Black Canyon of the Gunnison Gear Guide
by Troy Youngfleish, Telluride Angler
The Black Canyon is a world renowned section of the Gunnison River, tucked between the Uncompahgre Plateau and Cimarron Mountains sub range of the San Juans. The Canyon can be accessed by various trails, some within the National Park, others inside the Gunnison Gorge Wilderness. There are several commercial outfitters offering one to three day float trips through the Gorge section of the Canyon, encompassing 14 miles of outstanding fishing and unparalleled scenery. Anglers must plan gear choices depending on time of year, duration of stay and whether travel will be by boat or foot. The following is a suggested gear list for both float and wade options when planning a fly fishing trip to the Black Canyon. This is NOT a where, how or when to fish the Gunny article, simply a resource for folks planning a visit.
3-Day Float Essentials
9’ 5wt- moderate action: may be used for dry fly fishing and possible nymphing stick.
9’ 6wt-moderate to fast: used for large dry flies (stone flies and hoppers, hopper dropper), nymph rigs and streamer fishing.
9’ 7wt- fast action: this will serve as a dedicated streamer rod out of the boat.
I recommend 9′ rods in all line weights because the wading angler is at a disadvantage with a shorter rod. You’ll probably do quite a bit of wading on your float trip. If you plan to carry a dedicated boat fishing dry fly rod, an 8 1/2′ or 8’8″ 4 or 5-weight is a great choice. This depends upon the depth of your quiver.
Generally I prefer to have a dedicated reel for each rod to avoid having to switch out mid-float. The Gunnison is a fairly large and swift body of water, coupled with large and hard fighting fish, requiring a quality reel with substantial drag components.
Experienced Gunnison anglers err on the side of durable reels. The Black Canyon breaks things. Whether floating or wading, your equipment will likely bounce off some hard objects.
Favorite “durable” reels for the Gunnison include:
Ross Gunnison (No coincidence in name, this reel is built for the task.)
Abel Reels (durable construction)
Hatch Finatic (durable construction)
Galvan Torque (classic design for the Gunnison)
Floating weight forward 5 and 6wt lines. “Dry-dropper” style lines, including the SA Mastery MPX, are really useful in the Gunnison. The SA Infinity Taper is terrific for nymphing or making long casts with heavy flies, including Salmonfly dries.
Intermediate sink or streamer line for 7wt. Streamers are a primary technique in August, September and October
While fluorocarbon is generally unnecessary in the Gunnison, heavy, abrasion-resistant materials are the rule. We are predisposed toward Rio leaders and tippets because they are stiffer and stronger than most others. Tippet spools in size 1x-6x should be in your pack.
Standard 9’ 3x and 4x leaders are the rule from July-October. You’ll nymph with 3x-5x tippet depending upon fly size. Most dry flies may be fished on 5x, except Blue Winged Olives, which require 6x to consistently fool Gunnison risers.
Salmonfly Hatch Note: My standard salmonfly dry fly leader is a Rio Powerflex 9′ 2x. Tippet lighter than 3x will consistently break during this hatch.
While wet wading is generally the rule in summer months, the water is cold and weather can be unpredictable during the shoulder seasons. Having a lightweight pair of waders can make the difference between a successful trip and lost fishing time due to adverse conditions. There is no point in packing waist-high waders, however, because the Gunnison is a deep river. Sturdy wading boots with a Vibram sole are ideal for time spent in the canyon, allowing the angler to feel steady clambering over the many large boulders on shore as well as the slippery river bottom. Wet felt is much more slippery than rubber on smooth, dry rocks. The primary wading danger in the Black Canyon occurs along the streambank.
All commercial float trips begin at Chukar trail, a gradual 1.2 mile downhill hike. Clients are responsible for hiking in their personal gear for all float trips. A 100 liter backpack style dry bag will be necessary in order to carry gear and ensures keeping your belongings dry while floating the river. Check to see whether your outfitter provides this dry bag/backpack. If not, you’ll need one.
