Colorado Fly Fishing


There are hundreds of streams in Colorado. Below are five angler favorites located in the southwest and south central sections of the state. Not listed is the South Platte, a great stream but there are often too many anglers. Also, the Pan and the Fork, but again, a three-to-one angler-to-fish ratio doesn’t make for a great day out.

Also excluded are the Blue (big fish, too flat, too close to the stores), the Arkansas, and the Colorado.

Animas

Twenty years ago, the Animas River was thought to be just another sad story, another great river in decline. And it was.

Formerly one of the top brown trout fisheries in the West, the Animas River is now recovering from years of abuse from mining pollution. This wild, freestone river flows through awe-inspiring southwestern scenery, through wide valleys and steep canyons, past rugged mountains, continuing south from its headwaters on into New Mexico.

There used to be big brown trout caught in the Animas, but now the river is heavily stocked with rainbows, known for their athleticism and heft. The brown trout fishery is on the rise, and occasionally browns are caught that are best measured in pounds rather than inches, even in the city limits of Durango.

Below Durango, the river flow slows as it meanders through open meadows, coursing through reservation land. Anglers need to have a reservation fishing permit to fish this section. The fishing pressure is diminished but the fishing for big brownies — if you can get flies deep to them or in the undercut banks — can be phenomenal. Indeed, the Animas River has again become a hot-spot western river. I like to fish it for a couple of days when I fish the San Juan River across the border, less than a one-hour drive away.

Location: Southwestern Colorado near Durango

Description: Freestone with good pocket water, long riffles and runs, and some pools.

Directions: From Farmington, New Mexico, travel north on Highway 550 about 35 minutes. Below town, La Posta (213 RD) takes you alongside the river to Purple Cliffs. Look for signs indicating posted water.

Lodging, camping: Stay in luxury at the historic Strater Hotel (800-247-4431) in downtown Durango or pitch a tent four miles away at the Junction Creek Campground west on 25th Street (970-385-1283). Lightner Creek Bed and Breakfast is located on a pretty little creek of the same name just outside of town (970-247-4982).

Accesses: Roadside access from Highway 550 from Silverton to Durango; also access on Southern Ute Indian land south of Durango. Access is limited from Rockwood to Durango. Throughout the town of Durango, all water is public. The only section most anglers should (and do) concentrate their efforts are the stretches through and below Durango.

Season: The Animas is a year-round river but is best fished early pre-runoff (February, March, and April) and post-runoff (July, August, September, and October). In a heavy snowpack year, the Animas can be swollen from April to July, making fishing virtually impossible.

Tackle: 8½- to 9-foot rod for 5- or 6-weight line. You can get by with a 4-weight if you feel comfortable playing big fish and getting them to hand. In the winter, you’ll want neoprene waders with felt-soled wading boots. Lightweight breathable waders or hip waders are the ticket in the summer.

Flies: Elk Hair Caddis (10–16), Goddard Caddis (10–16), Green Drake (8–12), Sofa Pillow (6–10), Irresistible (12–16), Royal Wulff (12–16), Humpy (12–16), Royal Humpy (12–16), Adams (12–18), House and Lot Variant (10–16), Lt. Cahill Comparadun (16–20), Stimulator (8–12), Rio Grande Trude (8–16), Ant (14–20), Foam Yellow Sally (12–18), Rusty Spinner (12–18), Parachute PMD (14–18), Red Quill (14–18), Prince Nymph (12–18), Hare’s Ear (12–18), Brown Hackle Peacock (10–16), Brown Woolly Bugger, Sculpin, Animal River Special, Wool Head, Muddler Minnow, Dark Stonefly nymph (8–12), Midge (18–22), Caddis emergers (14–18), Clouser Minnow.

Regulations: Artificial flies and lures only from Lightner Creek to Purple Cliffs, two fish, 16-inch minimum. Standard regulations apply to other sections.

