Feeding Frenzy on the Gunnison

“You think it’s worth a go?”

My buddy Ryan and I were standing over his kitchen table looking down at a map of Black Canyon of the Gunnison Wilderness Area. The stretch of the Gunnison River that we were eyeballing had the potential to produce some nice trout, and we had heard rumors that the salmon fly hatch might be on. What that means, for anyone who might not be a fluent trout junkie, is that the fish would be feeding on giant bugs with reckless abandon.

But there were other factors to consider.

“I dunno, that’s a hell of a drive down there… and then there’s the hike in,” I responded.

Judging from the map, the route from the rim of the canyon down to the river looked impassable without a parachute. It descended 2,722 feet in two miles. With our fully loaded packs, it would be brutal.

Gunnison River, Colo.

The previous three days fishing the Yampa River near Ryan’s home in Steamboat Springs, Colo., had produced some nice rainbows, but overall things were tough. We were looking to change up our strategy, and the Gunnison seemed like a good bet.

We put in a couple of calls to the National Park Service (the wilderness area is surrounded by Gunnison National Park) and a handful of fly shops that confirmed…well they didn’t confirm anything. Our guts told us that the salmon fly hatch could still be on. We didn’t have a lot to go on, but so what? We loaded up the truck, cranked some bluegrass and were on our way.

The hike down into Black Canyon was just as challenging as it had looked on paper. There was no marked trail and the terrain was made up of boulders, loose rock and sand that left us constantly on tenuous footing.

Feeling a bit haggard about half way down to the river, we crossed paths with a couple from Denver who were on their way back out after a three-day fishing trip.

“It’s on!” they said, beaming with excitement.

They relayed a few stories while we stood there wide-eyed and grinning ear-to-ear, and went on their way. The good news was refreshing, and it fueled us as we made our way down the final, sketchy descent.

When we reached the river, we were greeted by salmon flies the size of B-52 bombers buzzing awkwardly around the canyon and the sweet sound of trout plucking their fallen comrades out of the surface film. They say that trout can take in 70 percent of their yearly protein during the salmon fly hatch. After spending five minutes taking in the scene next to the river, there was no doubt in my mind that this was an accurate statement.

TRCP’s Brandon Helm with a brown trout from the Gunnison River.

The two days that we spent in the canyon were unforgettable. Big, healthy Gunnison River browns were hitting salmon fly imitations so big and ugly that I would be reluctant to throw them at the scrappy smallies on my home waters of the tidal Potomac. I don’t remember how many fish we caught before a dam release upstream put a damper on the hatch. What I do know is that there were plenty of big fish to keep us both entertained, and to solidify this trip as one of the most unique fishing experiences that I have had to date.

Colorado State Fish Swims in Only One Stream

Can you tell whether this is a greenback? Photo courtesy of ‘TRCP’s Native Trout Adventures.’

The greenback cutthroat trout, Colorado’s state fish, can be found only in a 4-mile span of Bear Creek, located southwest of Colorado Springs.

A recent study conducted by the University of Colorado delved into the genetics of the greenback cutthroat trout and found that many were mistaking the Colorado River cutthroat, Rio Grande cutthroat and others for the greenback.

The U.S. Forest Service is currently exploring options to conserve the greenback and creek upon which the fish depends. Meanwhile, TRCP partner Trout Unlimited is working to address trail impacts the Bear Creek area.

For any anglers out there thinking they caught a greenback only to learn later that they were mistaken, the TRCP feels your pain. Last summer, we shot an episode of “TRCP’s Native Trout Adventures” in which we mistakenly thought we were fishing for – and catching – greenback cutthroat trout in Pike National Forest near South Park, Colo.

A Colorado Sportsman’s Perspective on the State’s New Roadless Rule

Native Trout

The Colorado roadless rule keeps some of the state’s last remaining intact public lands accessible to sportsmen and other citizens. Photo by Nick Payne.

Following numerous revisions and several years of debate, a management plan for Colorado’s 4.2 million acres of roadless national forest backcountry has been published in the federal register, cementing it as the law of the land until another politician or judge sweeps through with enough momentum or gusto for reform.

Considered in the context of the 10th Circuit Court’s recent decision to uphold the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule, the finalization of the Colorado rule – and the importance of maintaining a high standard for backcountry lands in the state – is undeniably clear.

The Colorado roadless rule maintains that standard by including roughly 30 percent, or 1.2 million acres of backcountry, under a higher level of safeguards (i.e., “upper tier” areas) from unneeded development. While the rule keeps these areas intact, it also allows some backcountry lands to be developed for coal mining and ski area expansion. It also allows tree-cutting and some road building in backcountry lands located within 1.5 miles of communities recognized as at risk for wildfires. Colorado’s remaining backcountry areas are managed in a similar fashion to the 2001 rule.

Sportsmen were a consistent, engaged and reasonable presence throughout the multi-year rule-making process. Recommendations from members of our community helped result in the final Colorado rule being a common-sense management tool able to assure conservation of some of the state’s best hunting and fishing grounds and most valuable fish and wildlife habitat. The state of Colorado and the U.S. Forest Service likewise deserve recognition for their efforts to refine and improve the plan for the benefit of Colorado’s backcountry traditions.

As someone who enjoys backcountry hunting and fishing throughout the state and who is well-acquainted with both the Colorado and national rules, I can celebrate the fact that much of Colorado’s most important national forest lands will remain intact and accessible for hunters and anglers into the foreseeable future.

Data from the Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife demonstrates that more than 900,000 acres of lands designated as “upper tier” under the new rule provide extremely important habitat for much of Colorado’s bedrock fish and wildlife, including cutthroat and other wild trout species, elk, mule deer, pronghorn antelope, grouse and bighorn sheep.

Backcountry roadless areas are lands already largely devoid of roads and other development. Daily, they are becoming rarer and rarer. The Colorado roadless rule does not close any existing roads or trails. Instead, it keeps some of the state’s last remaining intact public lands intact and accessible to sportsmen and other citizens. That equals thousands of acres that I know I can depend on for a true backcountry experience, and that’s huge in my world.