By Joel Evans
“Falinter” — That’s what someone suggested to me as to what fishing season we are now in the midst of. Sort of like brunch, which is the combining of the words breakfast and lunch to designate that in-between meal time of day, falinter is the combining of fall and winter. Similarly an in-between time of year, especially as to fishing in Western Colorado.
Although summer is prime time for fishing, fall can be exceptional in many ways. For the local fisherman, the annual influx of summer visitors is past, so one is more likely to have your favorite fishing spot to yourself. With the cooler weather comes cooler water temperatures in both lake and river, enticing fish to regain their feeding interest. River water flows have receded, providing walk-in access to otherwise sometimes inaccessible locations. Although daylight hours are waning, it is an excellent time to get in that last fishing trip into the high country, maybe even combined with some camping.
But don’t delay as winter is coming. Which is OK. Winter has its own fishing opportunities, very different of course. And besides actual fishing, winter is a great break and time to engage in some fishing-related activities that are not actually on the water fishing.
So let’s break falinter down into fall and winter and take a look at what fishing opportunities there are in Western Colorado and close to the Delta area.
Delta is smack in the middle of some of the greatest fishing destinations in all of Colorado. Certainly there are numerous fishing locations throughout western Colorado and the entire state, but Delta is backdoor close to Grand Mesa with all its lakes, as well as the Gunnison River with its gold medal fishery.
The Grand Mesa National Forest has an abundance of fall water to choose from in the sense of easy to get to lakes along the main road, to backcountry hike in only hidden waters. Numerous small creeks flow between these lakes, many of them reservoirs, providing both lake and creek fishing. Some are heavily stocked with catchable trout to all but guarantee success, while some are remote wild fisheries where you have to work harder at getting there by vehicle or on foot, but your chances increase to reel in a trophy.
The Gunnison River is a gold medal fishery, with high numbers of brown trout and a recovering population of rainbow trout. The entire river, from the town of Gunnison at its upper end to the lower section near Delta is a prime fishery in the fall. Close to Delta in a easterly direction is the lower section, both above and below the confluence of the North Fork of the Gunnison.
The river above the North Fork confluence can be accessed by roads that lead to parking lots at the confluence on both the east and west sides of the river. Access upstream from the confluence is by foot only, heading upstream in the public land of the Gunnison Gorge. Downstream is a mixture public and private land, some accessible by wading, and entirely accessible by floating, downstream to Austin and beyond.
Embarking south from Delta toward Olathe gets one access to the Gunnison River by hiking the several trails that lead into the inner canyon. Accessed by Peach Valley Road, the four trails of the Gunnison Gorge from north to south are Ute, Duncan, Bobcat and Chuckar. Each of these trails are the same in that the access road to the hiking trailhead is a secondary road off of Peach Valley Road. The access roads are uphill to the canyon rim and sometimes rough, requiring a high clearance vehicle such as a truck or SUV. The access roads dead-end at the rim, and from there it is hike only down to the canyon bottom to the river. These trails are steep and have significant elevation change, some being a dirt trail, others having rock climbing exposure. Consult with the Gunnison Gorge / Bureau of Land Management for specific trail information. Due to cooler daytime temperatures, these are popular day trips to the river in the fall.
A little further south takes one to Montrose and the Black Canyon National Park. The Gunnison River is accessible one of two ways, either via the East Portal Road to the river, or extreme hiking trails from the park rim road into the inner canyon. The East Portal Road is paved, but very steep. Trailers are not allowed. Once there, river access is immediate but fishing conditions are highly dependent on the river flow. Flows are typically low in the fall, providing an opportunity to catch larger than average rainbow and brown trout. The hiking trails are steep and long, suitable only for those in great physical condition. Again, consult with the Black Canyon / National Park Service for trail information. A permit is required for hiking the inner canyon trails.
Other fishing opportunities a little more distant include the North Fork of the Gunnison upstream from Paonia and Somerset, small creeks in the vicinity of Paonia Reservoir, Vega Reservoir near Collbran, and the Uncompahgre River near Montrose and Ridgway. On the other hand, close in town is Confluence Park.
For the winter part of falinter, fishing opportunities diminish in some ways, but increase in a different way. As cold and snow come our way, the high elevation lakes and creeks leave the fishing list. Lower elevation waters can remain open and fishable, particularly the Gunnison River. While the inner canyon trails of the Gunnison Gorge and the Black Canyon are no longer hikeable after snow comes, the lower river in the vicinity of the North Fork remains accessible into November and maybe December, and actually fishes well. Pick a sunny day and while colder, with appropriate dress and gear for you, the fish don’t care that it’s cold outside.
