My Colorado fishing story begins ten years ago on Blue Mesa Reservoir, a spectacular body of water created from the Gunnison River, spanning 20 miles and boasting over 96 miles of shoreline with arms that sprout back into the wilderness . Within its waters I discovered kokanee salmon. They have become a passion.
This invasive species stocked into the reservoirs of the Gunnison River – Blue Mesa, Morrow Point and Crystal – is a beautiful speckled, silver-bodied, landlocked salmon that is a close relative to the Pacific sockeye salmon. These salmon don’t make arduous treks to spawn, instead they spend their entire five-year life in these high altitude, freshwater eco-systems. They are exhilarating to catch, and some of the finest filets I have ever eaten.
So a decade later as I planned my return to Blue Mesa, my friend Chuck Bigger introduced me to Morrow Point Reservoir and the chance to fish a nearly private location nestled deep within the upper portion of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River, a crevice in the landscape, cut a thousand feet deep by eons of water. Chuck tells me it was a once in a lifetime experience that he’s had eight times.
But first, let’s take a moment to revisit Blue Mesa Reservoir, with its easier access to spectacular fishing and scenery. On my first visit, the lake was almost at its full capacity of water. A majestic basin stretching far away in the distance, with long offshoots down arms leading to feeder tributaries, there were wonders around every bend. The salmon were plentiful and the views of the Dillon Pinnacles looked like something from Lord of the Rings.
On our first visit, we launched from Elk Creek Marina with a short walk to the dock. This time at Lake Fork Marina, the docks sat at the bottom of a boat ramp so depleted of water that it resembled some of Colorado’s infamous Double Black Diamond ski trails. The high water line was vivid along the banks almost 60 feet above the shimmering surface. It was shocking to see. The cause? There was a lack of snow in the western Rockies, during a year that saw record amounts on the eastern slopes.
Chuck and I rented a pontoon boat with the plan of fishing the main basin and then a trip up the Lake Fork Arm, a location that did not disappoint in the past. As we left the docks, we could not believe the difference in the terrain. We could see new islands and sandbars, beaches that had never existed, and trucks driving down from the roads to the new shoreline. On a Wednesday in June, the flotilla of a dozen boats of all sizes from fishing kayaks to luxury pontoon boats in the main channel was manageable, but already felt crowded. We quickly decided to journey down the quieter Lake Fork Arm where we had a magical experience ten years before. As the walls constricted on the passage created by Campbell Creek, we approached the Dry Gulch area where trees protruded from the center of the channel, something we had never seen before. As our trolling lines came past the trees, all three rods bucked in unison. The rainbow trout were striking, and in four passes of those trees, every rod scored. We quickly snagged our limit of four trout each, with seven rainbow and one seeming out of place brown trout, but no kokanee in the mix. It was odd.
As we headed back to the main channel for that last loop of the day when you don’t want to quit, our first salmon hit one of our lures. It almost felt anti-climactic after the run of trout, and its size was small, so we let him go to live again. If that had been the end of kokanee fishing for the trip, I would have been so disappointed. But we knew we were going to Morrow Point the next day, and Chuck assured me that we would see extraordinary members of the species in its untouched waters.
Our videos show (1) beginning our first day on Blue Mesa Reservoir and the incredibly low water, (2) the entry into Morrow Point Reservoir, and (3) Chuck Bigger catching a beautiful rainbow trout. Subscribe to our YouTube Video Channel and see more of what we do.
Ryan Van Lanen runs the Morrow Point Reservoir Guide Service out of the Lake Fork Marina at Curecanti National Recreation Area, booking over 100 trips a year, said “There’s not much left like this in the West.”
Chuck, his nephew, Gabe Chambliss, who is a guide on the nearby Taylor River, and I met Kyle Jones from the Morrow Point Reservoir Guide Service at the Pine Creek Trailhead at 6:45 AM. We proceeded to make our thousand foot hike down to the river for the trip into the edges of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Curecanti National Recreation Area. A well-maintained trail with what seemed hundreds of stairs cut out of rocks, and wooden stairs with handrails on the especially steep sections, provided much more accessibility than ever before.