Species of game fish: Rainbow and brown trout with some brook trout in upper reaches. Rainbows average about 12 inches. Brown trout are the predominant species and anglers will catch occasional cutthroat.

Hazards: Don’t fish on private property and watch out when you wade. This is big water and the bottom is slippery in spots.

Scenery: The upper Animas flows through rugged and beautiful and primitive land, the lower through some pretty but developed land.

Piedra River

The Piedra River is a canyon river, east of Durango, with fat browns and foot-long stocked rainbows swimming in its 40 miles of pocket water and deep pools. The Piedra flows through isolated granite box canyons in some of the wildest country in the West.

Think rocks (piedra in Spanish means rock). Lots of big rocks. And rocks mean stoneflies. Lots of stoneflies. The Piedra muddies quickly, but if you are on it when it is clear, you should expect some of the best stonefly hatches in the state, including some fantastic salmonfly hatches. But the key to success on the Piedra is to fish every likely lie and to make sure to nymph. Dries will work a lot of the time, but these trout love to take their food under the surface. The trout of the Piedra will hold in all likely holding spots, even in the shallows. But the river’s deep pools and runs mean anglers need to get their flies deep enough to reach the trout lying in wait on the river bottom.

I caught and missed the biggest 14-inch trout I ever hooked on the Piedra, trout as fat as a baked ham. He came up from two or three feet in a small pool surrounded by big rocks and took a Rio Grande King. The sting made his eyes blaze. He leapt in the air, stared me down, and slammed back into the water. I have dreams about him and his eyes.

Anglers are likely to see wildlife along the river such as bears, elk, deer. You’re not likely to encounter other fishermen along the medium-size stream. The Piedra is in wild country, very little of which is accessible by vehicle, so getting there can be tricky. Anglers should expect to hike a bit to get to the Piedra’s deep holes and glassy pockets. This is an incredible place to hike in, camp out, and catch a lot of wild trout.

Location: Southwestern Colorado east of Durango

Description: Canyon (and meadow) freestone river with nice pools, pocket water, and plenty of structure.

Directions: Go west from Pagosa Springs 22 miles on State Highway 160 where the river crosses the road.

Lodging, camping: Anglers will find campgrounds at East and West Fork just north of Highway 160. There are primitive campgrounds along the banks of the middle section of the Piedra, at First Fork Road at Piedra Bridge. There are no motels within 15 miles of the Piedra. Best bet is to stay in either Durango or Pagosa Springs. In Pagosa, Oak Ridge Best Western (970-264-4173), Spring Inn (800-832-5523), and The Spa Motel (800-225-0934). In Durango, the Strater Hotel (800-227-4431), Durango Inn Best Western (970-247-3251), Gable House B & B (970-247-4982), and Siesta Motel (970-247-0741).

Accesses: Largely a hike-in stream, the Piedra has two gravel road accesses from both the east and west sides. The east side road runs upstream for twelve miles. Several trails reach the river from the road.

Season: Fishable year-round but best from summer to late fall. Water can become murky easily. Tackle: 8- 9-foot, 4- to 6-weight outfit. Great place for a multi-piece rod since you’ll likely be hiking a good bit. I wade wet with neoprene socks and felt-soled wading boots. Friends pack in lightweight breathable waders but since you scramble on rocks and hike and such, you’ve got to be careful not to tear them up.

Regulations: From the lower boundary of the Tres Piedra Ranch (1 1/2 miles above U.S. Highway 160) to the Piedra River Bridge on FS 631 (Piedra Road), anglers may only use artificial flies and lures. Bag and possession limit is two trout.

Species of game fish: Wild brown and rainbow trout averaging 12 inches, with many larger fish. Some stocked fish near the campgrounds. In the upper sections, anglers will find some cutts and brookies.

Hazards: Rocks everywhere you look. Walk and wade carefully. You’re a long way from a hospital.

Highlights: Strong wild trout shooting like bottle rockets at dry flies.

