Not only an angler’s paradise

A bird-, wildlife- and rock-watcher’s paradise as well

Guide Mal Burk of Black Canyon Anglers shares one of his favorite side canyons during a recent float down the Gunnison River. Burk last year rowed an estimated 1,000 miles as a fishing guide.

It’s still a mile-plus down Chukar Trail to the Gunnison River — that much hasn’t changed in this writer’s memory.

And the voice of the river still starts as a whisper a quarter-mile away and grows to a voice-drowning roar when you finally dip your trail-worn toes into the frigid water.

That, too, is the same.

And yes, the Gunnison Gorge in the 10 miles or so from Chukar to the Smith Fork remains not only an angler’s paradise but a bird-, wildlife- and rock-watcher’s paradise as well.

But Gunnison lovers of every ilk would do well to recall Heraclitus’ advice that “you cannot step into the same river twice.”

It’s questionable the 6th century BCE Greek philosopher ever stepped into an inflatable raft for the rollicking trip downstream from Chukar —  at least not in his original incarnation anyway — but he’s sure to recognize the feeling voiced by boatman and fishing guide Mal Burk during a recent trip.

“It’s never the same down here,” said Burk, now in his eighth year guiding anglers down the Gunnison River for Black Canyon Anglers out of Austin. “You come here with knowledge but no expectations, because you never know what you’ll find.”

Burk had joined three other Black Canyon Anglers guides to herd a group of media representatives, photographers and several Trout Unlimited spokesmen on a one-day quickie down the river for several reasons. The fishing, of course, (I mean, hey, it’s the Gunnison Gorge) but also to talk about the “new” management policies for protecting the Gorge and other western lands adopted last March with the passage of Omnibus Public Lands Management Act.

The mid-runoff fishing was, well, “sketchy” is how one hard-pressed angler put it after floating for four hours over the Gunnison’s pea-green flows and boating the excursion-high total of exactly three fish.

“But I hooked a couple more,” pleaded Chris Hunt, the Idaho Falls, Idaho-based communications director for TU’s Sportsmen’s Conservation Project. “It was pretty tough fishing conditions.”

Trout Unlimited was one of the many conservation and sportsmen’s groups pushing hard for the Omnibus package, which among other things reinforced the National Landscape Conservation System protecting nationally significant landscapes across 27 million acres of public lands.

The Gunnison Gorge NCA is among those, along with two other NCAs literally in the backyard of Grand Junction — McInnis Canyons and the new 210,000-acre Dominquez-Escalante NCA.

The NLCS initially was established in 2000 by former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt but funding was almost nonexistent. That changed last March with the Omnibus bill.

The sundry landscapes are under the direction of the Bureau Land Management, where the recent energy rush had turned conservation into “sort of an afterthought,” noted Brian O’Donnell of the National Conservation System Foundation.

“With the passage of the bill, the BLM suddenly found itself with massive acreage to manage as National Conservation Areas,” O’Donnell said. “These are world-class areas with a wide diversity of offerings. We prefer to see the BLM not over-manage the areas but allow them to remain places where visitors can earn their experience.”

The Gunnison River and the canyon it eroded through the ages is, indeed, one of those “earn your experience” types of place. Access is walk-in only, and fishing the entire stretch means hiring a guide or rowing yourself.

Anglers and hunters know the best opportunities come where the habitat is intact, emphasized TU’s Hunt.

“Protecting the habitat along the Gunnison and elsewhere in the NLCS affords hunting and fishing opportunity to future generations,” he said.

Burk, meanwhile, wasn’t at the moment thinking so much of future generations as he was of the rapids lurking in front of his boat.

“We’ll enter river left, cross under that big boulder and take the right side out,” said Burk, his attention more on the rapid ahead than the questions from a nosy passenger. “Last year, I figured I rowed 1,000 miles, including the Gunnison and my other guiding. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this river the same two days in a row.”

Burk, whose guiding prowess can be reached at 970-708-1022, picked a quick line through the rapid and soon had us again dredging the depths with the fly of the day, which he aptly described as “anything you have that’s big and ugly.”

“Make it big so the fish can see it, and ugly so it resembles one of the big stonefly nymphs,” he said.

It’s too early and too cold for stoneflies (aka salmonflies), but the high water can dislodge the 2-inch-long nymphs and send them tumbling.

“It’s a pretty good mouthful if the trout can even see it,” Burk mused. “You’ll have to come back when the water conditions are better.”

The best fishing, it seems, always happens on the day you weren’t there.

That, too, hasn’t changed.


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