Sunday, November 1, 2009

Black Canyon of the Gunnison, June 2009

Sooner or later, every angler develops a mental list of dream locations they hope to visit and fish. With a bit of luck, planning, and good timing, some of these places can be realized and experienced in person. I have been fortunate in my life to have had the opportunity to fly fish at some spectacular destinations, some well-renowned, others relatively unknown (but no less memorable). One destination that had been on my mind for some time was the rugged Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, with associated stories of difficult access and fabulous fishing. So, Regan and I decided to explore the river here for a few days, by backpacking down, camping along the water's edge, and hopefully finding some willing trout along the way.

We began at the visitor center, acquired a backcountry permit, and soon began our descent to the river, along the Gunnison Route. This route is considered the easiest of the handful that make their way to the canyon floor in the park, although it is still demanding and strenuous, dropping 1800' in 1 mile.

The picture above shows me hiking/climbing down the steep route, at the point where a chain has been provided to assist with the descent. Note the walking stick--this was quite useful in providing extra balance and support on the way down, especially along stretches with scree and unstable terrain.

I am pausing for the camera here, with the curve of the river beckoning below. Eventually, we made it the bottom, a bit tired and sore, but relieved to shed our loads, and find our feet back on level ground. We set up camp just beyond the two large Ponderosa pines in the image below, with rushing water and awe-inspiring cliffs before us.

I was ready to get down to fishing, while Regan relaxed in camp. The Gunnison is recognized as one of the premier rivers in the state, noted for its fertile waters and sometimes large Browns and Rainbows, particularly through this largely inaccessible reach, and I hoped to put the water to the test, with favorable results.

To make a long story short, the river more than lived up to its reputation, and I experienced some superb fishing in unforgettable surroundings, truly one of the highlights of this year. A close-up of a 17" Brown is shown above, one of the better fish caught on the first day. A big dark #4 BH Girdle Bug on 3X is protruding from its mouth--large Salmonfly nymphs were abundant in the high green flows, and a heavily weighted pattern of similar dimensions, drifted in the currents, proved to be the ticket for enticing most of the trout I caught.

Most of the fish landed were healthy Browns, but I did manage to bring a few Rainbows to hand, that have persisted despite the ravages of whirling disease. In fact, the river was pulsing with some of the heaviest flows in years during our visit, simulating runoff, and reflecting the recent landmark victory by Trout Unlimited and others to manage this tailwater for the health of the fishery and watershed. In any case, the Rainbow shown above and below was a powerful, lovely specimen of 20", that grabbed one of the big stonefly nymphs as I fished through the middle of a particularly large pool, and proceeded to race about the deep flows before finally relenting enough to be pulled close and photographed.

The trout in general here were tireless, superior fighters, no doubt a product of the powerful river itself.

Here are a few more images of larger Brown trout that I managed to land, starting with this head shot of a darker fish, again a good 17", that struck with evening approaching at the end of the first day.

I'm holding another solid 17 incher below, a rich golden Brown that went airborne several times.

One last look, before I return a beautiful wild Brown to an equally wild, magnificent river.

I'm perched atop a boulder here, nymphing through a deep run, that held numerous good fish. Despite the heavy water and large flies cast, the trout often took quite softly, and a high degree of attention towards the drift was required.

I hooked up with another brute of a Brown trout here, on a smaller #14 BH peacock soft hackle, trailing off of the larger stonefly nymph. This fish tore downstream, through several runs, before I was able to land him.

The Brown measured somewhere between 19-20", and ended up being one of the longest trout of the trip, along with the Rainbow mentioned above. A close-up of the head of this fish is shown below, probably a male with its toothy, elongated jaws.

Regan also gave the fishing a try, and on her second cast through the head of a deep run with a big stone nymph, she connected with a bruiser Brown as well, that made the reel scream with its initial downstream charge. She played the fish well, and finally landed a solid 18" female, her best trout to date, and one of the heaviest of the trip!

Here is another shot of Regan, cradling the hard-fought Brown. When I see a picture like this, I feel like I must be one of the luckiest guys in the world.

The Brown held at the head of the run, seen in the photo below, close to shore. I suspect that the heavy flows caused a number of the bigger fish to move near the banks, to find cover and a place to conserve energy. The stones and cliffs were striking, consisting of ancient gneiss, schist, and pegmatite. Many of the rocks had a polished, smooth quality--and made for some potentially treacherous hiking and wading (I slipped and fell more than once).

Another colorful Brown, 14-15", poses for the camera, again with a big stonefly nymph visible from the mouth. This fish sports a red line along the bottom of the tail fin, a feature that several other Browns possessed as well.

And here is another vibrant Rainbow, a good 18", that came from the middle of the run where Regan hooked the strong Brown earlier. The bows were few and far between, but striking and healthy.

I also found a small bat, known as a myotis, shown here clinging to a branch riverside, in a picture Regan took.

The Gunnison flowed through some dramatic settings, beneath some of the most stunning, dramatic cliff walls I have seen.

The weather remained overcast for much of our visit, although the sun did peak through the clouds late in the afternoon on the second day.

The sheer verticality of this place is hard to describe, but the narrow spires of the canyon reaching up to the sky from the river, in the image below, convey some idea of this quality.

I hooked up with another fine Brown, as afternoon approached evening.

The fish went 16", and provided a good last fish caught and briefly admired for the trip, before being returned to the river.

We made the steep trek back up to the rim on the third day, and took a few more glimpses of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, to round off a premier backcountry camping and fly fishing experience. I would highly recommend this place to anyone seeking wild trout and solitude, in one of the more ruggedly beautiful river corridors in the country.


  1. Great pictures from one of my all-time favorite places to fish!

  2. Great blog. How long did the hike take (both down and up)? Also, exactly when in June did you fish and how many other fishermen did you see?