CMC's Denver Fly Fishing Section
Gunnison Gorge Fly Fishing

Article by Jorge Dominguez
CMC Trip Leader

The Gunnison Gorge is located approximately 50 miles south of Grand Junction. Take Hwy 50 to the town of Olathe and turn east on Falcon Road to Peach Valley Road. Arid Peach Valley traverses the rough access roads to the Gunnison Gorge trailheads.

One can day-hike, backpack and float the Gunnison Gorge. When high-country waters are inaccessible due to snow or ice, this area is usually open. The gorge is an alpine desert tailwater reached only by hiking, horseback or boat.

This section of the Gunnison was nominated for Wild and Scenic River status. The waters are reputed to support the richest biomass of any Colorado stream. Cold, clear flows and abundant food nurture large, fat trout. Browns are the most abundant salomid although rainbows are making a comeback from whirling disease.

Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area and Wilderness, covering 57,725 acres, offers a variety of geologic features. A unique double canyon system of black granite and red sandstone line the Wilderness, which is located within the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area. Just upstream lies the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.

Rafting & Guided Trips

The Gunnison Gorge Wilderness offers a technical and remote experience for rafters and whitewater enthusiasts. Flows through the Gunnison Gorge are controlled by dam releases. River conditions change with every flow and is dependent on winter snow pack. Rapids range from Class I to Class IV.

Expect high spring releases of 2,000 to 8,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) in May and June. Summer flows vary from 325 cfs in a very low water years to 2,000 + cfs during wet years. Below 800 cfs, the Gorge is very technical and not recommended for rafts over 12 feet long.

Flows over 5,000 cfs make the Gunnison Gorge dangerous for everyone. Currents become very swift and whirly and eddies disappear. Swims are long and rescue difficult. Each raft must carry an extra oar or paddle, an extra PFD plus first aid and repair kits.

All guides and outfitters are licensed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Only two commercial launches per day are allowed, with a maximum of 8 guests and 4 guides per trip. Catch rates for boats range from 10-25 fish per day. Trout typically run from 10-19 inches in length, with fish of 20-plus inches considered trophies.

Transportation is provided over a rough 4x4 road to the canyon's rim. There is no road access to the Gunnison until 14 miles downstream. Everyone must hike the mile-long Chukar Trail to the river. Boats are packed in via horse or mule the day before. The total trip is just over 14 miles with camping conducted at designated river sites. Take-out is at the confluence with the North Fork of the Gunnison.

Boaters may spend a maximum of 3 nights in the Wilderness Study Area (WSA) and can stay only one night per campsite. Open fires are prohibited within the WSA. Cooking is with stoves or firepans with charcoal. Portable toilets are mandatory for overnight boaters.

Gunnison Gorge Trails

1.1 miles/560'
Moderate difficulty.  Established clay trail with sand & rock outcrops;  boating put-in.  Very heavy foot and horse use with  limited hiker camps and a toilet.
1.5 miles/800'
Difficult, hard to follow trail.  Steep descent down a rock face in the last 1/2 mile.  Boat rope tied to tree in steepest section. Good downstream access with two hiker camps.

1.1 miles/840'

Difficult.  Well established with heavy use.  Last 1/2 mile very steep with loose scree.  Stay on the north side. Good river access in both directions with four hiker camps.

4.5 miles/1,200'

Moderate difficulty. Well developed.  Gradual slope with one section of steep switchbacks.  Great views & good river access.  Four hiker camps and toilet.

Day Hiking, Backpacking and Camping

There are four foot trails into the Gunnison River Gorge. All are accessed from Peach Valley Road outside of Montrose. You need a four-wheel-drive vehicle just to get to the trailheads. Note: if the roads are wet, they may be impassible due to their clay-like composition. Be sure and pay the appropriate BLM access and camping fees. A Colorado Fishing License is required for angling.

There is an additional trail that leads from the North Fork of the Gunnison, at its confluence with the Gunnison River, upstream to the Smith Fork. Access requires crossing the North Fork by wading (at lowest flows only) or boat shuttle. Four hiker/boater camps are located along the four-mile trail with good fishing access.

There are campsites by the river which are designated for either boaters or backpackers. Be sure to reserve your campsite before you start your hike. All designated campsites are on a first-come basis. The maximum stay at a wilderness campsite is two nights for backpackers. Car camping is allowed at the trailhead parking lots for no charge. There are semi-developed campsites with overhead cover, at the Chukar Trailhead.

Fishing Gear and Hatches

A 6 or 7 weight rod, 9-10’ long, with 10-12’ leaders to 3X is recommended, especially when streamer or nymph fishing. Bring a fast sinking line and long leaders to fish rapid, deep pools. Don't scrimp on split-shot and soft weight. Bring a backup rod and reel.

Chest waders and a wading belt are a must. A staff and felt-soled boots (preferably studded) are recommended if you plan to wade below your knees. Extra care must be taken with the river's swift currents and slick bottoms. Flows over 500 cfs should not be traversed.

Float tubes can be used in much of the Gorge to cross the river when flows prohibit safe wading. Cross conservatively way above or below sections of white water. A backup tube-chamber and PFD are recommended.

Fishing Rigs: the "Bounce" rig ffeatures a tippet with three blood knots, leaving the tags tied long. Two flies are attached to the top two blood knots and a weight to the last knot. This rig enables the weight to tickle the bottom without snagging the flies in river moss. The "Double Streamer" rig hhas a large conehead Muddler Minnow or Maratuka Minnow tied directly to the end of the leader. lA smaller black or brown woolly bugger is tied 6 inches behind the first streamer off the hook.

The Giant Salmonfly Hatch normally occurs in June when the water temperature rises to about 50 degrees. The hatch begins at the confluence with the North Fork and moves upstream. If timed correctly, dry-fly fishing with size 4 salmonflies is a kick. Sofa Pillow, Orange Stimulator and Madame-X patterns are commonly used to match this hatch.

The Gunnison Gorge contains deep pools, riffles, runs and pocket waters. Slack water pockets and eddies are prime waters to plop salmonflies. Chances are, you will float through the hatch for only a day as it moves upstream. When surface action subsides, go underneath.

Other hatches: Other important hatches are midges (winter/spring/fall), BWOs (spring-fall), caddis (spring/summer), PMDs (June and July) and the Yellow Stonefly ( June and July).

Caddis are constant companions during summer. A good selection of gray and olive-bodied caddis, in sizes 14 -16, should be carried. Caddis pupa patterns are also good producers. Dry-fly fishing with caddis is usually best in the evenings.

Pale morning duns and green drake patterns are important hatches in June and July. The PMDs emerge in the mornings about 9 AM. A light olive parachute in size 16 will match the hatch. Green drakes hatch in the afternoons and evenings. Big, bushy drake patterns work well.

The little yellow stonefly hatch is another one to match. It can be very productive due to the number of flies on the water. A size 14 or 16 yellow-bodied caddis pattern works, but a fly called the Yellow Sally is preferred. It is best fished in the slack water along banks where these stoneflies regularly take a tumble.
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