National Parks 7 min read

DIY Guide to Fly Fishing the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Ken Sperry

Posted by Ken Sperry

May 23, 2024

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

In southwestern Colorado just outside Montrose lies the Blue Mesa Reservoir on the mighty Gunnison River.

This reservoir controls the flow of the Gunnison River as it winds its way through the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and the Gunnison Gorge Wilderness Area.

The Gunnison River, within the walls of the Black Canyon, is designated a Gold Medal and Wild Trout fishery known for monster rainbows and browns. 

Accessing the Black Canyon on land is no easy feat, and requires hiking through what is a substantially high desert territory. It’s not an easy trip to make.Those willing and able to make the journey down the dirt roads and hike the steep trails along the canyon walls will find that their efforts are well rewarded.

Gorgeous overlooks, beautiful vistas, and hungry fish that strike at anything and everything that hits the water make it a special place to fish.

About Black Canyon of Gunnison River

Fly Fishing the Salmonfly Hatch of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Colorado

While most anglers are easily convinced to return to Black Canyon after their first trip due to the monster rainbow and brown catches, the view of the 2,700-foot canyon walls and surrounding mountains merit at least one additional trip just for the scenery.

The Black Canyon cliffs are a geologists dream, and there are visible rock face strata over a billion years old. Furthermore, the crystal clear water and sweeping mountainside backdrop make your arduous journey through the canyon well worth the effort.If roughing it and off-roading followed by some high altitude hiking aren’t for you, the Gunnison River through Black Canyon is a favorite stretch for floating and rafting, too.

Smart anglers need to be aware that there are Class III, IV, and V rapids along the Gunnison through Black Canyon, and an experienced guide and rafting captain are essential to safely navigating the turbulent waters regardless of the season you visit.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park Map and Fishing Access Sites

map of fishing access spots in Black Canyon Gunnison National Park

Get Directions to the Fishing Access Points shown above with the DIY Fly Fishing Map

Best Places to Fish in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

The Gunnison River in Black Canyon National Park is the 12 miles of Gold Medal and Wild Trout waters everyone travels there to visit. There are few streams here and there to try your luck further up in the Gunnison National Park, but Black Canyon is the place to fly fish.

You will need a free permit to hike into Black Canyon so search and rescue know who to contact if you don’t return from your excursion for a few days.

Here are some tips for getting access to the water and where you can find the Gold Medal section:The primary access point to reach the Gold Medals Waters of the Gunnison is East Portal Road. This entrance is near the upstream boundary of Gunnison National Park, and it winds its way down. East Portal Road is steep and narrow and can be especially rough going even in dry weather.You need a rig capable of making it over the rough terrain leading down to the waters just below Crystal Dam and Reservoir.

Rain creates deep mud wallows on these roads, so you may find that you have to wait for routes to dry out a bit unless you want to get mired and stranded. 

East Portal Access Routes

At the roads’ end you’ll find the East Portal Campground. From here you can fish the southern bank of the Gunnison via the Devil’s Backbone route.  Or if you have means to cross the river you can fish the northern bank of the river via the Northern River route.  The location of each route is shown on the map above.  Click the map markers for more information about each route.

Inner Canyon Access Routes

If you are the adventurous type and are up for a challenge there are several “routes” to the inner Black Canyon where you will find the bigger trout. The National Park Service uses the term “routes” since these are not designated, marked and maintained trails. Use of “routes” is at your own risk. You have been warned.

North Rim Canyon Access Routes

There are three primary access routes from the North Rim including: S.O.B. Draw, Long Draw and Slide Draw.  Each are shown on the map above.  Click the map markers for additional information on how to access the river via these routes.

South Rim Canyon Access Routes

Black Canyon Gunnison Route

The Gunnison Route, sometimes referred to as the “easiest” route, is still extremely steep, rocky and strenuous.

NPSLisa Lynch

There are also three access routes from the South Rim including: Gunnison Route, Tomichi Route and Warner Route.  Each are shown on the map above.  Click the map markers for additional information on how to access the river via these routes.

Red Rock Canyon Lottery Permits

The Red Rock Canyon area is located near the south rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. It serves as a popular destination for anglers hoping to catch the legendary salmonfly hatch and various other insect hatches from June into late July.

Access to the Red Rock Canyon is via the Warner Route. Fisherman enjoy this route as a more gradual alternative into the Black Canyon of the Gunnison over the other significantly steeper routes accessed from the south or north rims of the canyon.

Permits are required for all Red Rock Canyon usage (including day-use) and are only available through a reservation lottery system.  See the NPS website for more details.

Black Canyon Safety Precautions

The National Park Service provides valuable tips on accessing the inner canyon wilderness area.

Traversing the steep plunging canyon walls that give Black Canyon its name, as little daylight reaches the canyon floor even on bright days, is not to be taken lightly.

