Kokanee in Colorado

Summer in Gunnison is an absolute spoil. We have some amazing water, big hatches and serious lunkers out there ready to poach your fly. From June-August, the water gurgles with hungry trout stocking up for the winter months ahead. These months are the best for fly fishing at 7,000 feet, but a wonderful surprise always arrives in late August—kokanee salmon.

Blue Mesa Reservoir is located 10 miles West of Gunnison and is the largest man-made body of water in Colorado. Among multiple species stocked in the reservoir are kokanee salmon. These land-locked variants of sockeye salmon make an annual migration from the reservoir, up the Gunnison River and into the East River. There, the salmon are spawned and given away to anyone with a valid Colorado fishing license. Yields vary each year, but in 2016, roughly 7-10 million salmon eggs were spawned. These fingerlings stock other reservoirs around Colorado to supply the state with a healthy amount of kokanee salmon.

River in Colorado

In late August, the salmon began to run through the Gunnison River. I traded my usual 3-weight rod for a heavier-duty 6-weight and set out to the river with a buddy. Before I continue, I’d like to note that my nymphing skills are complete trash and I’ll never understand why someone would use a bobber on a fly rod, but I digress.

We drove a quick 3 minutes outside of town to the Garlic Mike’s boat launch. From there, we crossed the bridge and settled on a spot on the south side of the Gunnison River. Being relatively clueless, I tied on a few flies I picked up from the local shop which apparently were ‘deadly on salmon’. I awkwardly flung my fly around that stretch of river for two hours, with salmon jumping directly in front of me, and didn’t catch anything. How frustrating is that?

So, being a creative grad student, I asked google what I was doing wrong. Apparently my bobber placement was off by a mile, I wasn’t mending right, and overall I was just being ridiculous in my fly-fishing. It’s always so nice to realize just how uninformed your technique can be. Luckily, I’m surrounded by an entire town who can outfish me, so I started asking for pointers. A week later, I was back at the same spot ready to give the salmon some hell.

Fly rod

I rigged up a double-dropper with two weighted Pat’s Rubberlegs. I threw on an extra split shot to get those flies low in the column quickly. I set my strike indicator around 4 feet from my first fly and got to it. I let the river do the work, slowly casting my big-rig into an eddy not three feet away. Every time my indicator sank, I ripped my rod upstream like it owed me money. Looking back, a more subtle hookset would have sufficed.

After an hour of trying my hardest to no avail, I finally set into what I thought was a rock. The extreme weight at the end of the line was like nothing I’d set into before. I finally realized it was a fish when it bolted and set my reel into overdrive. Reacting quickly and flamboyantly, the fish slowed and I grabbed onto my reel and got to work. The fight lasted more than 5 minutes and every moment felt like an hour. I grabbed my net and finally landed the behemoth at the end of the line.

Fish in a net

The moments all came together so well and felt like the best fish I caught all summer. Looking back, I don’t know why my quarrels with nymphing persisted so long. There’s an inherent appreciation for a slow drift, a quick sink and a big fish that comes with it. If you can, try to visit Gunnison in the late summer when the salmon are migrating. You’ll have the chance to try your luck with the kokes, or any of the large browns that trail them and eat eggs along the way. Regardless, you’ll have a wonderful time and probably catch more fish than me.