Springtime on the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River

The Lake Fork generally wakes from its winter hibernation sometime in early April and an early season excursion rarely disappoints.
Big Bend
All photos by © Ryan McVay/CPW.

While the biblical Garden of Eden is said to have been located in modern day Iraq, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, in my mind, western Colorado’s piscine paradise is undoubtedly the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River.  The Lake Fork, which is located south of Gunnison along Highway 149 near Lake City, is the least known of the Gunnison River’s major tributaries.  This comparatively uncrowded trout stream is surrounded by stunning scenery, has big fish potential, and angles particularly well in the springtime.  It is a local favorite and where many area guides prefer to fish on their infrequent days off; I’m not sure a trout stream can receive a more glowing endorsement than that.

The Lake Fork generally wakes from its winter hibernation sometime in early April (occasionally in late March but don’t bet on it) and an early season excursion to the Lake Fork rarely disappoints…although you’ll have a difficult assignment trying to find an open restaurant in the quaint fly fishing hamlet of Lake City that early in the year.  Although the river sees a lot of felt during the summertime, it’s entirely within the realm of possibilities that you won’t see another soul on the river in April.  Having an entire Gold Medal caliber piscatorial playground to your lonesome for a day is virtually unheard of these days with Colorado’s burgeoning population and the Gunnison Valley’s increasing popularity.

Over half the fly water from Lake City to Blue Mesa Reservoir is public and most of it is well-marked with big, white “Lake City Chapter of Trout Unlimited” signs.  A trio of my favorite accesses are the Thomas Ranch, Gorsuch Ranch, and High Bridge, but some of the smaller, lesser-known access points like the Seay Easement, The Gate Campground, and Big Bend are excellent as well.  The deeper water downstream of Red Bridge Campground all the way to Blue Mesa can also be off-the-charts impressive in the spring as big ‘bows migrate out of Blue Mesa to spawn.

Nymphing Lower Lake Fork

Springtime hatches include midges, blue-winged olives, and a few caddisflies. Golden stones aren’t hatching but they are active beneath the water’s surface.  My typical early season Lake Fork nymphing rig consists of a #8 coffee/black Pat’s Rubberlegs Stonefly Nymph with a #18 Barr’s Beadhead BWO Emerger.  As the old fly fishing adage goes, “the difference between a good nymph fisher and a great one is often one split shot,” so be sure to use enough weight to get your flies down to where the fish are holding.  I’ll often fish this tandem rig all day long, only changing flies when I lose them to snags or as fish destroy the flies, which is a good problem to have.  Sometimes during the mid-day, if trout are rising to either midges or BWOs I’ll hoodwink a few on Roy Palm’s Special Emerger or Furimsky’s B.D.E. BWO.  Furimsky’s B.D.E. stands for “Best Dry Ever” and I think he may actually have understated their effectiveness!


The Lake Fork’s fish fauna includes browns, rainbows, cutbows, and a handful of privately stocked Snake River cutts. While the Lake Fork’s trout average between 11-12 inches, legitimate 20-inch fish are not altogether uncommon, with trout up to 27 inches caught every year. The whirling disease-resistant rainbow trout that have been stocked into the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River over the last several years have shown the ability to successfully reproduce and the Lake Fork’s rainbow population has rebounded to pre-whirling disease levels.

The Lake Fork of the Gunnison River is likely the most undeservingly unheralded trout stream in the Centennial State.  Be careful if you decide to fish it…you may just discover a new favorite fly fishing spot, just like I did on my first visit to the Lake Fork two decades ago.

Colorado Fishing License
Colorado Parks and Wildlife provides a range of options for anglers from the annual fishing license to the one-day fishing license. ​ Annual fishing licenses are valid April 1 through March 31. Youth under age 16 fish for free.​ Buy a fishing license today​!​​​​​ ​​​​

Written by Doug Dillingham. Dillingham is the author of “Fly Fishing the Gunnison Country” which is available online at gunnisonflyfish.com.

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