One of my favorite fly fishing writers, Nathaniel Riverhorse Nakadate, once wrote that "a river is just water in the act of falling to other places." This keen observation is both heady and brilliant, yet incomplete, at least when describing certain legendary rivers. The Gunnison River, as it pulses through the Black Canyon, is one of those transcendent rivers that eclipses Nakadate's poignant description.
The Gunnison River within that deep, dark crack in the earth is infinitely more than simply falling water. It's dizzying hatches of aquatic insects — a bubbling, frothy, earth-scented cauldron of writhing macroinvertebrates. It's the mesmerizing flash of a heavenly-hued brown trout flank, bejeweled with a galaxy of crimson planets, as it rolls on an angelically-winged mayfly dun. It's the graceful and purposeful rise of a bulky, red-streaked rainbow as it ascends to intercept a tiny bluewing emerger rocketing to the surface. And it's a vast array of wild creatures — mink, black bears, mule deer, cougars, peregrine falcons, and bald eagles — all drawing sustenance from the life-giving ribbon of liquid.
Most of the Black Canyon is accessible only to a few intrepid souls able to make the daunting descent down to the river. However, East Portal Road, which is normally open from Tax Day through Halloween, allows vehicle access to a short swath of hallowed angling real estate beneath the frustrated burden of Crystal Dam. This fly water, known as the East Portal, is the genesis of the famed Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
The first thing that is immediately obvious at the East Portal is its gorgeous grandeur. The second observation remains thinly veiled until you unfurl a cast or two...this is a fabulous trout fishery. In fact, the East Portal boasts a jaw-dropping 15,000 trout per mile, and many fish, chiefly the rainbows, are sizable salmonids. And due to an eternal buffet of carotene-rich scuds, they are a kaleidoscope of color.
My favorite time to fly fish the Gunnison River at the East Portal is in the spring immediately after the road opens. The flow is generally tame and the fish are hungry and naive, not having tasted fur, hackle, or hook for several months. Spring baetis hatches can be biblical, ripped right out of the pages of Exodus. Prospecting the Portal's emerald green depths with a grey Sparkle Wing RS2, Barr's BH BWO Emerger, or Radiation Baetis can turn up browns to 20 inches and rainbows to two feet. Mayfly-sippers are gullible for Mathews' BWO Sparkle Dun and Furimsky's B.D.E. BWO when drifting duns pepper the surface.
During summertime, hordes of humanity descend on the East Portal like mosquitoes to exposed skin on a humid summer eve, but the angling remains excellent. Stoneflies emerge in early summer — little yellow sallies, golden stones, and giant salmonflies — fluttering about with a lumbering, graceless beauty, like a belabored Chinook helicopter. Egg-laying flights of PMDs and caddisflies keep trout looking up and well-fed, and an Elk Hair Caddis or Parachute Adams can do the same. A passing afternoon cloudburst can stimulate mayfly hatches, PMDs, Red Quills, and even a few lingering Bluewings.
Autumn at the East Portal is graced by a return of blue-winged olives, with ravenous trout holding in conga lines downstream of insect-laden riffles to drink them in. The last caddis hatches of the year stir the affections of fish and fisher alike. Miniscule midges once again become a staple on a trout's menu. And the palate of the river comes to life, a quaking cacophony of yellow, orange, red, and gold, intoxicating the senses. Fall at the Portal is an avalanche of beauty and has the potential for a big fish or two as they seek to inhale calories for the dearth of winter.
While most Colorado tailwaters are often snooty and pretentious fly fishing venues, where microscopic flies adorn underweight tippet, the East Portal requires neither. Just tie on a stout leader and some familiar fly box fodder and you can dupe a 'bow or brown big enough to entice your reel to sing and re-acquaint you with your backing. I can't ever seem to get enough of the East Portal. It keeps beckoning me back like a sensuous siren's song.
Doug Dillingham is the author of “Fly Fishing the Gunnison Country” which is available at Montrose Anglers https://montroseanglers.com/collections/accessories/products/fly-fishing-the-gunnison-country?variant=31512983699567and online at http://www.gunnisonflyfish.com.