Autumn in Gunnison, Colorado is a special time for anglers. This season welcomes the return of the kokanee salmon run to local rivers. The landlocked cousin to the sockeye salmon begins their fall journey in Blue Mesa Reservoir before running up the Gunnison River in late August. By mid-September, pods of kokanee will make their way 30 miles upstream to the Roaring Judy Fish Hatchery, between Almont and Crested Butte. This is where the Colorado Parks and Wildlife will harvest the eggs to start the cycle over again. From September to the end of October, anglers enjoy targeting these hard-fighting fish throughout the Gunnison Valley.
Rigging for the Salmon Run
To catch kokanee salmon on a fly, anglers must beef-up their tackle from typical trout fishing accoutrements. A 9’ 6 wt. rod is preferred, paired with a 9’ 2x tapered leader. I won’t rig with anything lighter than 2x when I’m fishing for Kokanee, as they are very strong for their size, and tend to have some sharp dentures that can slice through light tippet. Nymphing with weighted attractor patterns is common. This includes Squirmy Worms, Red Copper Johns, and Psycho Princes. In smaller water such as the East River at Roaring Judy, anglers can target kokanee using ESN rigs to include attractor jig patterns such as Frenchies and Pat’s Stones.
Spotting and Landing
Kokanee salmon travel in pods, holding in deep runs and pools. They are often visible to the angler. Easier to spot than trout, look for dark patches of fish and hues of crimson red to identify a pod of salmon. It is also common to find nice trout sitting behind pods of salmon, hunting for salmon eggs. Adding a peach Globug or trout bead to your rig is a good idea if you’re also looking to catch some trout following the salmon pods. Once hooked, expect a sporty fight including several hard runs and big jumps with the fish going fully airborne! It pays to have a buddy around to help net the fish, as broken rods are often a result of trying to net solo. As always, be sure to pinch down the barbs on your flies to ensure a safe release of these impressive, protected specimens. Remember that it is illegal to keep kokanee in both the Gunnison and East Rivers until November 1st.
Fishing for kokanee salmon is one of the most fun and special angling opportunities we have in the Gunnison Valley. If you love fighting strong fish on light tackle, I welcome you to join me for a trip this fall during the salmon run. Tight lines and I hope to see you on the water!
Patrick Blackdale is the Assistant Outfitting Manager, and a fly fishing guide at Three Rivers Resort in Almont, Colorado. Willowfly Anglers is the guide service at Three Rivers Resort.
He guides on all of the local rivers including the Gunnison, Taylor, and East Rivers. Three Rivers Resort is the perfect base camp for a variety of fishing adventures. The resort offers cabins, lodge rooms, and vacation homes plus a full fly shop and Orvis Endorsed guide service with premium leases for private fishing on local ranch lands. Contact at 970-641-1303 or www.3riversresort.com.