The Pine Creek Trail, which begins just a mile from the base of the Blue Mesa Dam, follows the riverbank along the rail bed of a vanished rail line. Two boats wait at the dock, a total of seven fisherman and two guides with a twelve mile long reservoir and no other humans in sight. The pontoon boats provide a quiet, stable journey down the river into the filling basin. Eventually the rail bed vanishes beneath the rising water. The fish finder begins to show greater depths.
In the distance, the sound of rushing water breaks the stillness. A ribbon of water appears, pouring in an arch from its pinnacle, one hundred and sixty feet up the canyon wall. Chipeta Falls is named for the second wife of Chief Ouray. She became leader of the Tabeguache band of the Ute tribe in the 1880s after his death. The falls are a popular winter destination as hikers cross the frozen reservoir to ascend the ice floes, consistently listed in the top five climbs in Colorado.
Every bend of the river reveals a stunning panorama. Anticipation of a view I had seen within a photograph from the 1880s began to climb and then revealed itself as the Curecanti Needle, an imposing 700-foot tall granite spire, towered above us as we approached. The Needle was immortalized in the logo of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, a 3-foot gauge, (narrow rails with smaller trains) created by General William Jackson Palmer, that could easily navigate the twisting river bed of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River.
On August 14, 1882, the first train chugged through the Black Canyon. For the next 67 years, carloads of coal, ore and livestock, as well as passenger cars bringing anglers from the far-reaches of the world, traveled the route. In the early 1940s, Sports Illustrated listed the Gunnison River as the best trout stream in the world.
View of a Denver and Rio Grande Railway excursion train near Chipeta Falls, along the Gunnison River in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Gunnison or Montrose County, Colorado. Men stand or sit on locomotive number “275” or beside the tracks. Jackson, William Henry, 1843-1942; [1882-1886?]
“We entered a gorge, remote from the sun… where a rock-splintered river roared and howled ten feet below the track… There was a glory and wonder and a mystery about that wild ride that I felt keenly.” – Rudyard Kipling, 1889
“I hiked down Twin Pines Trail in 1941 when i was six with my dad and my granddad. And this narrow guage railroad was still running. It was 49 when they took it out. I took pictures while my granddad fished. It was all rainbow and German brown trout,” said Orville Cotton, 92, who spent the day with family members on the other boat on Morrow Point. He grinned like a six-year-old as he told us the story of a different time in the river’s history.
But even here deep in the canyon, mankind could not leave well enough alone. The train tracks were removed in 1949, but the trestles and rail bed remained. The Morrow Point Reservoir dam was completed on October 7, 1968, changing the flow of the Gunnison for generations ahead as it created the 12-mile long reservoir. At least for us on this one day, it felt like our own personal piece of heaven, as the earth and sky met in reflections on the mirrored surface of the water, nearly 1,000 feet down within a chasm.
Kokanee salmon travel in pods and when you find one, they will hit. “They aren’t trying to eat your lure as bait, you’re pissing them off and they’re trying to hit it in an anger strike,” said Kyle.
The kokanee in Morrow Point are bigger than any I caught on Blue Mesa. “You learn how to fish on Blue Mesa, and you can graduate to Morrow Point and catch real fish,” muses Kyle.
Ten miles into the canyon we had our moment of sheer exhilaration when all three rods bent with that anger strike and all three of us brought kokanee salmon onto the boat. A three-for, fishing’s equivalent of a hole-in-one or a walk-off homerun, brought pure ecstasy and laughter for a moment the three of us will not forget.
In eight hours on Morrow Point, we caught our limit of kokanee and threw several back. The fish were not small, running 20” to 26”. The rainbow and brown trout were not as numerous, a complete switch for us from our day on Blue Mesa. But the trout we did catch were longer and fatter. You felt like you were catching real fish. There’s not much better.
The area may change radically over the next few years if there is not substantial snowfall this winter. Blue Mesa is being drained to keep the reservoirs further west at capacity. Before long, the water level may be too low for the existing boat ramps. Make a trip out while you still can gain access to a wilderness day on a remarkable body of water.