Despite high water in Gunnison River, there’s still plenty of opportunity to fish

High water in the Gunnison River, planned through next week to meet peak flow demands through the Black Canyon, might chase off some folks, but if you go with a plan, it’s also the time for opportunity.

There still is good fishing available if you simply change your ideas of where trout are found when the water comes up.

As fishing guide Marshall Prendergast reminded us earlier this week, faster flows tend to push trout toward the edges and the backwaters.

This actually can make high-water fishing easier, since you really don’t have to worry about wading out into the big water.

With ramping flows slow enough for fish to adjust to the changes in water speed and level, you should be able to find trout in the suspected places.

Remember trout have dealt with high water for millennia. They probably don’t like high flows, preferring to minimize energy spent and maximize calories gained, but they still need to eat.

The flows wash more feed into the stream, which can make terrestrial insect patterns more effective for fly anglers.

The faster water and the debris carried along also tend to dislodge aquatic insects, and on the Gunnison that means tossing a large nymph, especially something resembling a large stonefly nymph, during high water.

Fish close, with shorter leaders and strong tippets.

No 6x or 7x fluorocarbon needed, but instead something like a 1x or 2x to fend off the rocks and snags you’ll be encountering.

As Prendergast noted, most anglers don’t realize how much trout move around.

High water, silt and cold water temperatures make trout move. They move up and down in the water column as temperatures change and they move side to side to escape faster currents and intercept insects and food.

Don’t be fooled by looking at the main flow and thinking there’s nothing to be seen.

It’s surprising how much visibility you’ll find along the edges, even when the main stream seems murky and opaque.

Even though the high water on the Gunnison is coming from a series of dams, there are enough natural-flow side channels, including the Cimarron River and the Smith Fork, that the water likely will have a bit of color to it.

Forget the torrent out in the middle, fish the side channels and backwaters as if they were small streams.

Watch for eddy lines and foam slicks where food is trapped and fish establish holding and feeding patterns.

There still will be hatches to fish for, including the so-called Mother’s Day caddis hatches on the Animas and other rivers. Look for midges, Pale Morning Duns and Blue-winged Olives to appear, although the colder water may slow or delay the hatches.

Again, check the foam lines and eddies to see what’s hatching.

Finally, handle the Gunnison’s high flows just as you would runoff, albeit a short-lived runoff scheduled to end by May 25 or so.

Don’t be afraid of high water. As guide Pat Dorsey of the Blue Quill Angler in Denver once observed, “High water doesn’t bother me, in fact it is an opportunity to become a better angler.

“I go with bigger flies with flash in them, use more weight to get the nymphs down deep, and look for the soft spots where the trout congregate.”

If you should catch the fish of a vacation, here’s a well-used formula from the Colorado Division of Wildlife on how to gauge that fish’s true size.

Measure (use a cloth tape that follows the shape of the fish) the length of the fish from the tip of the lower jaw to the inner fork of the tail, then measure the girth of the fish at the widest point (usually next to the dorsal fin).

Use the following formula:

Trout: Length x girth x girth ÷ 800

Walleye: Length x length x length ÷ 2,700

Bass: Length x length x girth ÷ 1,200

Pike:  Length x length x length ÷ 3,500

If you haven’t a measuring tape, use fishing line, one piece for length and another for the girth. Measure the string when you get back home.


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