We all converged at the Black Canyon Anglers headquarters outside of Delta, Colorado. This is a working ranch on the banks of the Gunnison. It is surrounded by peach orchards and vineyards, has lakes full of tiger trout (sterile brown/brookie hybrid), and gardens full of fresh produce. They put us up in our own little cabins, which were old mining shacks (from Telluride I think) that had been flown in and spruced up. Mine was up on a hill overlooking the whole spread. It had a lovely screened in porch where I spent most of my time,daydreaming that it was a century ago and I called this place home. Indians were friendly and drift boat/raft/fly rod technology was well advanced.
Next morning I shook off dreams at five-thirty and headed down for a hurried breakfast and to pile into the van that would take us to Chukkar trail. There we shouldered the dry bags we had packed the night before. I could hardly close mine and was the butt of a few jokes. Typical chick! The funny thing is that I took very few personal items. All that bulk was in my fishing stuff. Someone had told me that if you hit the hatch at the end, the fish can be sulking at the bottom and slipping you the fin. I wanted to be be prepared.
The hike was easier than I'd thought, just over a mile and well maintained. At the bottom the air was full of Stoneflies, huge bombers looking too heavy to defy gravity for long. Upstream was a long glassy corridor, and fish were rising all over it. Poison Ivy was everywhere, too, and so healthy its clumps looked like trees. There was another expedition getting ready to float and the beach was a mess of color: blue, red and yellow; rafts, oars, coolers, life jackets and dry bags. I went fishing to get out of the way and caught three chunky browns right off the bat out of fast water on a Pat's rubber legs and missed several more. They liked the fly twitched. At the head of a big pool in quieter water I moved a very large fish on the dry, it looked like a rainbow. It may well have eaten the fly; I was so transfixed with getting the drift right that I never set the hook at all.
At first it was bumper boats, but as we all dispersed you could start to believe you were alone in some Jurassic world where everything was huge, from bugs to brown trout and poison ivy bushes. We fished large dry flies just kissing the dark canyon walls. Sometimes you would find trout below splash marks on the rock, and often these were big. This kind of fishing is Wenert's specialty. He recently got a new shoulder and gave me a run for my money, even fishing from the back. There's only one thing you need to know about Wenert: he's a fishy dude. He catches the biggest fish out of every place we go, and usually when he does it, he's mid story about bass fishing or the good old days. I've seen him do it with Mexican Permit, Montana trout and Louisiana Redfish, and he didn't disappoint on the Gunnison.
We had the same guide for all three days. Joe D is a guide for Duranglers on the San Juan and Rio Grande. He's an excellent oarsman, and good company. Our other three guides were young men from different points in Colorado, Matt, Gabe and Ryan. They put on a good show. The food in particular was outstanding. Our last night we had one of the tastiest and most perfectly cooked fillet mignons that I've had in quite a while bought from a local rancher. When Joe lost his wedding ring, one of the guides found it and cooked it into his blueberry pancake.
We camped the first night at Buttermilk rapids, a mild sounding name for a fairly mild rapid. Our tents had already been set up, and to my surprise I had my own, set off among the trees. Hours until dark, and I went fishing. I started nymphing deep seams with JP's ultra heavy stone and a caddis emerger my dad ties (daddy's caddie) and caught several browns, four of which were maybe 12” and another hook jawed 18”. They all ate the caddis. Later I switched to a small black streamer on a medium sink tip and caught a half dozen fish, all over 16”, with one 20”. I moved quite a few others, one of which seemed truly large, well over twenty. Walking back that evening in the plum light, I realized I hadn't been this happy in a long time. Night temps were balmy and the sky full of stars, the river loud in its tumbling. I slept a deep sleep with no dreams.
Fish were rising when I got up to pee just past first light. There was no coffee, and the still forms of sleeping fishing guides here and there in the sand were all dead silent, so I crept off with rod in hand. I had just gotten myself set up to throw a small dry to some nice fish rising right against the bank, when there was a terrific splash on the far side that at first I took to be the sort of trout I dream about, but then saw it was an irate beaver. He swam right at me before making another dive bomb that almost drenched me, then several more. I've never had them come that close. I gave up going after his fish and went back for some scalding camp coffee instead.
The order of the next day was nymphing, as the Stoneflies seemed to have left the air and fish weren't coming up. My stonefly nymph of choice is so heavy it didn't get high ratings from the guides at first. At least half of the big fish I hooked were on it though, and it shears through fast water to get the other flies down, never mind the splash. Big fish aside, most wanted the color red-prince nymphs and copper johns in that shade were lethal.
That night we camped at Boulder Garden rapids, also aptly named. I walked down to check out the first set and was properly awed. The house sized boulder in the middle of it is called Flipper. The last day is the day with the most whitewater, and I thought it was impressive. Not so much the rapids and the volume of water, but the narrow technicality of it-to miss an oar stroke in the wrong place could be really nasty. We bounced off a few cliff walls and got wet, but no mishaps. It was awesome.
At the end of the whitewater section the river passes through what is known as the “Hall of the River Kings”. The river is narrow here, the water deep and green, and there is no bank, only cliff walls towering on either side. We found the Stoneflies again, and fish eating them, and were able to throw dries for a while. When action slowed I got out my sinking tip and trolled behind the boat with a huge monstrosity of a streamer, but nothing latched on.
We had lunch where the Smith Fork comes in. There were a bunch of Carp swimming around right at the mouth of the stream, one of which was huge(15lbs). The guides were throwing bread and chicken at it. One of them remarked that Carp liked the color yellow, and I thought of a canary yellow streamer that JP had tied for me when we were first dating. I put it on. Where at first there had been several fish, now that I had a fly in the water, I could see none. I kept throwing it, letting it sink and inch its way slowly along the bottom. Then I saw the faint blue shadow of a fish. It was the big one. He was broadside to my fly and facing slightly away, gliding glacially along. I twitched the fly once and he turned. I twitched it again and I saw him pounce and suck with thick white lips. I set and he took off, everyone letting expletives fly. I cranked down my drag but it was all I could do to hold on and he was well into backing in seconds. I was able to gain on him a few times but it was clear we would have to chase him. So Ryan jumped on the oars and Matt grabbed a ridiculously small net and after him we went. When I finally managed to bring him close, my 6 weight was bent well beyond double and Matt was swinging madly with the net....one or two passes, and he was gone, sinking back without a whisper.
In retrospect I know exactly how we should have landed this fish, and I don't know why it didn't occur to me then. Chasing the fish with the boat was all well and good, necessary, even, but we had to get on land ourselves to finally land him. Fish like that are simply too big to do anything but beach. So no photo, but one awesome memory. All in all this whole trip was like a dream. Everything is so wild. One morning I saw a snake in the process of devouring a four inch trout. One afternoon a Golden Eagle followed us for a spell. And the fish are a class all their own. It was worth all the hype.