May the Fork be with you
Lake Fork of the Gunnison River offers solitude and easy access to fish
We were mostly by ourselves. Considering there is a good road next to a good river, that seems somewhat amazing. Normally in the fishing quest, it is a tradeoff of ease of access vs. solitude. Easy access means you’ll have some company and solitude can be difficult to get to, probably requiring a hike.
But then, when you consider the population of Hinsdale County, maybe the quietness isn’t so amazing.
Hinsdale County, which is practically speaking the same as Lake City, is one of the least populated counties in the state. I don’t know what the permanent population is, but it isn’t much. However in summer, the town can swell and threaten every parking spot on the main street. Popular with out-of-state and in-state tourists alike, Lake City is a wonderful getaway in the summer.
Lake City is a hub for outdoor recreationists with spectacular Fourteeners to climb, four-wheel drive roads to crawl along on, ATV trails to explore, camping, hiking, fall colors to gaze upon, and yes, fishing.
The Lake Fork of the Gunnison River headwaters above Lake San Cristobal, a natural lake south of Lake City, formed by a large landslide centuries ago. Downstream until the Lake Fork spills into Blue Mesa Reservoir some 30 to 40 miles to the north, it is a river of beauty and clarity.
In Colorado, most mountain rivers have a steep gradient and don’t calm down until they reach the lower valleys or even the plains. Although the Lake Fork has the usual violent spring runoff, summer and fall see a much gentler river. A very fishable river. Flowing gently, the Lake Fork courses with some of the clearest water you will find in western Colorado.
On its mostly northerly course below Lake San Cristobal, through Lake City and on to Blue Mesa Reservoir, public access is a patchwork of short but frequent stops along Highway 149. Running in and out of the public lands of the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, you must watch all the signs as you drive the highway, noting public land beginnings and endings so you can know where you can fish.
Between Lake City and Gateview, the river and the highway are never far apart, but even so, it is often in a shallow canyon. So depending on the pulloff you choose to stop at, it may be a steep hike to the river.
Where the river is constricted in stretches with tighter banks, the river fishes best with nymphs. Here the water is typically deep and slow. Use a two nymph setup, with the top pattern being something medium sized, in the 10- to 14-size range, and flashy, such as a western coachman. Then follow that with a dropper that is small, in the 16- to 20-size range, such as a caddis emerger or a bead head mayfly nymph.
Usually when we talk about attractor flies, we are speaking of dry flies. But the same can hold true of flies fished underwater. The larger and flashier top fly serves as an attractor, seen by the fish perhaps from a greater distance and at least wakes them up to be on the alert. Then they see the smaller, more natural fly and are more likely to inhale it instead.
Above, upstream from Gateview, the valley floor opens somewhat, revealing a more placid river. Hay fields and ranch houses create a calm setting. Public water is abundant in this section where the river and the highway part. At this point, Highway 149 turns east on its way to the town of Gunnison while the river continues on a northerly course, now absent the pavement but flanked by a good gravel road for several miles.
Wide bends, open casting, and easily waded riffles define this section of the river. Stream improvements built by Colorado Parks and Wildlife years ago consist of large boulders in midstream, tree stumps along the banks, and rock wing deflectors.
This is wonderful dry fly water. Plenty of room for a backcast. Slower water that won’t abruptly steal your drift. Ability to stand back aways to hide your presence. Calm water to see the rise.
These structures create deep holes where there would otherwise likely be no good holding water, for sure so at lower flows. Because it is easy here to walk the banks, it is tempting to stand high and cast into these man-made holes. But low, clear water demands otherwise. Act like a hunter, which is essentially what you are when you chase a trout. Keep your profile low, move slowly, and make a minimum number of false casts to a maximum drift free distance.
Further downstream at Red Bridge, the canyon narrows. The road splits. The main road crosses the bridge and leaves the river. The secondary road continues about 5 miles, always immediately next to the river, dead ending at the inlet to Blue Mesa Reservoir, at least when the reservoir is full.
The road is actually the old railroad bed. Even just the drive is interesting as the road is narrow with cuts through the rocky hillside that a train would have coursed a century ago. It dead ends because the train would have kept going all the way to the Gunnison valley, but now the lake covers its history.
And for those that notice that the bridge is anything but red, it actually was red until a few years ago when the old wooden bridge, which was indeed painted red, was replaced with a modern structure. Just isn’t the same quaintness anymore.
From Red Bridge to the reservoir’s inlet, this section is more pocket water style fishing, with an occasional flat. When the insects are hatching and the fish are looking up, this can be the best water. It depends on your favorite style of fishing, water flows, and your ability to wade. The occasional larger fish can be found here, as the holes are deeper and its closeness to the reservoir where lake fish may make their way upstream, especially in the fall when browns are looking to spawn.
If this river were located near a highly populated area, you wouldn’t be able to find a parking pulloff, even in midweek. But given its proximity to not much other than some of the most beautiful country there is, you can expect little competition and large adventure.
The Lake Fork of the Gunnison can be accessed either by paved road via Highway 50 east of Gunnison, then Highway 149 south to Lake City. Or check the map for the Blue Mesa cutoff, a good gravel road shortcut across the high mesa that turns off near the western end of Blue Mesa Reservoir and then encounters the river at Red Bridge.
Close, few anglers, classic wadeable water, magnificent scenery, and a good population of fish. What more do you need?