North Fork is on the rise

Popular river still low enough to wade

The advent of warm weather in the mid-elevations of the Gunnison Basin brings the silt-laden flows of the North Fork of the Gunnison River bumping against the clear flows of the mainstem Gunnison River at the Pleasure Park near Austin.



A solitary angler fishes the Gunnison River on Monday, working just upstream of the Pleasure Park and the mainstem river’s confluence with the North Fork. The Gunnison was flowing at 431 cubic feet per second, low enough to wade, with the North Fork about 125 cfs higher.



Midday Monday found the North Fork of the Gunnison flowing at close to 600 cubic feet per second, a level that didn’t concern angler Chris Kozak of Grand Junction in the least.

“I was here about two weeks ago, and it was a bit lower, but this is OK,” said Kozak, stopping at the bottom of the boat ramp from the parking lot above the confluence with the main stem Gunnison River. “I try to get over here about once a week or so, and I’ve had no problems” wading the North Fork. 

There are several ways to access the Gunnison River above the Pleasure Park.

You can raft down from Chukar Trail or one of the put-ins above the Gunnison Gorge.

You can ride up from the Pleasure Park when the water flows are high enough to allow Al deGrange and his Gunnison River Expeditions to take you upstream in the jet boat.

You can drive across Smith Mountain on H.80 Road east of Read. That’s a narrow, one-lane road in sections and can be tricky to navigate when the roads are wet.

However, it’s preferable to being swept along by the North Fork when that river is running high during the spring runoff.

Or you can take the direct route and wade the North Fork just above the confluence.

This is how many, if not most, anglers access the Gunnison during low-water months, which may or may not include March, depending on the weather.

Anglers, both private and commercial, spend as many hours in the spring watching not only the hatch chart, but also the online water-flow data provided by the Colorado Division of Water Resources, the U.S. Geological Survey and other sources.

The spring-like weather of February and early March (and even part of January) has brought out the anglers, if not the bug hatches, and one experienced observer said the river recently has seen an inordinate number of visitors.

“The river use has really increased,” Gunnison River Expeditions guide Gale Doudy wrote in an email earlier this week. “Last week I had to walk up two miles (from the confluence) as there were about 15 to 20 fishermen each day.

“I have never seen these numbers in February.”

In contrast to the emerald-green Gunnison, the North Fork is mocha-colored and opaque, making it tricky to wade.

While I watched from the bank, Kozak ventured into the North Fork and easily crossed, with the deepest water reaching to his knees.

That “you go first” saga had an unexpected twist. Shortly after crossing the river, I was headed along the muddy trail when I was met by yet a third angler coming up behind me.

“Didn’t you just cross the North Fork?” he asked, his face hidden behind a lightweight sun guard.

I said I had waited to see how Kozak had fared before crossing, and the masked angler laughed.

“Yeah, I was watching you cross, and decided when you made it across, it couldn’t be too bad,” he said. “This time of year, it never hurts to make sure you can make it across.”

Tuesday morning, the North Fork, according to the USGS gauge at Lazear, was running at 685 cfs. Expect the river, and the wading excitement, to increase as the temperature rises.


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