Plan your hike away from the heat of the day. Critical gear includes a quality miniature flashlight, extra batteries, a small first aid kit, sunscreen, bug spray and emergency snack f
Overnight camping requires the usual backpacking gear, but to minimize weight, share gear with a partner. No open fires are allowed, so take only one gas stove; share a tent. Leave the heavy pots behind, taking only something to heat water in. Bring only freeze-dried or dry packaged meals such as instant soup or potatoes, and powdered drink mix. Except for peanut butter and jelly, if it doesn't cook with water, I won't bring it.
Essential clothing includes sturdy boots, a rain jacket and spare dry socks. Some people wear shorts, but I prefer zip-off pants in case there is poison ivy. You'll need to check yourself for ticks during the spring.
For summer fishing, leave the waders behind and wet wade; lightweights are perfect for cooler seasons. Minimize the boxes of flies, spools of tippet, and other stuff in your vest. Again, share. Rods must be cased. A multi-piece rod strapped to a pack is ideal for freeing your hands on steep trails.
Before leaving, stash a cooler of drinks and snacks in the truck to have when you hit the top at the end of the day. -- Joel Evans
FLY-FISHING HINTS Flyfishermen do well primarily on nymphs. Using a weighted fly or a weighted leader, a tandem of flies fished with a floating line and a strike indicator must be intently watched for a down-under strike. With a 9-foot 5 weight rod, cast above the run so the fly is down near bottom by the time it reaches the head of the run.
Runs of 3 to 4 feet deep, 2 to 3 feet wide, and 10 feet long or more with slow current in the run, next to faster water, are ideal. Fish hold in these runs, especially the larger trout.
If the run has some broken current at its head, expect a rainbow to inhabit the depths in the highly oxygenated water. If the run is a little glassy, you are more likely to encounter a brown, and maybe several of them. After landing the first one, go right back in and get another.
Another excellent holding lie is a dropoff into deep water next to a shallow gravel bed. Fast current between rocks will deposit gravel on the downstream side. Fish will hold out of sight just off the drop and move up to feed in the current along the gravel bar. These are exciting takes, as you can sometimes see fish moving to your fly out of the depths. If you are close enough, you may even see the white of the mouth, signaling a take. Raise the rod for a slip strike, even before the strike indicator pauses.
ORANGE STONES Dry flies do well at certain times of day or seasons of the year. Late evening brings hatches of mayflies and caddis, but the hatches are usually not intense with one notable exception.
Mention "the stonefly hatch" and everyone will instantly know what you are talking about. You may even have to issue them a sedative to engage in a sane conversation!
Called by many names in many rivers of the West, but usually referred to as a salmonfly, Pteronarcys californica is big and meaty. Fish strike hard at nymphs in early stages of the hatch or leave the water chasing drys during the hatch. I simply call it the orange stone. Adults can be 2 inches long and almost as big around as your little finger.
Nymphs crawl along the rocky bottom to the river's edge, climbing out onto the shady side of a rock to transform into an adult. I have foregone fishing on occasion for an hour or more to become a student, watching and focusing on a single adult as it crawls from the water, splits its case, then struggles out of the shuck to dry its wings and fly away.
Winged adults gather by the hundreds in the grass and bushes along the banks. You can grab them by the handful. As the air warms, what looks like a fleet of miniature helicopters is silhouetted against the blue sky by midday. Trout key on them, and as females dip to the water to deposit their eggs, a feast ensues.
I have caught fish with their mouths filled with the real bugs - unable to swallow what they had already taken, yet going for one more, the fake that I offered them.
The stonefly hatch consistently occurs in June, with the peak being early to mid June. Depending on temperature and sunny weather, the hatch will vary in timing, beginning downstream, progressing into the park by mid-June. Stragglers can be found in late June, and I continue to fish an orange stone dry into August, as fish seem to remember and go for one last bite.
THE EVIE FLY My favorite nymph is an Evie, a pattern of my own tied using the medium brown hair of my Siamese cat named, of course, Evie, who has given up a few well-groomed locks to the cause of fooling trout.
