Featured Photo: Northern Lights in Tennessee

Featured Photo: Northern Lights in Tennessee

Thursday, August 06, 2009

The Elusive Salmonfly Hatch

Any fly fisher that has been in the sport long at all has heard of the legendary salmonfly hatch. Often short in duration and hard to pin down, the mother of all hatches can produce the type of fishing that we daydream about while sitting behind a desk at work. The largest fish in the river will come up for the juicy two and three inch morsels. However, for every angler telling of those perfect days, there are another hundred fishermen that have tried unsuccessfully to hit it exactly right. Most of the time you can find some fish that will rise to the big bugs if the naturals are around, but the perfect day where every fish in the river will attack your fly is hard to come by.

During this year's trip to Colorado, the main goal was to fish big bugs. We hoped to hit the cicada hatch on the Green River in Utah and the salmonfly hatch on the Gunnison in Colorado. The Green was okay but definitely not everything we were hoping for. This left the Gunnison as our best chance for throwing big nasties to hungry trout. Back camping at East Portal, Trevor and I made daily trips to the lower end of the canyon in the Pleasure Park vicinity searching for big fish. The bushes and trees around the river were loaded with bugs. It was only a matter of time before the big event happened.

A buddy of mine wanted to try fly fishing and came to meet us for a couple of days. I was really hoping that the hatch would get going while he was there. Before his arrival, the first couple of days after we got back from the Green produced similar results. Lots of bugs in the bushes and an occasional fish slashing at something on the surface, but overall we had to throw nymphs deep to catch fish. Our top producers were little stonefly nymphs and caddis pupa. Probably the fishing would have been good in the evening, but the incredible numbers of mosquitoes chased us off the river by 7:00 each evening. Never in my life have I quit fishing because of bugs until this year's trip to Colorado.

When my friend J.R. arrived, we had to tell him that the fishing wasn't quite what we were hoping for. Still, I was confident that we could put him on a few fish somewhere. The next day we did something completely different, but on day two we took him to the Gunnison. The time that elapsed between our outings on the Gunnison contained some hilarious moments that I will share later as well as J.R.'s first trout on the fly rod. His first trip to the Gunnison resulted in a slow day in which the local wildlife was just as interesting as the fishing. In particular the lizards were downright intriguing. After the slow day, I figured that if we could get him away from the pressured water he might do better. Accordingly we all agreed to make the trek into the canyon on one of the BLM trails.

The Duncan trail is not a long one. The river is around one and a half miles from the trailhead but the 800+ vertical feet included in the descent makes this a tough one. Really it is the climb back out that is unpleasant. The drive is not for the faint of heart and honestly not for passenger cars. The trout mobile came through with flying colors though and made it without a problem.

Upon arriving at the river, we saw a few guys with backpacks and fly rods preparing to climb back out. Asking for advice, we soon learned that the big bugs were on the water, but the dry fly action was best early and late. We walked a short distance up the stream and sat down to rig up. While tying on some flies for myself and J.R., I saw a large fish flash behind a bankside boulder.

We were sitting close to where I saw the fish so I had everyone move slowly back so we would not spook the fish. I quickly finished tying a pair of nymphs on for J.R. and instructed him to lob the flies and split shot upstream of the pocket. On the second drift the indicator twitched imperceptibly simultaneously with a vague buttery brown flash underneath and I hollered incoherently. Unfortunately J.R. couldn't translate my babbling into "SET THE HOOK" and missed out. After several more casts he did manage to catch his first brown trout, but the little guy was much smaller than the one he missed.

Moving upstream, we all were dredging nymphs right on the bottom. Here and there we would get a fish on, but overall it was somewhat slow. J.R. had to drive back home that afternoon so he finally called it a day and headed back out. Trevor and I kept moving upstream. I now had two rods to keep track of and rigged one with a salmonfly dry and the other with a pair of nymphs. This actually worked out pretty good. If I saw a rising fish or a spot that just begged for a dry, I would lay down the nymph rod for awhile. After convincing myself that nothing would rise it was time to dredge the bottom. Subsurface flies still produced the best although a few micro trout rose to the monster dry.

Finally my buddy Trevor and I set up on a nice deep run with a big back eddy. We started working the water, and it wasn't long before Trevor hollered, "Fish!" The words were barely out of his mouth before my indicator dove under, and we had a double on. Both of us fought the fish intently wanting to land our first good double of the trip. Finally we got both of the fish in my Coho Ghost Net. One picture of the fish in the net and one picture for each of us with our fish and both were released for another day.

We moved a little farther up the river, but the sun was sinking low in the west. Neither of us wanted to hike out after dark so we called it a day. The hike out was rough. With a pack it would be even worse, but honestly I would prefer to camp in the canyon so I could enjoy the late evening and early morning fishing.

The highlight of the day for me was just before tackling the steep climb out. We stopped at the first pocket again, and I told Trevor that I was going to try for the good fish. No one else had positively seen the fish, but I was thoroughly convinced it was in there. I crept up to the pocket and started highsticking my double nymph rig literally underneath my rod tip. On the third cast I saw the same hint of a fish flashing and my line ticked just a little. Careful not to react too strongly, I set the hook and was immediately attached to the best brown of the day.

The fish was in a shallow pocket on the edge of a rapid with a nice pool beneath. Trevor warned me not to let the fish run into the fast water, but I had no choice. Peeling line it negotiated the fast water and then ran into a huge back eddy in the pool. Finding myself with the sudden advantage, I worked hard to keep the fish from running for an undercut bank. Trevor grabbed my net but had a hard time getting a good angle as the fish stayed in deep water. Finally I had it close and asked him to toss me the net. He made a good throw and for a change everything went well and I caught it. The fish had its head up, and I lunged before it made another run. The day seemed much better as I now had a net full of big wild brown trout. Trevor kindly did camera duty, and then I released the fish, hopefully to be a 20" plus fish by the time I arrive next year.

Over the course of our last couple of days in the area we hit up some other water, but in the end the anticipated salmonfly action never developed. Now I fully understand how others feel who have chased this hatch for years without nailing it down perfectly. Naturally I'll continue trying to hit the hatch perfectly, maybe even next summer...


  1. David what an exciting trip, did you have a guide at all during that time? Great pics as usual...

  2. Awesome story and awesome pics!

  3. Jerry,

    No guides for us...all my trips are self-guided. Too cheap to pay for someone to take me fishing...

    Wandering Owl,

    Thanks for kind words...glad you enjoyed it!

    David Knapp

  4. Great Stuff David....thanks for sharing.


  5. Anonymous8:50 PM

    Nice collared lizard.