We were mostly to ourselves. Considering there is a good road next to a good river, that seems somewhat amazing. Normally, in the fishing quest, it is a tradeoff of ease of access vs solitude. But then, when you consider the population of Hinsdale County, maybe it isn’t so amazing.
Hinsdale County, which is practically speaking the same as Lake City, is one of the least populated counties in the state. Come summer, the town swells and every parking spot is threatened. Lake City is a hub for outdoor recreationists with spectacular 14’ers to climb, four wheel drive roads to crawl along on, ATV trails to explore, camping, hiking, fall colors to gaze upon, and yes, fishing.
The Lake Fork of the Gunnison River headwaters above Lake San Cristobal, a natural lake south of Lake City, was formed by a large landslide centuries ago. From the lake on downstream until the Lake Fork spills into Blue Mesa Reservoir some 30 to 40 miles to the north, it is a river of beauty and clarity. Flowing mostly gentle, the Lake Fork courses with some of the clearest water you will find in western Colorado.
Public access is a patchwork of short but frequent stops along Highway 149. You must watch all the signs as you drive the highway, noting public land beginnings and endings so you can know where you can fish.
Between Lake City and the Gate campground, the river and the highway are never far apart, but even so, it is often in a shallow canyon. So depending on the pull off you choose to stop at, it may be a steep hike to the river. Here the water is typically deep and slow.
Downstream from Gateview, the valley floor opens somewhat, revealing a more placid river. Hay fields and ranch houses create a calm setting. Public water is abundant in this section where the river and the highway part. Highway 149 turns east on its way to the town of Gunnison while the river continues on a northerly course, now absent the pavement but flanked by a good gravel road for several miles.
Wide bends, open casting, and easily waded riffles define this section of the river. Stream improvements built by Colorado Parks and Wildlife years ago consist of large boulders in midstream, tree stumps along the banks, and rock wing deflectors.
This is a wonderful dry fly water. Room for a backcast. Slower water that won’t abruptly steal your drift. Ability to stand back aways to hide your presence. Calm water to see the rise.
These structures create deep holes where there would otherwise likely be no good holding water, for sure so at lower flows. Because it is easy here to walk the banks, it is tempting to stand high and cast into these man-made holes. But low, clear water demands otherwise. Act like a hunter, which is essentially what you are when you chase a trout. Keep your profile low, move slowly, and make a minimum number of false casts to a maximum drift free distance.
Further downstream at Red Bridge, the canyon narrows. The road splits. The main road crosses the bridge and leaves the river. The secondary road continues for about five miles, always immediately next to the river, dead ending at the inlet to Blue Mesa Reservoir, at least when the reservoir is full.
The road is actually the old railroad bed. Even just the drive is interesting as the road is narrow with cuts through the rocky hillside that a train would have coursed a century ago. It dead ends because the train would have kept going all the way to the Gunnison valley, but now the lake covers its history.
And for those that notice that the bridge is anything but red, it actually was red until a few years ago when the old wooden bridge, which was indeed painted red, was replaced with a modern structure. Just isn’t the same quaintness anymore.
From RedBridge to the reservoir’s inlet, this section is more pocket water style fishing, with an occasional flat. When the insects are hatching and the fish are looking up, this can be the best water. Depends on your favorite style of fishing, water flows, and your ability to wade. The occasional larger fish can be found here, as the holes are deeper and its closeness to the reservoir where lake fish may make their way upstream. Especially in the fall when browns are looking to spawn.
If this river were located near a highly populated area, you wouldn’t be able to find a parking pulloff, even in midweek. But given its proximity to not much other than some of the most beautiful country there is, then you can expect little competition and large adventure.
The Lake Fork of the Gunnison can be accessed either by paved road via US 50 east of Montrose, then Highway 149 south to Lake City. Or check the map for the Blue Mesa cutoff, a good gravel road shortcut across the high mesa that turns off near the western end of Blue Mesa Reservoir and then encounters the river at Red Bridge.
Close, few anglers, classic wadeable water, magnificent scenery, and a good population of fish. What more do you need?
Joel L. Evans is an avid fisherman, outdoor writer, and photographer, who has explored Colorado for decades. He is a financial advisor with Wells Fargo Advisors.