Fly Fishing the Gunnison Country
Early September…probably the single most exciting time to be on the rivers in the Gunnison Country with a fly rod in hand. This fall, even more so than the last few years, North America’s largest kokanee salmon run out of Blue Mesa Reservoir is looking like it will be a good one. Summertime sonar data from Blue Mesa suggested this would be a good run, and the salmon are now proving the data right. Salmon are in the river in BIG numbers right now, spread out all the way from Blue Mesa to Roaring Judy Fish Hatchery, and since it is early in the run they are feisty, scrappy, and ready to tussle. In fact, many of these salmonids have yet to fully lose their silvery hue and can be found in every shade between rick, brick-red and light, silvery-blue.
Many fly anglers assume salmon cannot be hooked in the mouth because of the old wives tale stating, “kokanee quit eating when they are on their spawning run.” In my experience, this simply isn’t true. Yes, sometimes kokanee strike a fly out of aggression, but am I supposed to believe that the dozens of koks I’ve lip-hooked on trout beads or a #18 BH Flashback Pheasant Tail Nymph are striking out of aggression? I don’t think so…they are eating, at least a little bit. These misguided anglers drift heavily weighted flies through big pods of salmon in an intentional effort to foul-hook kokanee, which is both illegal and altogether unnecessary, as they will readily inhale a fly.
Some of the flies that have the best chance to be latched onto by a big, nasty, kype-jawed, and humpbacked salmon buck are a Western Coachman, Theo’s Gold Bead Bomber, Mickey Finn, Skykomish Sunrise, and Polar Shrimp. I think the ultimate kokanee salmon rig for the Gunnison River is pairing Theo’s Bomber with a BH Western Coachman, while making sure to add enough split-shot to your set-up to get the flies down to where the salmon are holding…at the bottom. If you are fortunate enough to find a good, well-populated salmon hole to yourself, better yet with dark, overcast skies (which creates conditions where salmon are most active), you can literally catch kokanee hand-over-fist. Some of the finest kokanee holes on the Gunny are the confluence in Almont, the Guardrail Hole (below Almont Campground), Cooper Ranch West, and the appropriately named, Kokanee Hotel (at the Gunnison River SWA aka Van Tuyl).
Watch for porpoising salmon to let you know where the fish are, and repetitively drift your tandem rig of sub-surface salmon food through a good pod of kokanee and in short order you will likely be hooked up and enjoying what is a surprisingly wild ride. Early in the spawning run, kokanee are extremely strong fighters and just like rainbow trout, are great leapers and often create quite an aerobatic show as they desperately try to free themselves of your clutches. And don’t forget that this is the time of year to target some of the Gunnison River’s biggest browns and ‘bows which are dogging pods of salmon looking to feast on salmon eggs. Target these fish with trout beads or virtually anything red.