Anglers are few, but fall fishing is fine around Lake City
We were mostly by ourselves, sort of like being voluntarily confined to a river of trout.
Not questioning why there were not more volunteers for this duty, my next cast laid out the fly line, which took the drift against the far bank, where the most current was and the darkest water. A midday sipper mistook my imitation for an invite and a soft lift spoke of resistance.
Considering there is a good road next to a good river, this is somewhat amazing.
But then, when you consider the population of Hinsdale County, maybe it 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.
Come summer, the town swells with transient tourist activity. Every main street parking spot is taken, with every other one occupied by a dusty, off-road vehicle. Popular with out-of-state and in-state visitors, Lake City is a wonderful getaway in the summer.
With fall giving way to winter, the bustle is gone, but the charm and the fishing remain. It’s a favorite place of mine, with fishing, camping, off-roading, moose sightings and colors jumping out from rock, river, tree and sky.
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. From the lake on 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. Flowing gently, the Lake Fork courses with some of the clearest water you will find in western Colorado.
Public access is a patchwork of short but frequent stops along Colorado Highway 149. Running in and out of public land of the Bureau of Land Management, you must watch all of the signs as you drive the highway, noting public land beginnings and endings so you can know where you can fish.
Where the river is constricted in stretches with tighter banks, the river fishes best with nymphs. Here the water is usually 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.
At 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, Colorado 149 parts from the river, turning east to the town of Gunnison and the river continues alone on a northerly course, now flanked by a good gravel road for several miles.
Wide bends, open casting and easily waded riffles define this section of the river. Constructed stream improvements consist of large boulders in midstream, tree stumps along the banks, and rock wing deflectors.
Structures create deeper holes where there would otherwise likely be no good holding water. 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 past Red Bridge, the canyon narrows. The road continues about five miles, with a dead end at the inlet of what is Blue Mesa Reservoir, at least when the reservoir is full.
Can you hear a ghostly train whistle? The road is actually the old railroad bed. And for those who notice the bridge is anything but red, it actually was red historically before the old red, wooden bridge was replaced with a modern concrete 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. Depends on your favorite style of fishing, the water flows, and your ability to wade.
If this river were located near a highly populated area, you wouldn’t be able to find a parking pull-off, even in midweek. But given its proximity to not much other than some of the most beautiful country there is, then you can expect little competition and large adventure.
The river can be accessed either by paved road via U.S. Highway 50 east to almost Gunnison, then Colorado 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 comes out at Red Bridge.
Solitude, classic wadeable water, a good population of fish, maybe a moose, and the magnificence of Colorado.
Sign me up for solitary confinement any day.