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High Plains Outdoors: Head To The High Country

John Norton
Taylor Norton with a stringer of hard fighting, great eating Kokanee salmon caught during the annual late summer/fall run near Gunnison, Colorado.

My first visit to the Rocky Mountains occurred back in the late seventies when I was a ‘whipper snapper’ in my late twenties. A couple of buddies and I traveled to the mountains near Gunnison, Colorado where an outfitter had set up a drop camp for us. We spent several glorious days hunting deer and it’s here that I got my first look at wild bear. When a herd of 12 elk came trotting by within 75 yards of our camp, I knew I was in outdoor heaven.

I’ve been back to Colorado many times since then on hunting and fishing trips. Up until a couple years ago, I partnered with a good friend and outfitted archery elk and bear hunts in the mountains north of Steamboat Springs. But, the Gunnison Valley will always be special to me. I love to fish the mountain rivers and streams and deep, cold water reservoirs every bit as much as I enjoy hunting. It would be hard to find a better destination than Gunnison for one’s first trip to Colorado or one’s one-hundredth trip, for that matter. I’m making plans later this summer to spend a few days fishing for Kokanee, which are the land locked version of sockeye salmon.

The rivers and Blue Mesa Reservoir near Gunnison is home to the greatest number of Kokanee to be found anywhere in the US. The Roaring Judy Fish Hatchery is situated on the East River just above where the East and Taylor River join to form the Gunnison River. The hatchery produces 3 million kokanee and just under 300,000 trout annually. The salmon make their way downstream to the Blue Mesa Reservoir and after spending 4 years in the deep, cold reservoir, make their spawning run back up the Gunnison. The majority of Kokanee take a left and go into the East River, ultimately finding their way to where they were spawned but some turn right and run up the Taylor River.

Public access for fishing is allowed around the junction of the two rivers as well as ponds just below the fish hatchery. Here spin or fly fishing is allowed. Below the confluence of the Taylor and East, in the Gunnison River, it’s fly fishing only. The annual kokanee run begins in mid August and lasts well into October, September being a prime month.

But, Kokanee fishing is definitely not limited to the spawning run. Summer fishing is usually very dependable in Blue Mesa Reservoir. I’ve fished here with guides on several occasions and trolling with lead core line is usually the best way to get lures down. Blue Mesa is also ground zero for catching giant lake trout. Don Walker holds the record for the largest Lake Trout in Colorado caught from Blue Mesa, a 55 pound, 5 ounce whopper that measured just over 44 inches.  It’s pretty obvious we fishermen and not the only species that love eating the plentiful Kokanee!

It would take much more than this weekly outdoors column to do justice to all the great fishing around Gunnison. One of the most scenic places I’ve fished is Morrow Point Reservoir, just downstream of Blue Mesa. The famous Black Canyon of the Gunnison below Blue Mesa can best be described as breathtakingly beautiful. Fishing at Morrow Point reservoir can be very good but access is a bit more challenging than Blue Mesa.

BACK TO THE KOKANEE! I’m making plans to join my newfound friend John Norton, executive director of the Gunnison-Crested Butte Tourism Association for a couple days of fly fishing for kokanee later this summer. John says the river running spawners often run in schools of anywhere from five to ten and often even more numerous. Their strikes are usually a reaction strike when a wet fly comes floating into their strike zone. John says the best action is within a foot of bottom and flies with bit of red often produce the best.

I’m far from an expert with a fly rod but thanks to some training from an uncle early in life, I learned the rudiments of fly fishing. I just don’t do enough of it to be really good.  A five weight rod and a handful of wet flies is about the only tackle I’ll need for this trip.

You might recall the elk that held the world record for many years taken around 1900 that was on display in the old Conoco hardware store in Crested Butte. I remember taking a video of Mr. Tony Mihelick, owner of the store back in the early eighties. Tony took the time to detail to me the history of this huge elk and told of the events that led to the antlers being on display at his store.  I believe the antlers are now on display at the Crested Butte Visitors Center. There are some fine outfitters that offer big game hunts throughout the Gunnison Valley on public land and private ranches.

If you’re planning a summer get away to the Gunnison Valley or possible looking ahead to a fall hunting trip, the Gunnison Crested Butte website is a valuable tool. The website gives a good insight into all that is available to do and see in the area.

Here’s hoping you can find the time to escape the Texas heat this summer on vacation to a place that is very special to me. Even if you aren’t an avid fishermen, camping in a tent, RV or cabin along a winding mountain river might just be the perfect solution to the past few months of staying close to home. If a crack at catching these scrappy Kokanee salmon gets your fishing blood pumping, I’ll see you in Gunnison this summer!

Contact Outdoors writer Luke Clayton via his website.

Outdoors writer, radio host and book author Luke Clayton has been addicted to everything outdoors related since his childhood when he grew up hunting and fishing in rural northeast Texas. Luke pens a weekly newspaper column that appears in over thirty newspapers.