Floatin’ & Fishin’
By Barry Noreen
August 22, 1993, Gazette Telegraph newspaper
Remote Gorge Offers Gold-Medal Fishing, Adventure
Gunnison Gorge isn’t for everybody.
If you want to get someplace in a hurry on smooth pavement, and if you don’t want light hiking, river floating and fishing, you should probably leave this roadless, litterless, timeless place off your itinerary.
The gorge defines 13 wild miles of the Gunnison River just below Black Canyon National Monument, near Delta, northeast of Montrose, about 200 miles west of Colorado Springs.
Those 13 river miles and 21,038 acres surrounding them comprise the Bureau of Land Management’s Gunnison Gorge Wilderness Study Area, which means there are no roads, no vehicles and no development activity of any kind. None, this is, unless you count driving to a trailhead, hiking a mile or so down to the river, and waiting to see what activity develops.
The roads to the gorge’s trailheads require a high-clearance truck and relatively few people take the trouble to hike down and fish from the riverbank.
Our fish-and-float party of six didn’t include a single accomplished fisherman, although we were headed into a fisherman’s paradise. This reach of the Gunnison is gold-medal fishery, teeming with rainbow and German brown trout. Former President Jimmy Carter liked it so much, he made a return visit. But while many may have made the journey, not many can make it at the same time, because river traffic is sharply limited by the BLM.
Fishing from rafts essentially involves casting into back-eddies and shaded areas where trout linger to rest and feed. The second day of the trip, we had luck casting just to the edge of where the swift current met the slower waters.
Our outfitter, Bill Dvorak of Nathrop, and his river guides were skilled at getting the rafts into position and keeping them there as we fished hole after hole down the gorge.
It’s rough country, but we didn’t rough it. Slung over the side of the rafts in bags, the beer stayed cold.
But there was no drinking while on the water. The beers were saved for when we beached for the day, just upstream of the buttermilk rapid.
In the early evening, a couple of us had some luck fishing from the bank while Dvorak and his crew prepared a sumptuous meal of steak and potatoes, with coffee and cherry cheesecake for dessert.
The next morning, breakfast included sausage, French toast and honeydew melon.
Only 10 commercial rafting outfitters are licensed to take clients down the river, and only two commercial float trips a day are allowed. That limits commercial traffic to 24 raft passengers a day—12 per party—and the parties usually are smaller.
Each fisherman is allowed to keep four fish a day, including three fish 12 inches or shorter and fish 16 inches or longer. Fish between 12 and 16 inches must be returned to the river, because they are considered to be the best brood fish.
But don’t worry: There are plenty of fish in the Gunnison longer than 16 inches.
We caught enough fish to hold our interest, and might have caught more if it hadn’t been for the full moon. With no cloud cover and a bright moon, fish will feed through the night, making them less likely to strike at a fly or lure during the day.
But the same moon that may have reduced our catch allowed us to see canyon walls a quarter of a mile away in detail. There aren’t many places darker than a deep river canyon on a moonless night, so it seemed to us the place was so visually beautiful that it refused to be shut off at sundown.
The beauty of the place, day or night, is a reason for going to it—even without a fishing rod. Along the way is one of the most scenic canyons in Colorado. Sheer rock walls reach to water level in many spots; in other spots, the canyon slopes upward more gently, allowing for pinon juniper, sagebrush and an occasional cottonwood.
We saw mule deer across the river, but none of the bighorn sheep that are part of a burgeoning herd in the upper reaches of the canyon.
At times, the combination of the canyon pressing in close and a bend in the river prevents a view downstream of more than a couple hundred yards. At other times, the canyon rim is visible for miles in either direction. Because there are no roads and no power lines, the only evidence of civilization is an occasional plane flying far overhead.
Dvorak Expeditions and a handful of other companies were responsible for bringing a growing number of fish/float enthusiasts to the river during the ‘80s. Mostly, floating the river is a smooth ride in July, with a handful of whitewater opportunities.
Compared with such white-water meccas as Brown’s Canyon on the Arkansas River, Gunnison gorge has relatively few rapids. But it also lacks the traffic-jam phenomenon that has plagued the Arkansas the past couple of years. It comes down to what one wants out of the experience: Whitewater rapids shared with literally dozens of strangers in a canyon lined with railroad tracks and commercial photographers in lawn chairs, or a calmer float through remote, wild country and the chance to land large trout.
Near the downstream end of the wilderness study area, a creek known as Smith fork flows into the Gunnison. Dvorak nearly always stops there so passengers can take a 10-minute hike up to a waterfall and pool. In the first days of August, Smith Fork was perhaps 20 degrees warmer than the river, and the pool provided a refreshing way to get out of the 95-degree heat.
Unfortunately, as in many other river canyons, the gorge offers more than beauty; it also offers a fantastic dam site–from an engineering point of view. Upstream from the gorge and the national monument, the Gunnison already has three dams—Blue Mesa, Morrow Point and Crystal. The Tri-State Electric Co. has recently resurrected an old plan, which calls for a fourth structure that would destroy the trout fishery and much of the scenery by backing up water well into the gorge.
Tri-State’s proposal probably won’t succeed, for several reasons. Official designation of the gorge as a BLM wilderness area or as an addition to the national Wild and Scenic Rivers list would kill it. And we know from recent Colorado history that neither dams nor wilderness areas are created without public gnashing of teeth.
All of which brings to mind the best reasons to spend some time in the Gunnison Gorge: It’s pretty much guaranteed that while you’re there you won’t think about such things as kilowatt hours or bureaucratic proclamations.
Or even newspaper offices.