Scenery: Wilderness experience with granite box canyons, volcanic peak vistas, and solitude.

Dolores River

The Dolores River is a recent trout fishery, resulting from the 1986 construction of the McPhee Reservoir. The 12-mile fishery promised to become a great trout stream, producing large wild trout in a matter of a few years, but a severe drought in 1988 caused the river great harm, and killed up to 30 percent of the trout. Drought throughout the last ten years has brought more devastation to the Dolores, and only time will tell if it will recover to its pre-1988 form, when trout averaged about 14 to 18 inches.

This freestone tailwater has Snake River cutthroat, rainbow, and brown trout in self-reproducing populations, but is supplemented with fingerling plantings. The high desert countryside is rugged and bleak, resembling nothing like a setting for a trout stream– that’s part of the charm. Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife. Deer, turkeys, eagles, even bears.

The river is fishable year-round, but spring runoff makes the river brownish-red and swollen. Upstream sections freeze over in winter, but the feeding lanes on the tailrace close to the dam can be productive. Summertime brings great dry-fly fishing, and fall has excellent fishing for large browns.

The Dolores is a challenging river with solid hatches and tremendous holding water, but too many anglers make the mistake of not taking the fish seriously. The clear water and educated trout mean that you should use long leaders, be cautious, and match the hatch.

In the 1980s, the river was on its way to becoming one of the top tailwater fisheries in the West, but the drought and mismanagement damaged the fishery. The river is good now, not great, but the Dolores is one of the more unique trout waters I have fished. And in the winter, you walk in and have the entire river to yourself.

Location: Southwestern Colorado below McPhee Reservoir west of Durango.

Description: Tailwater below reservoir; freestone above. This 12-mile tailwater has long, wide, still glides and pools, plenty of tricky crosscurrents, some pocket water around boulders and submerged rocks, lots of slack water, and some nice runs.

Directions: Travel west from Durango on Highway 160 about 60 miles to Cortez. Take Highway 666 north past the hamlet of Pleasant View, follow the signs, then turn right to CR 16, then turn north (left). Veer right toward river and cross Bradfield Bridge over the Dolores. Lone Dome Road runs along the north side of the river 11 miles to the dam.

Lodging, camping: In nearby Cortez, Mountain View Bed and Breakfast (970-882-7861) and the Holiday Inn Express (970-565-6000) are pleasant enough. Campgrounds in the area include the McPhee Reservoir Recreation Complex (on the Mistix Reservation system 800-280-CAMP) at the entrance to the lake. House Creek Campground is one mile east of Dolores. A private campground is Priest Gulch Campground and RV Park (970-562-3810) on the East Fork of the Dolores River northeast of Dolores. The upper Dolores forks each have riverside campgrounds. Several are on the Mistix system but there are plenty of campsites along the way for first-come, first-served. For more information, call the San Juan National Forest (970-882-7296).

Accesses: The Dolores has much public access but anglers must be aware of private property above and below the reservoir. Anglers will have no problem accessing the Dolores even in winter when the gate closes. There are campgrounds & picnic areas all along the road. The road follows the river. And the upper forks are also easily accessed since they parallel roads.

Season: Year-round but summer heat puts fishing off. Best in fall and winter.

Tackle: 8 – to 9-foot rod for 4- to 6-weight lines. Neoprene chest waders are preferable most of the year. Felt-soled wading boots are a must. Hip waders are useful when the water is low.

Flies: Brassie, Yellow Sally 14-16, Annelid, Olive Comparadun, Pheasant Tail, Disco Midge, Midge Cluster, Griffiths Gnat, Midge larva and pupa 18-24, WD-40, Chocolate Emerger, Elk Hair Caddis 12-18, Caddis larva 18-24, Caddis pupa 18-24, Golden stoneflies 8-12, Irresistible 14-18, Royal Wulff 12-18, Royal Trude 12-18, Blue Winged Olive 16-22, Pale Morning Duns 16-22, Brown Drake 10-14, Sculpin 2-6, Stonefly nymphs 6-12, Midge Adult 18-26, Hopper 8-10, Stimulator 12-16, Hare’s Ear nymph 10-18, Comparaduns 18-24, Thorax patterns 18-24, Pheasant Tail 16-22, Halfback 6-8, Crawfish 4-8, RS2 Emerger 16-22, Muddler Minnow 4-8, Zonker 4-8, Emergers 16-22, Light Spruce 2-6.

