Article Written by Doug Freemann. Learn More About the author below / Article Read Time: 6 Minutes
High Country in the Uncompahgre National Forest
Colorado is known for its dramatic mountain scenery, cold and clean rivers, and world class trout fishing. Ridgway, the northern gateway to the San Juan Mountains, serves as an ideal launching point to experience some of the state’s most specular fishing and landscapes. The remote Gold Medal waters of the Black Canyon and Gunnison Gorge offer world class angling in a rugged environment, a must visit for any serious trout angler. The technical Pa-Co-Chu-Puk section of the Uncompahgre tailwater tests anglers’ abilities while offering consistent sight fishing opportunities for trophy trout. The San Juan high country offers a plethora of productive small streams with stunning surroundings. There is truly something for every angler’s preference in the region. Better yet, the area’s remote location keeps fishing pressure limited and makes solitude a commonly found commodity on the river. As a guide for RIGS Fly Shop, based in Ridgway, I am fortunate to frequent these phenomenal rivers and landscapes.
Colorado’s Gunnison River is one of the West’s finest fishing destinations. Although there are multiple sections of the Gunnison that offer great angling, the stretch from the outflow of Crystal Dam downstream to the town of Austin stands out with its wild setting, stable conditions, and healthy population of trout. The river in this area cuts through stunning desert landscapes, forming the Black Canyon and Gunnison Gorge - remote wilderness areas that offer world class fishing and scenery. It also bears a Gold Medal designation from below Crystal Dam to the Gunnison’s confluence with the North Fork of the Gunnison, well downstream.
A Gunnison Rainbow hits the net
Black Canyon National Park offers road access for wade fishing accompanied by jaw-droppingly dramatic scenery. The fishing in BCNP is equally spectacular. The Gunnison Gorge National Conservation area, downstream of the national park, offers a continuation of the great angling and views in an even more secluded setting. Most experience the “Gorge” through a three day overnight guided float fishing trip. Rafts and gear are packed in with mules due to the remote nature of this stretch and lack of road access. Anglers who venture into the Gunnison Gorge will be rewarded with solitude, more Gold Medal water, and stunning scenery. This remote wilderness area sees extremely limited fishing pressure, offering an angling experience like few others in the lower 48.
As the river winds downstream through the Gunnison Gorge, it eventually reaches its confluence with the North Fork of the Gunnison River at Pleasure Park. In this area the river is wider, and the gradient less steep than upstream stretches, making launching and fishing from drift boats possible, as well as providing easy access to wade fishing. This area is perfect for day trips due to its relative ease of access and more forgiving terrain. Although the gold medal designation ends shortly after the confluence with the North Fork, the fishing is still so excellent in the following section that one might struggle to notice a difference. The river continues downstream toward the town of Austin where it reaches the end of the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area.
Paco Cutthroat on the run
Travelling south from the desert canyonlands of the Black Canyon and Gunnison Gorge another area highlight lies at the Pa-Co-Chu-Puk access to Ridgway State Park. This area of the Uncompahgre River, below the dam on Ridgway Lake, is known for being one of the most technical fisheries in the state - but also for producing some of Colorado’s largest trout. It is an outlier of the region in that it receives higher levels of fishing pressure, but “Paco”, as it’s referred to locally, offers anglers an opportunity to sight fish in its crystal-clear waters. The average fish here is around 18”, but specimens are caught every year exceeding 25”. Every fish at Paco is earned, not given, and slipping one of its well-educated inhabitants into the net is a truly fulfilling experience. Access is comfortable and easy, with paths and seating along the river. It is also just a short drive from town. For those who enjoy a technical and visual trout fishing experience with the potential for a big payoff, Paco is a place to visit.
More High Country Beauty
Up valley from Paco, the dramatic peaks of the San Juans surround the town of Ridgway and are home to numerous small stream opportunities. Native Cutthroat trout, rainbow, brown, and brook trout are all represented in different drainages. For those who enjoy remote mountain scenery in a quaint setting, the Cimmaron and Sneffels ranges to the east and south of town respectively, are a perfect place to scratch a small stream itch. Access varies in difficulty, but there is ample public land to explore in both ranges, which lie within the Uncompahgre National Forest. Often the nymph box stays in the pack when venturing to these high-country streams as trout here are eager to rise to dry flies during summer months, the optimal time to visit these areas. This is a scenery and numbers game and tends not to disappoint on either front. Both ranges are loaded with small stream gems where it is uncommon to encounter other anglers.
As for equipment, the Gunnison requires stout gear. The trout are hotheaded and powerful, and it is not unusual to encounter fish over 18”. The same goes for the Uncompahgre at Paco. Although the river is relatively smaller in size, the fish are at least as big, and will thoroughly test equipment. The dynamic nature of these fisheries and their wide variety of water types makes having the appropriate gear critical to properly present flies. For rods, I prefer 5 and 6 weights, either 9’6”or 10’ in length, matched with a weight-forward fly line, such as a Trout Boss. These setups are versatile, allowing the angler to pivot seamlessly from roll casting nymph rigs to carrying tight loops with dry flies, while also having sufficient power to cast streamers - all of which can be effective. For the high country, with its narrower casting lanes and smaller fish, I size down to a 9’ 3 weight rod with a matching weight forward line. For tippet, I prefer Ultra Premium Fluorocarbon Tippet in 2X-6X, which knots well, has an outstanding strength to diameter ratio, and high abrasion resistance. The right gear will allow anglers to maximize time on the water through versatility and dependability when the fish of the trip is on the line.
A gear testing Gunnison Gorge Brown Trout
When planning your next fishing trip, keep this region of Southwest Colorado in mind. Anglers can expect to find a wide variety of angling opportunities to satisfy every preference, away from the crowds often found in more populous regions of the state. Ridgway serves as the perfect launching point from which to explore the area’s resources with a fly rod.
About the author
Doug Freemann is a Fly-Fishing Guide for RIGS Fly Shop, based in Ridgway, Colorado. He frequents the Gunnison, Uncompahgre, and San Miguel rivers as well as various local high-country streams. Previously he has guided on Wyoming’s North Platte River as well as around Colorado’s Front Range region. Prior to guiding, Doug was a member of the U.S. Youth Fly Fishing Team from 2013-2017. During his time on the team, he competed in three World Youth Fly Fishing Championships and completed his tenure as the team’s captain. Originally from the Philadelphia area, Doug has also been a featured fly tier at the International Fly-Tying Symposium in New Jersey.