East Portal of the Gunnison River, CO
A Ruggedly Handsome Canyon Full of Trout
By Doug Dillingham
This big, bold, and beautiful 'bow with a belly full of Baetis mayflies is ready to be returned to its liquid lair. PHOTO BY DOUG DILLINGHAM
If fly fishing is a religion, an angling adventure into the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River is high church. This deep, precipitous, wild chasm’s fierce beauty, robust insect emergences, and legendary trout population sanctify the Black Canyon as Colorado fly fishing’s holy ground. I’ll never forget my first descent into this unique crack in the earth over a decade ago, as it had the feel of a religious experience. My senses struggled to breathe in the immense fullness and majesty of this gorgeous natural cathedral.
The genesis of the Gunnison River itself is in the tiny trout town of Almont, where the East and Taylor Rivers merge and sprint toward the town of Gunnison. About 26 road miles west of Gunnison, the Gunnison River flows into Blue Mesa Reservoir, the state’s largest body of water, and it is tamed twice more in short order at Morrow Point and Crystal Reservoirs. The fabled Black Canyon begins where Crystal Dam releases its burden; the first 2 miles of the 14-mile-long canyon are known as the East Portal.
While the entire Gunnison River from Almont downriver to the North Fork Gunnison (just below the Gunnison Gorge) is classified as Gold Medal Water by Colorado Parks & Wildlife (CPW), that only begins to describe the piscine population at the East Portal. According to a 2013 CPW electroshocking survey, the East Portal hosts 6,425 rainbow trout and 8,633 brown trout per mile. While 15,058 trout per mile is jaw-dropping, equally staggering is the fact that the size of the most frequently sampled rainbow trout in the survey was over 17 inches.