Regulations: From Bradfield Bridge to McPhee Dam for 11 miles, anglers must only use artificial lures and flies, catch and release only.

Species of game fish: Snake River and Colorado River cutthroat, brown, rainbow trout (browns have a self-repopulating population). The river is supplemented with fingerling plantings. The browns and rainbows are now the predominant fish the angler will catch.

Highlights: Additional miles of fishery could be added if a proposed reservoir is impounded on the river. The lower Dolores offers solitary winter angling, abundant wildlife sightings, and challenging angling in near-spring creek conditions. This was once one of the top tailwater fisheries in the West but mismanagement has severely affected the quality of the trout population. Nevertheless, the fishing experience of angling in such extreme surroundings is still top-notch.

Scenery: Spectacular high-desert canyon.

Conejos

The Conejos is arguably the best of all the wild rivers in the Southwest. The feeder streams are big and productive enough that it’d be worthwhile to visit them alone. Most require at least a hike, and you’ll need a full-fledged backpacking expedition to get to the best parts of them. But if you want true wilderness angling in pristine forests and wide meadows, hit any one of these tributaries. Some say that if you were ever going to run into a grizzly bear– the last of which was seen in 1979 in the state of Colorado– it will be in the backcountry of the Conejos. Wild, wild, wild.

And what about the Conejos? Miles and miles of fishing a 30-foot clear stream with little competition. Abundant insect hatches. Meadows and canyons. The Pinnacles towering overhead.

While the river has fished inconsistently the last few years, historically, it’s not uncommon to pull brown trout as long as your arm. And even if you aren’t that lucky, the scenery is worth the trip.

Location: South-central Colorado near Alamosa, Antonito.

Description: Freestone stream with diverse water: pocket water, riffles, runs, pools, meadows, canyons.

Directions: From Alamosa, drive south on Highway 285 to Antonito. Turn west on Highway 17 south of town where you will pick up the river for 35 miles. Turn right on Forest Road 250, which follows the river to Platoro Reservoir.

Lodging, camping: There are numerous campgrounds along the river including Mogote CG, Aspen Glade CG, Spectacle Lake CG, and Elk Creek CG. In Antonito, you can stay at the Cottonwood Meadows Cabins (970-376-5660) and Narrow Gauge Railroad Inn (970-376-5441).

Accesses: The river has plenty of public access along its 60 miles of fishable water.

Season: Open year-round but fishes best late June and early July through mid-October.

Tackle: 8- to 9-foot rod for 4- to 6-weight line for the main river and lakes. A shorter 2- to 4-weight for the numerous feeder creeks is ideal.

Flies: Irresistible 12-16, Elk Hair Caddis 12-18, PMD Comparadun 16-20, Blue Winged Olive 14-20, Adams 14-20, Humpy 12-18, Royal Wulff 12-18, Hoppers 8-12, Muddler Minnows 2-6, Hare’s Ear 12-18, Pheasant Tail 14-20, Bitch Creek 2-8, Dark Stonefly nymphs 4-8, Brown trout streamers, Prince Nymph 14-18, Brassie 16-18, Midge larva 18-22.

Regulations: The section from Menkhaven Ranch down to Aspen Glade CG is considered Wild Trout water where the bag and possession limit for trout is two fish, 16 inches or longer. Other special regulations sections include Saddle Creek Bridge downstream to the Hamilton property (where South Fork enters) and the Bear Creek subdivision. Check the regulations handbook for the specific restrictions.