The Evie is tied in the style of a Gold Ribbed Hare's Ear using the cat hair for dubbing, accented with orange thread and orange ribbing to resemble the orange stones.
Also over the years, I have tried all the standard patterns, and by far, for both a nymph and a dry, the Bird's Stone pattern is the best.
River access at the East Portal is short. About a quarter-mile downstream, you "cliff out" - impassable walls hundreds of feet high suddenly appear around the corner, climbing skyward above the water to prevent further travel along the river's edge. The only way forward is to cross the river, which is usually too deep or too fast (or both!) to wade. The adventuresome cross in belly boats, picking long, slow pools to float across; disembarking on the far bank, they fish until "cliffing out" again.
Cliffs that frustrate anglers are a geologist's dream, exposing rock estimated to be over a billion years old. Alternating between pools and riffles on its journey through the rocks, the Gunnison has one of the highest streambed drops per mile of any river in the United States, dropping over 1,000 feet in elevation within the 12 miles of the park. In its entire 48 miles, the Gunnison drops more in elevation than does the entire Mississippi River. Only expert kayakers boat the river, which is considered non-raftable.
WALKING THE CANYON "Walking" is a relative term to describe journeys through the inner canyon. Traversing those 12 miles requires some walking, yes, but also swimming to cross the river, floating through rocky pools, exiting before rapids below, climbing over house-sized rocks, and negotiating poison ivy bushes taller than a human. Few people have walked the entire distance. I have done so twice.
Over several days with a few trusted companions, we committed our safety and literally our lives to each other. The going is so rough in the upper section that in the first two days of 12 hours each, we covered only two miles of river each day.
Because of the dams, flows are controlled. However, in a normal water year - meaning good snow in the mountains - releases generally mimic natu
ral flows with higher flows in the spring tapering to lower, constant flows in the fall. Spring flows are typically 3,000 to 4,000 cubic feet per second, with late summer flows reduced to 900 to 1,200 cfs. The river fishes best either in early spring, before the water muddies from snowmelt, or in the late summer or fall, with warm days and cool nights.
Several trails coming off the north and south rim roads provide difficult but secluded access to some outstanding fishing. With names like S.O.B, Long Draw and Slide Draw, you begin to imagine the trails. They cover anywhere from 1,800 to 2,200 feet in elevation change, usually in a mile to two miles distance. Their steepness is hard on knees going in and lungs coming out.
Dangers on the way like loose rock, ticks and poison ivy can be avoided with common sense. A great hike and eager fish will be the reward.
Anyone planning to visit the park should inquire locally beforehand about current conditions such as water flows, water clarity and weather.
Whether you make your plans to coincide with the stonefly hatch or just come on a glorious Colorado summer day, you can bet the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River will leave you shaking your head as to why you didn't get here sooner!
FOR YOUR INFORMATION Black Canyon National Park is near Montrose, Colo., off U.S 50. About 10 miles east of Montrose, follow Colorado 347 five miles north to the park's entrance and the nearby Visitors Center. A $7 entry fee is required. Fee camping is available.
Free permits are required to hike into the inner canyon. Contact the National Park Service at (970) 641-2337; online, go to www.nps.gov/blca.
Fishing requires a Colorado fishing license and is limited to artificial flies and lures. Special regulations are catch-and-release for all rainbow trout; for brown trout the limit is four fish, of which only one can be over 16 inches, and all brown trout between 12 and 16 inches must be released. Contact the Colorado Division of Wildlife at (970) 252-6000 or online at www.wildlife.state.co.us.
For the latest fishing information, in Montrose contact Cimarron Creek, a full-service fly shop at (970) 249-0408 or www.cimarroncreek.com, or Jeans Westerner, a clothing and outdoor gear store at (970) 249-3600 or www.jeanswesterner.com.
Lodging and other information can be obtained via the Montrose Chamber of Commerce at 1-800-923-5515 or www.montrosechamber.com.
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