A waterproof fishing pack is ideal for daily fishing duties. Some anglers choose to wear their lumbar packs below their PFDs while floating, but most of us clip them to the gear pile or raft frame. Depending upon weather and river levels, your pack might get pretty wet. The Fishpond Thunderhead Submersible Lumbar Pack is just about the right size.
Your guide will have a boat net, so leave yours at home.
Ideally, two pairs of quality sunglasses with copper or brown lenses.
Spending three days in the canyon while fitting all of your gear into a dry bag predicates thoughtful planning when packing for your trip.
Light puffy jacket
Capilene pants and shirt
Two pairs of shorts
One pair of long pants
Three pairs of socks
Light gloves and beanie
Three sun hoodies or SPF fishing shirts
Hike-In Trip Essentials
Due to the difficulty of hike-in options, pack efficiently and minimize your gear.
I would take two rods, a 9’ 5wt and a 9’ 6wt. Some anglers prefer a 9 1/2′ 6wt for high stick nymphing while wading deep water in the Gunnison.
One reel for each rod with corresponding floating line
Same as above: 9’ 3x and 4x leaders with tippet down to 6x, except during the salmonfly hatch when you’ll need some 1x and 2x.
Between March and June and September through November the weather can be cold and unsettled. I would definitely take a pair of lightweight waders during these periods to get the full enjoyment out of your days. If hiking into the canyon during the hot summer months it is generally unnecessary to bring waders. Use the space in your bag for other items. Again, sturdy Vibram sole boots are important. Neoprene wading socks add warmth and comfort for long days of athletic wading in a rough environment.
The Fishpond Wind River Roll-Top Bag is indispensable for wade fishing in the Gunnison. It’s easy to use, comfortable to wear as a day pack and compacts to the size of the items being carried inside. Completely waterproof, it serves as a handy flotation aid for those ill-advised crossings. Clip your favorite Fishpond chest pack onto the front straps and you’ll be able to access your fly boxes and tools without taking the pack all the way off. This is the ultimate Gunnison fishing kit.
Nets are a love-hate in the Gunnison. Certainly useful for landing large fish, they are a distinct nuisance while scrambling through brush and ducking under trees. If you bring one, make it’s a short-handled model to minimize brush snagging.
Two pair of polarized, brown or copper lenses are ideal.
Weight and space are important factors when hiking in. Some of the trails will test the most fit anglers. Pack light!
Light puffy jacket (except mid-summer)
Capilene pants and shirt
One pairs of shorts
One pair of long pants (critical for poison ivy protection)
2-3 pairs of socks
Light gloves and beanie (spring and fall)
One sun hoody and one SPF fishing shirt
Additional gear for hike in trips:
Small lightweight tent or bivvy sack
Sleeping pad and bag
Jetboil or similar lightweight stove
Water filter-this is a must have!
Cord for hanging food….even in the daytime
1st Aid Kit, including a Sam’s Splint
Troy’s Personal Gear List for the Black Canyon
Costa Brine, copper
Costa Brine, yellow
Last Cast: Preserve the Canyon!
The Black Canyon of the Gunnison River is undoubtedly one of the west’s most scenic, harsh and awe inspiring destinations. The visiting angler will be treated to unrivaled views, abundant wildlife and world class fishing. Like all rivers, the fishing can be unpredictable depending on season, weather, flows and insect hatches. While the June Pteronarcys hatch gets a great deal of publicity, you will find amazing hatches throughout the spring, summer and fall. Make sure your fly boxes are stuffed with BWO’s, Sofa Pillows, Caddis, Hare’s Ears, Prince Nymphs, Pheasant Tails, Pats Rubber Legs, Hoppers and a variety of streamers.
Please be aware that fires are not allowed anywhere in the canyon and all trash and human waste must be packed out. The Black Canyon is a rare and sacred place, home to large trout and plenty of secrets. Please use discretion in sharing the specifics of your Black Canyon adventure. The BC can only sustain so much fishing pressure. Enjoy!