Another prime opportunity in late fall and early winter are tailwater fisheries. There are a number of them across the state, some reasonably close to Delta, and others several hours away. Tailwaters are the river immediately below a reservoir and dam. As other places become too cold or inaccessible, tailwaters commonly have a paved road to drive to, have water coming from the above reservoir that is not warm, but warm enough to keep the river below from freezing over. This provides a short but fishable stretch of river, sometimes throughout the winter.
Within a day’s drive of Delta are the Frying Pan, Green, Blue, Uncompahgre, Gunnison, Taylor and Stagecoach. Admittedly, some of these are a long haul for a day of fishing. Especially when the daylight hours are shorter this time of year. So catch the others if you can, and let’s make a little shorter cast to the Uncompahgre, Gunnison, Frying Pan and Taylor rivers.
Uncompahgre — South of Montrose at Ridgway State Park, Pa-Co-Chu-Puk is a mile-plus reach below Ridgway Reservoir. Due to the runoff from the upstream San Juan Mountains, some natural, some man-induced, the Uncompahgre’s dinge is absorbed by Ridgway Reservoir. Being a state park, it is easy to get to and provides multiple recreational opportunities besides fishing. So that means people. Lots of them, except not so much in the off season.
It also means in November that while you might not be alone, especially on a weekend, you would probably find ample water to yourself. It also means it gets attention from the fisheries managers, who find a way to not only keep it supplied with catchable-size trout, but to sprinkle in some full-size fish, such as large cutthroats, and sometimes hatchery brood rainbows that go by pounds instead of inches.
Gunnison — For big fish and lots of them, both rainbows and browns, migrate to the East Portal below Crystal Reservoir at the Black Canyon National Park near Montrose. But I do mean migrate as the November opportunity is a narrow window. The access road, paved but steep to the canyon bowels, will close for the season when the weather changes with precipitation. Think of it as two different rivers. Below the diversion dam is a natural river with rapids and runs and pools. Above is more half river, half lake, deep and slow moving, but loaded with fish.
Frying Pan – We don’t give it much thought because we have always heard it, but how can you not love a river named after a greasy, sooty, cooking utensil? Well, there is nothing dirty about the Frying Pan, especially in November. A little love/hate in your head with this one – love it for its year-round paved road access and football fish, but boy, don’t you just drool as you drive by those private sections.
Upstream from Basalt and below Ruedi Reservoir, sight fishing, disappearing tippets, and micro flies are what it takes. If a fish can be educated, these have seen it all and have learned to ignore most of what they see. But fish still have to eat, so keep ringing the dinner bell. What is so odd about the Frying Pan is that fish, instead of scattering for cover when they detect an intruder, are so used to fishermen that they will often come to you and line up in the downstream water break you create while wading. To them, you are just as good as a rock to rest behind, out of the current, and no rock stirs up food like you do. They are trained!
Taylor – very similar to the Frying Pan, up from Gunnison to the Taylor River below Taylor Reservoir, a short stretch of open water provides opportunity for big, very big fish. But it’s cold, even in November.
As early winter becomes deep winter, except for the tailwaters, fishing becomes one dimensional – ice fishing. Crazy but what fun! Lots of hard water near Delta to be probed. Freeze over begins in December and some ice-over lakes are safe to fish by late December and early January. Weather conditions are a little different every year, but the ice fisherman remains committed. Pick a sunny day, with the proper dress and gear, and no different than other winter sports such as skiing or snowmobiling, a day on the ice might be one of your best catching days of the year.
Popular destinations are Island Lake on the south side of Grand Mesa, Vega Reservoir on the north side, and Blue Mesa Reservoir. Although Blue Mesa is a farther drive, the possibility exists there for larger rainbow and brown trout, kokanee, and the biggest of all, lake trout.
One parting thought. Winter has other fishing-related opportunities. Local fly shops in Montrose and Grand Junction offer Saturday events such as fly fishing or fly tying classes. Consider fly tying when tyers practice their hobby in the deep winter months. Outdoor shows and expos are often scheduled in the winter when anglers can’t otherwise be out fishing. Then there is always the internet – lots of information there to peruse, just don’t spend too much screen time.
The next time someone asks you what your favorite season is, tell them “falinter.” That’ll get the conversation going! See you on the water.
Joel L. Evans is an avid fisherman, outdoor writer and photographer who has explored Colorado for decades.