Springtime fine along East Portal of Gunnison River

Russ Tomlin of Montrose casts into the emerald-green waters of the Gunnison River just downstream of the East Portal diversion dam. Waters flows in the Gunnison continue to rise as dam operators upstream increase releases in response to an expected near-record runoff.

Waters flows over the diversion dam and through the bypass tunnel at the East Portal of the Gunnison Tunnel. Finished in 1912, the tunnel carries Gunnison River water to agriculture and domestic users in the Uncompahgre Valley.

EAST PORTAL — Midmorning Sunday at the East Portal section of the Gunnison River found the river quiet, the campground nearly empty and three men hurrying to make it even more so.

While Ron Smith and Verne Vobejda of Colorado Springs were rolling up their tent and stowing their fishing rods in preparation for the 4 1/2-hour trip home, Russ Tomlin stood quietly out of the way.

The three had spent a couple of nights camping and fishing the Gunnison at the East Portal, and Tomlin, principal at Cottonwood Elementary School in Montrose, was in no hurry to leave.

“It’s only 20 minutes from home so I’m going to stay and fish a while longer,” he said.

The trio said they found warm days, little wind and fine fishing in the depths of the Black Canyon.

“The fishing was very good, but then I’ve never not enjoyed myself down here,” Smith said.

Vobejda added he and Smith have been visiting the East Portal for a decade or so.

“I’d love to spend more time here, but it’s a long drive,” he said.

Smith said he’s fished around the world and never has seen any place like the Gunnison River.

“Have you walked through the rest of the campground?” he asked a visitor. “It’s green and shady, like a cathedral. I’d love to come back here later this spring.”

Tomlin said the three men used his canoe to cross the river, where they hiked and fished downstream along the far bank.

“There’s so much room to fish, if you don’t mind walking a bit,” he said. “We spent most of the day down there and didn’t see anyone else.”

He looked around at the few vehicles in the parking lot.

“It’s right in my backyard, but I’m surprised how many people don’t know about it,” he said.

Even though river flows had risen noticeably during their stay, the three said the higher water didn’t seem to affect the fishing except to make it harder to wade.

“No, fishing was really pretty good,” Smith said. “We stayed right along the bank and caught plenty of fish. We’re surprised at how clear the water is.”

Which brings up a couple of interesting points about the East Portal section of the Gunnison.

Water flows downstream of the diversion dam have risen steadily this week and are expected to reach 3,150 cubic feet per second by Saturday.

That means wading certainly is out of the picture temporarily, but it doesn’t mean fishing is over. Higher flows can ruin the fishing on most waters, but not so on this particular stretch of the Gunnison where high water can make big fish more accessible.

In the section of the Gunnison between the diversion dam and the cliff-like up-and-over about a mile downstream, higher flows push trout out of the main current and into the slower water along the side channels to feed.

Longtime visitors to the East Portal claim their biggest fish of the year come during high water, and many of those fish are caught on dry flies.

Ted Elsted was walking out of the canyon about noon Sunday, headed home to Montrose for church as the wind was rising.

Going from one church to another, he noted.

“How can you not worship down here?” Elsted asked, gazing up at the 1,500-foot high walls of naked black rocks crossed with brocaded striations of deep pink and gray. “It’s beautiful. Just being down here is a special time.”

Elsted had been fishing with an olive green streamer tied on a size 4 hook with a second stinger hook off the main hook.

“It seems fish down here strike a bit short,” he explained, adding the streamer was good for windy conditions. “I suspected it might be a bit windy down here today, and the wind makes it hard to get a good drift.”


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