100 Best: Gunnison River
Location: Central Colorado
Type of stream: Freestone and Tailwater
Angling methods: Fly, Spin
Species: Browns, Rainbow, Cutthroat and Brook
Access: Easy to extremely difficult
Supporting Services: Cimarron, Gunnison, Montrose
Short take: A river of deeply split personality
Handicapped Access: None
Closest TU Chapter: Gunnison Gorge Anglers
A river of greater contrasts than the Gunnison, I do not know. From its headwaters where East and Taylor Rivers come together at Almont, the Gunnison wriggles like a young puppy first though a narrow valley which then broadens into a rich plain verdant with summer irrigation. Blue Mesa Reservoir swallows the river, spits it out into Morrow Point Reservoir, and releases it into Crystal Reservoir. Below Crystal Dam, the Gunnison gushes into Black Canyon. From its rim 1,700n feet above the river, the tailwater glows sapphire between towering walls of dark grey rock.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and its downstream cousin, the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area, divide the river into two parts of about equal length. A dozen trails snake down the steep flanks of the canyon to the river below. None are for the faint hearted, literally. Two of the four trails from the south rim of Black Canyon drop 1,800 feet and 1,960 feet respectively…in one mile! Trails in the gorge are not quite so steep and riverside campsites are more numerous than in the park. Why go to all this trouble? Big brown trout run from 15 to 20 inches. Several outfitters offer overnight float trips through the conservation area, and that may be the best way to sample the true essence of the river.
Though rainbows are making a comeback, this is primarily brown trout water with a few cutthroat hanging on. In August, kokanee salmon run up from the lake to spawn. From then through October, fish egg patterns for browns and ‘bow and toss nymphs and streamers for the salmon.
U.S. Route 50 traverses the Gunnison watershed. Continuing east will land you in Salida on the Arkansas River. Turning north on U.S. 285 and then U.S. 24 carries you into the Upper South Platte drainage. You thinking what I’m thinking? In a week, you can fish three of Colorado’s Gold Medal waters, floating or wading as you choose. That’s what I call a grand slam.