OUT: Anglers head to Gunnison Basin before winter blows in

Late November on the Gunnison River finds summer tourists long gone and even a shortage of the outdoors-loving locals. Winter comes swiftly to the high country, so it’s good to enjoy these last mild days.

GUNNISON — With full-on winter expected any day in the Gunnison Basin, anglers heading that way preface all fishing plans with the conditional, “if the weather holds.”

So far, the weather in the 7,700-foot high basin has remained mild, keeping in mind the difference between mild in Gunnison and mild in Grand Junction can be 20 degrees or more.

While the mountains ringing the Gunnison Valley carry the first of many coats of winter white, most of the snowless basin is dominated by shades of brown and gray.

The river on a recent visit was flowing at 250 cubic feet per second, the lowest since the start of runoff eight months ago. Backwaters and small side-channels are starting to freeze while the main channel still runs dark and cold.

I called Gunnison fly tier Gene Hart about the conditions and he recommended a few stretches of the river to try a few miles above Blue Mesa Reservoir.

“The river changed a bit after last year’s runoff and now the old river channel has lots of water in it,” said
Hart, who has monitored the Gunnison for nearly three decades. “I think the Division of Wildlife shocked the river this summer and found more fish in the old channel.”

A few leaves rattled in the cottonwoods along the stream and a thin strip of blue showed along the western horizon, the rest of the sky tucked under a gray wool blanket.

Fishing slows down as water temperatures drop and days grow short. No longer are insect hatches a fog of excitement for trout, although the warmer days of late autumn may be highlighted by a flurry of blue-winged olive mayflies in numbers sufficient to bring trout noses poking through the surface film.

These are tiny flies, sizes 18 to 24 mostly, mere bits of flotsam but irresistible to trout still recalling the feasts of summer.

Most fall trout fishing takes place beneath the surface, dredging small nymphs, San Juan worms and other fanciful patterns through presumed trout lies.

Streamers, too, are popular in the fall, an appeasement for the big brown trout increasingly on the prowl for a mouth-sized meal. Tossing a large streamer toward undercut banks or on the margins of deep pools is as much a guarantee of sudden, arm-rattling strikes as you’ll ever find in fly fishing.

Fishing streamers is meditation in breathable waders. The quiet laugh of the flowing river keeps time as the water, catlike, winds and curls around your legs.

Cast quartering downstream, strip, strip, strip. Cast, strip, strip. Take a step downstream. Cast, strip, strip, strip. Repeat.

Meditative but not inattentive. Just about the time you figure the water’s empty and there’s someplace else better, something stops your fly on its downstream swing.

Setting the hook really isn’t needed since the sweep of the fly has enough carry to set the hook for you, but still you raise the rod tip instinctively.

The first time you do this, the fish is there and just as suddenly gone, along with your fly.

You grudgingly wind in the line and realize that 4-pound tippet might not be enough to manhandle a fall-run brown trout. You retie, this time with heavier fluorocarbon and double check the knot.

Fumbling through the fly book, I selected a gaudy purple egg-sucking leech, which resembles nothing found in nature.

Later that day, Hart politely feigned a semblance of interest in talk about large streamers and then reached for his fly box.

It was filled with neat rows of nymphs, midge imitations and Lilliputian dry flies.

Out came a couple of his nymphs, including a recent design with a miniscule bead head and strips of red thread striping its sides.

“We caught most of our fish during the Superfly on this one,” recalled Hart, the size 20 nymph nearly disappearing in his hands. Limited to only two flies during the contest, Hart lost one fly early and had to fish very carefully the rest of the day.

“I showed everyone what we were using and most of them just shook their heads in disbelief,” laughed Hart at the memory. “But some of the guys who know the Gunnison came over and saw it and just nodded and said, ‘Yep, I see how that would work.’ ”

He said lessons learned in the Superfly carry over to everyday fishing.

“You have to prepare for any circumstance,” he said.

Double check each knot, use as heavy tippet as you can get away with and pay attention to the thumping, head-shaking strike that’s sure to come.


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