Outdoors: Angling on the Gunnison
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
HOTCHKISS, Colo. – I was looking for a change of scenery and a change of luck, fishing-wise, this fall, when a friend suggested an outing to Pleasure Park. The name, at least, offered promise on both counts.
I met up with a couple of companions at this spot, just west of Hotchkiss, in early October, with camping and fishing in mind.
Pleasure Park is a privately run operation near the confluence of the North Fork and the main stem of the Gunnison River. A private enterprise surrounded by public land and operated by the same owners for 28 years, the park offers everything from a handful of small rental cabins to camping spots ($15 per person per night) with restroom/shower facilities, plus a well-stocked flyshop, bar, fishing-guide services and boats for rent.
It also has the sole permit to run jet boats up the Gunnison River, which it uses to ferry fishing crafts and wade fishermen upriver into the lower end of the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area.
In the summertime, these boats can only run from 6-8 a.m. In the fall, an angler is instructed to be at the boat launch at 7 a.m., and the jet boats can run from 7-9 a.m.
I’ve long had a float trip through the stunning Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park (upriver from the gorge) on my bucket list, but a multi-day float-and-camp trip through the massive, vertical rock walls of the canyon, booked with an outfitter, comes at a hefty price. I figured I’d give the Gunnison River a try for the first time for the far more reasonable camping fee at Pleasure Park. (There is an adjacent Bureau of Land Management day-use area, with a public boat launch, but no camping is permitted there).
It was already hot when I pulled into my camping spot beneath massive cottonwoods shortly before noon on the first Tuesday in October. I quickly donned my waders and vest and headed downstream, away from the gorge, where immediate access along the bank is private property – open to Pleasure Park guests.
The Gunnison is Gold Medal Water just above Pleasure Park and the North Fork confluence (water able to produce 60 pounds of trout per acre, and at least twelve 14-inch or larger trout per acre), but I figured some of those fish had to be downstream. They are – I just didn’t catch them.
The river isn’t like any other I’ve fished in Colorado. In the vicinity of Pleasure Park, it courses through a rugged, desert-like environment, bringing life to an otherwise harsh landscape. It was wide, but running at only about 300 cubic feet per second – a low that one local guide said he hadn’t seen in a decade.
I fiddled around with the recommended hopper-dropper combination of grasshopper with a trailing blue-wing olive nymph or emerger to no avail. I finally caught a couple of browns (nothing topping 10 inches) on a dry blue-wing olive pattern during the best afternoon hatch I saw during my visit. Had I the presence of mind to try a yellow sally, I think I’d have scored a memorable afternoon.
What I do remember is not seeing another soul for hours on this big stretch of river.
Judging from chats with other anglers, as boaters and waders converged each evening, the fishing was hit or miss. Some did well and some didn’t – in some cases with exactly the same flies. The following morning, I headed upstream toward the gorge, which involves fording the North Fork and walking a trail upriver while avoiding poison ivy along the riverbank. I stood in the middle of a waterway that was at least the width of an L.A. freeway, getting skunked. I was so discouraged, I changed my mind about renting a one-person boat the following morning. I had intended to get a jet boat ride upstream and then float/wade back down to Pleasure Park, fishing as I went.
Elsewhere along the river, my friends weren’t having much luck either.
After lunch, I headed back downstream to enjoy a bit of dry-fly luck with a yellow sally, flirting with striking browns and landing a few. The bag limit for browns here is four per day and I can see why. The river is loaded with them. Rainbows, reintroduced with a resistant variety after whirling disease decimated their population, must be returned to the water.
On the final strike of the afternoon, my line sliced through the water with a tremendous tug. I uttered an involuntary “Whoa!” just as it came hurdling back toward me. A big, unseen fish had snapped the fly off.
Evenings were spent fishing from the boat launch area, where rising fish dimpled the water as the setting sun cast the hillsides in a rosy hue, but no one was having much luck. I’m pretty sure a lot of these trout were of the 4-inch variety; we’d all caught some during the day when the tiny fish managed to hold onto a fly.
Two guys, each in a one-person pontoon of the sort I’d opted not to rent, pulled up at dusk and reported consistent success upriver with a girdle bug (picture a brown, cigar-shaped body with long spindly legs, meant to imitate a stonefly nymph).
I didn’t have a girdle bug, but one of my companions did, and she pulled a half-dozen or more browns out of the water in one of my downstream haunts the following day.
I was fishing nearby, but nymphing wasn’t doing much for me, so I resorted to dry flies in an attempt to catch the fat rainbows I briefly saw leaping out of the water. I caught zilch for my efforts and finally trudged back to camp to pack up and hit the road.
I’m thinking next fall I’ll be back with a healthy stock of girdle bugs, prepared to take on the three-mile float and wade from Smith Fork to Pleasure Park.
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The Wheeler Opera House will remain dark into 2021, with current COVID-19 public health orders in place. Meanwhile, the masonry work on the exterior of the building will continue into July.