The Other Gunnison River

It's not all about the Gorge and Black Canyon

MENTION THAT YOU'RE PLANNING A TRIP to Colorado's Gunnison River, and a likely response will be something like, "Oh, cool—are you fishing Black Canyon or floating the Gorge?"

Which makes perfect sense. After all, between the famed salmonfly hatch and national park status of Black Canyon, and the horse-pack/ rafting reputation of Gunny Gorge, it's hard to imagine a flyfisher having not heard of the Gunnison proper. But what about the upper Gunnison, near Crested Butte? Never heard of it? Join the club.

Some of this can be attributed to a simple case of Middle Child Syndrome. With the renown Taylor River tailwater spitting out monster rainbows just up the road, and with Blue Mesa Reservoir—the biggest in the state at nearly 9,200 acres—sitting just down the road, it's easy to see how the upper Gunny became the Jan Brady of Colorado trout rivers. Nevertheless, a recent three-day visit to Crested Butte was enough to remind me of just how much I'd been missing.

The Gunnison begins at the town of Almont, where the East River joins the Taylor, and it offers more than 20 fishy miles of floating from the confluence to Blue Mesa. I say "floating" because there is plenty of private land along this stretch, and Colorado law leans heavily toward the landowner in riparian zones, so watch your step. That said, you wouldn't have time for a lot of casual wading anyway, even after hitting the public-land portion of the float. Herein lies one of the beautiful aspects of the upper Gunny—it offers two true 10-mile, run-and-gun sections, which move along at a good clip even in moderate flows.

"It has two full days of float fishing ‘on the move,'" says guide Moose Hofer, who manned the oars during my float. "And we go pretty quickly; it's not just anchor-dropping and re-circulating through runs."

Translation: When the water's high, this isn't the most beginnerfriendly water. But if you're an accurate, bank-pounding streamer fisherman who can hit small pockets on the fly, or a dry-dropper type with a quick mend, then you'll love it.

Hofer is a seasoned vet of all things Gunnison Valley, having spent the past 15 years guiding its waters. He scored something of a dream guide gig in the spring of 2012, when he signed on as "Fishing Experience Manager" with Eleven, a global travel company with operations in Patagonia, the Keys, Eleuthera, and Iceland, with others pending. Still, it's Colorado water he knows best—both rivers and lakes. We had a couple killer days fishing everything from the float water on the Gunny (browns), to hidden coves and creeks on Blue Mesa (rainbows), to wading water on the Taylor (both).

"Pre runoff and fall are both times to target big fish around here," Hofer says. "We can usually go until December, and you can always hit the C-and-R section of the Taylor [tailwater] later on if you're jonesing for cold-weather fishing."

As for autumn fishing on the upper Gunny? "We've got a fall run of Kokanee spewing eggs all over it right now," Hofer says. "So between that and the browns and ‘bows, you've got plenty of fish looking to gobble some protein before winter."