Finally, no matter where in Black Canyon you venture, be aware of the local flora and fauna. Pygmy rattlesnakes, bark scorpions, and poison oak/poison ivy are everywhere along the trail.

While poison ivy and oak won’t necessarily prove fatal, they do make for a miserable hiking experience.

Rattlesnakes and bark scorpions love sleeping bags and wading boots, so make sure to check yours carefully before using either. Trying to hike out with bark scorpion sting or nursing a rattlesnake bite is no joke.

Make a plan for worst case injury scenarios, and carry first aid supplies for treating injuries you are likely to incur along the way.

The fishing in Black Canyon is well worth the risk, but it’s not worth your life.

Best Time to Fish the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

The absolute best time to fish Black Canyon is early June through mid-June.

This is when the fabled salmonfly hatch occurs and the air over the waters of the Gunnison is thick with 2-3-inch long orange-and-pink-tinged flies. Visiting in the spring and summer has definite advantages, but you will also be dealing with extreme heat while hiking the canyon or traversing the areas above the canyon walls. Fall fishing isn’t too bad, though this point significantly diminishes the hatches in the year, and not nearly as rich as the midsummer salmon fly hatch.

The river is technically open to fishing in the winter, but the frozen sections of the trail along the Gunnison and snowy conditions make navigating the terrain exceptionally difficult. 

Runoff season is also pretty much a no go, as sediment and mud make the water too murky for decent fly fishing conditions.

The best time to visit is during the salmonfly hatch in June, or as near to that time as you can get there despite the mass influx of other anglers also making the trip.

Black Canyon Fishing Tips

In addition to a 9-foot rod with a six weight line (the trout get big in Black Canyon), you want to pack a pair of wading boots and a wading staff. The current is strong, and the bottom is treacherous, and you need to take proper precautions.

You will need plenty of sunscreen, as much water as you can carry or a large filter bottle. Additionally, it’s a good idea to bring a first aid kit and some Tecnu soap for cleaning poison ivy and poison oak oils off your clothing and gear.

Best Flies for Black Canyon Gunnison National Park

For flies, here are some recommended patterns for Black Canyon:

  • Hopper (tan/yellow #8-12)
  • Quick Sight Foam Ant (black #14-16)
  • Woolly Bugger (olive/black #6-10)
  • Tunghead Soft Hackle Pheasant Tail #16-18
  • Bead Head Hare’s Ear Nymph #16-18
  • I Can See It Midge Fly #8-12
  • Pat’s rubber legs (black/brown #6-8)
  • TH 20 Incher (natural #8)
  • RS2 (gray #20)
  • TH Zebra Midge (black #20)
  • TH Zebra Midge (cream #20)
  • Tunghead Soft Hackle Pheasant Tail #16
  • Tunghead Hare’s Ear Flashback #16
  • Globug Egg (brown #18)
  • San Juan Worm (brown #14)
  • Miller’s D Midge (gray #18)
  • Two Bit Hooker (red #14)

Black Canyon Gunnison National Park Fishing Reports

There are a number of area fly shops and on-line retailers that publish Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park fishing reports. A few to check out are listed below.

Black Canyon Gunnison National Park Fishing Regulations

Due to its status as a Gold Medal trout stream, the Gunnison River in Black Canyon National Park is catch-and-release only for rainbows along the entire 12-mile length of the canyon.

For other species of trout, standard Colorado Department of Wildlife regulations apply: 4 fish per angler per day of any species. No bait is permitted, only artificial flies and lures may be used while fishing in the park.

Additionally, anglers should abide by standard Leave No Trace protocols for both personal waste and any refuse, trash, recyclables, and disposable containers they bring into the park with them.

Trip Planning Tips

As far as air travel to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, there are two local airports to choose from.

Montrose Regional Airport has flights to and from Denver daily, and Gunnison-Crested Butte Regional Airport has similar flight plans if you don’t mind driving an hour or so to reach Black Canyon.

Montrose puts you nearest to Crystal Dam and Reservoir, although the accommodations in Gunnison are a bit more diverse regarding options.

Bed and breakfasts, traditional hotels and motels, and camping and RV parks are easy enough to find and book in and around Montrose. If you plan to visit during the salmonfly season though, expect to book well in advance before spots fill up.

Gunnison tends to get busy during the peak fly fishing months of the summer, though you will find more places to stay here than in Montrose as a rule. 

There are several resorts in the area, including one at Waunita Hot Springs Ranch which is perfect for recovering from the tough hike to the bottom of Black Canyon.

Regardless of where you decide to stay, you want to look into local vacation rentals when planning your trip. These often provide superior accommodations and locations compared to hotels and motels, and you can usually score a bargain if you book at the right time.

Looking for more places to fish? Visit our DIY Guide to the Best Fly Fishing in Colorado.

Feature Image by Terry Foote