United in orange
Salmonfly hatch on Gunnison a great time to catch big trout
OK, so you graduated from school already. But I have a quiz for you anyway — TV show style with the answer first.
Answer: Pteronarcys californica.
Questions: A) What is the prehistoric dinosaur that starred in the movie Jurassic Park? B) What is the state bird of California? C) What giant bug flies like a helicopter and drives both trout and trout fishermen crazy?
If you are not a regular Gunnison River attendee, I’ll forgive you for choosing answer A or B. If you are salivating just thinking about these prehistoric insects, then you would have easily, quickly, and correctly chosen answer C. For choosing well my son, then you may pass GO and proceed directly to the river!
Pack a fly box full of oversize orange stonefly pattern nymphs and dries. Tie them to your heavy 3x tippet and hang on for a trout-a-coaster ride. Hooking up, expect a trout of size to wallow down among the rocks before going airborne. Next will be a dart to the fast current of midstream in an educated attempt to wrap a preplanned underwater rock and break off.
Whew! Now, depending on who won the battle, it may be that you just shake your head, then grin a time or two as you examine the curled and broken leader. Just retie, get back in the saddle, go again, and hang on for another ride — it will come.
So what is this P.C. thing that we can’t pronounce but we love so dearly? Best known as the salmonfly or willowfly, this river dwelling insect is a fast-food meal deal, biggie size. I just call it what it is — an orange stonefly. Giants in trout fishing terms, the underwater nymphs hatch into winged adults over 2 inches in length.
The nymphs live in the river, growing and shedding continually on a four-year life cycle. So there are always nymphs of various ages, meanings sizes, in the river, but it is the mature 4 year old that is accessible for the feast. Stonefly nymphs crawl among the rocks to the river bank, crawl out onto rocks and bushes, hatch, dry off, and fly away.
Nymphs are a dark brown, almost black, with a hint of orange. The winged adults have the most color with orange markings on their head and a definite orange hue to their abdomens.
Big trout that are normally cautious will now come up to the top water, even hanging in the upper current to get their fill.
June is the prime time for the seeker of trout to get in on this hatch action. Starting in the lower reaches of the Gunnison River near Austin, sometimes in late May, the hatch progresses upstream into the Gunnison Gorge and then into the Black Canyon. Depending on weather, water temperature and stream flows, every year the timing is different. This hatch is prolific but short, lasting only a few weeks, peaking in June and over by the end of June.
Early in the day, the nymphs are doing the underwater crawl. Fishing the rocks with a weighted nymph is effective. As the day progresses, switch to a dry when the winged adults fly and bop about the water.
Lest you think that the only time to toss these bugs is during match-the-hatch time in June, think again. Nonsensical as me eating ice cream in the winter, trout still rise to an orange stonefly dry after the real bugs are gone. Continue into July to toss an adult dry imitation into the pocket behind big rocks. Trout remember the hatch.
My unscientific experiments with numerous dry fly patterns concluded that the Bird’s Stone imitation works the best. But there are many styles and variations — an orange stimulator, rubber legs, and foam can all be effective. For nymphs, my own tie, the Evie, is superb.
Drive-to access to the Gunnison River is limited to two places. At the downstream end, east of Delta near Austin, you can drive to the river near the confluence of the North Fork. At the upstream end east of Montrose, you can enter the national park and experience the paved but very steep East Portal Road.
In-between, there are several hiking trails. Drive either north of Montrose along the Peach Valley Road to access the trails of the Gunnison Gorge, or east of Montrose to the Black Canyon National Park. There are also trails on the north side of the national park accessed out of Crawford.
All of these foot trails require someone of good physical shape. Trails of the Gunnison Gorge are well maintained but strenuous and the trails within the park are much more difficult.
Blue Colorado skies, clear cold water, orange stones, and Gunnison River trout — YeeHaw!