Ok, so you are not in school anymore (maybe). 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? or B) What is the state bird of California? or 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.
June is prime time for the seeker of Gunnison River trout. Starting in the lower reaches of the Gunnison River near Austin, sometime in late May, the hatch progresses upstream into the Gunnison Gorge and then into the Black Canyon National Park. 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 to Olathe and 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, while the routes within the park are much more difficult.
Blue Colorado skies, clear cold water, orange stones, and Gunnison River trout –YeeHaw!
Joel L. Evans is an avid fisherman, outdoor writer and photographer, who has explored Western Colorado for decades.