Species of game fish: Rainbows and browns, mixture of stocked and wild.

Highlights: The Pinnacles.

Scenery: The forks of the Conejos are worth taking a day or two to visit. If you backpack, the forks are made for you. Catch backcountry browns and brookies in some of the most remote, spectacular scenery on the continent. I love the Conejos Fall view on the Middle Fork. The lakes of the South San Juan Wilderness are excellent destination angling spots.

Rio Grande

The mighty Rio Grande flows through the prettiest scenery in Colorado. It is a freestone river with pools, riffles and lots of pocket water.The water is as clear as air, the air is clean, the mountains majestic, and the trout plentiful. And the river holds some really big trout.

Location: Southwestern Colorado near Creede, South Fork.

Directions: Highway 160 parallels the river before Del Norte to South Fork. From South Fork upstream, Highway 149 follows the river to Creede.

Lodging, camping: Thirty-mile Campground, Rio Grande Campground, Palisade Campground. In South Fork, try the Foothills Lodge (970-873-5969). In Creede, the Creede Hotel (970-658-2608), and on the river, the Wason Ranch (970-658-2413). Others: Rainbow Lodge (970-873-5571), South Fork Lodge (970-873-5303), and 4UR Ranch (970-658-2413).

Accesses: Plenty of well-marked public accesses and pullouts along the river, but there is a mix of private and public water near the 4UR Ranch. Be sure to check the handbook. Anglers may float the entire river but may not get onshore or private land without permission.

Season: Mid-June (during normal runoff) to late September. There is no closed season for angling on the Rio Grande. When the crowds leave, August and September can provide an incredible angling experience.

Tackle: 8– to 9-foot rod with 4- to 6-weight line. In the heat of summer, wet wading is fine. Otherwise wear chest waders.

Flies: Blue-winged Olive 14-18, Elk Hair Caddis 10-16, Midge Cluster 14-18, Green Wulff 10-14, Brown Wulff 10-14, Royal Wulff 10-16, Sofa Pillow 2-8, Rio Grande King 10-14, Humpy 10-16, Green Drake 10-14, Royal Trude 10-16, Lime Trude 10-16, Adams 10-20, Irresistible 10-16, Pale Morning Dun 14-18, Renegade 10-16, Stimulator (yellow, orange, tan) 6-12, Yellow Sally 8-12, H & L Variant (House and Lot) 10-16, Double Hackle Peacock 2-8, Prince Nymph 10-14, Pheasant Tail 10-14, Sparkle Caddis Emerger 12-16, Bitch Creek 4-10, Girdle Bug 4-10, Dark Stonefly Nymph 2-6, Golden Stonefly nymph 4-8, Woolly Bugger 4-10, Spruce Fly 2-8, Zonker 2-6, Muddler Minnow 4-10, Zug Bug 10-14, Hare’s Ear 8-18, Midge Pupa 18-24, Comparadun 10-16.

Regulations: Special regulations exist for several sections of the river. Look closely at the handbook since there are numerous changes along the way including Gold Medal Water regulations.

Species of game fish: Brown, rainbow, and some cutthroat and brook trout. Rainbows average 12-15 inches, browns 12-14 inches.

Hazards: Be careful: Wading during high water and rafting during runoff means knowing if your craft can fit under the bridges.

Highlights: The Green Drake and Caddis hatches in early and midsummer.

Scenery: The beauty of the Rio Grande as it collects in the rugged San Juan Mountains may be unparalleled by any other western river. This is wild country punctuated by dense forests, stunning mountain vistas, and steep, dark canyons.

Navigable: Fishing from a raft is a great choice for anglers. Several outfitters and fly shops in Creede, Durango, Lake City, and Alamosa can help you.

Other: Sportsman Fly Shop in Lake City (970-944-2526), Rio Grande Anglers (719-658-2955), and Ramble House (719-658-2482) in Creede; Duranglers and Durango Fly Goods in Durango.

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