OUT: Fall casts its yearly chill

A palette of fall colors provides a backdrop for fishing on the East River for guide Andrew Grillos of Gunnison. Early fall insect hatches and the usually mild weather attracts anglers eager for one final shot before winter comes to the high country around Gunnison and Crested Butte.

GUNNISON — Autumn trout fishing is a game of trade-offs.

Trading the sandals and shorts you wore all summer for breathable waders and fleece jackets.

Trading the big flies dressed to resemble July’s thumb-sized bugs smashing against your hat and vest for tiny hooks laced with motes of feather and silk.

And trading a summery, clear-sky morning for a gusty afternoon with clouds the color of dirty wool
scraping across the mountain-rimmed horizon.

Season changes come particularly fast in the early fall high country, where the teeth of winter can be heard gnashing in the wind carrying a snowstorm with it.

“The weather’s changing fast,” said fishing guide Andrew Grillos of High Mountain Drifters in Gunnison. He was eyeing the gray cap of clouds stretching from Blue Mesa to the Elk Mountains between Crested Butte and Aspen. “It’s going to be tough to see a dry fly with all these leaves on the water.”

The “leaf hatch” was in full bloom, making it difficult to pick out the foam grasshopper Grillos was using as a strike indicator.

When this was mentioned to Grillos, he offered a tip.

“Don’t watch the indicator; look at the water below it and around it,” he said. “You’ll see a lot more fish, and sometimes you’ll see a flash of white as the fish takes your dropper.”

Below the ’hopper dangled two nymphs, a size 16 beadhead mayfly and a size 22 mayfly emerger.

The emerger was in hopes of seeing some blue-winged olive mayflies, a bug that prefers cool, cloudy days.

Even though the bug hatch never quite got going, the river’s trout repeatedly banged on the smaller fly.

The private club that leases this section of the East River regularly stocks the water with catchable rainbows, Grillos said.

“We’ll put a few lunkers in here, just for fun,” he said. “But I think most of what we’re catching today are wild fish.”

The rainbows were a fine-spotted, dark-olive green, with a sweep of carmine along their sides. These aren’t fall spawners, but you’d never know it from their brilliant colors.

“These are gorgeous fish,” said Grillos, who can be reached at 417-0040. He also guides in the Gunnison Gorge when that river is boiling with stoneflies.   

This stretch of the East River once was leased for public access by the Division of Wildlife from the friendly rancher. However, the relationship turned sour, as relationships sometimes do, and now you pay a guide and a $30 rod fee to fish water you once could access for the price of a fishing license.

You can debate if keeping the river private saved the fishing. Nature plays the strong hand in the fishing on the East River. The stream is undammed and suffers from raging flows in spring, up to 2,500 cubic feet per second, to the languishing 70 cfs reported earlier this month.

Last week, recent rains had boosted the river to 107 cfs. That’s not enough to make a difference to a casual visitor, but Grillos said it was welcome after a fairly dry summer.

Those high flows this spring, the result of record-level snowpacks in the mountains around Crested Butte, wrought some remarkable changes in the river channel, Grillos said.

“That big gravel bar wasn’t there last year,” he said, pointing a 4-weight rod mid-stream to a whale-sized pile of rocks about 50 yards long, half that wide and about 3 feet high. “In fact, that used to be a drop-off we’d fish. There were some big fish in there.”

Mid-day, as the approaching storm lifted the temperature a few degrees, fish started hitting the surface and Grillos traded the nymphs for a size 18 caddis and a size 22 parachute Adams.

After a few missed strikes, Grillos, who has a degree in counseling, which seems terribly fitting for a fishing guide, again offered some advice.

“Slow down your strike,” he said. “When a fish hits your fly, give yourself enough time to ‘Oh, darn,’ before you lift the rod.”

A cast or two later, a nose poked above the water to intercept the Adams and although the nerves chattered, a slower response resulted in a net full of rainbow trout, a mirror image of the earlier rainbow.

Several runs were stacked with kokanee salmon on their spawning march upriver. The Division of Wildlife spawns kokanee salmon at Roaring Judy Hatchery, a few miles downstream of where we were fishing.

However, sufficient fish have made it past the turn to the hatchery that some natural reproduction occurs around Cement Creek, a major tributary 8 miles south of Crested Butte.

“We sort of fish around the salmon, either above or below the schools,” Grillos said. “It takes a while for the trout to get used to the salmon, but they still have to eat.”

As we fished, the breeze picked up and the clouds lowered, bringing the scent of snow fresh on the wind.

Summer was being blown out of the high country, a trade for the winter that’s sure to come.


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