Early Risers: the rivers of SW Colorado wake up for the season
For long weeks in January and February, the surface currents remained undisturbed, reflecting opaquely the silhouettes of streamside evergreens immersed in the sky’s patterns. Air clear, the water took on the color of the gravel bottom. A skier or snowshoer could gaze into the deepest pools all afternoon without detecting signs of life. One day in March under an ashen sky, midges arose in columns, spinning to life above the wandering creek. The midge hatch intensified with each passing day, always beginning around noon and ending at 4:00. Trout appeared one afternoon uniformly spread along seam lines, hovering just beneath the surface. In one magic moment, they all began to rise. For three hours rise forms broke and silver bodies shimmered. Then, they slowly descended and disappeared completely. From that day to this, trout have fed on dry flies for three hours daily, remaining invisible and uncatchable for the other twenty-one.
As a bellwether for spring fishing conditions, never has a rising 6” brook trout sent a more understated message.
Normally the providence of mid-summer, free rising fish have been observed regularly on three of four rivers in the Telluride area: the San Miguel, Uncompahgre and Gunnison. This extraordinary circumstance belies the fact that our very best fishing has occurred on the Dolores River, but prolific spring hatches and calm, overcast days have typified March conditions throughout Southwest Colorado.
The Gunnison started the madness. Flowing over 1,000 cfs for most of winter, the Gunny now trots along at 428 cfs through the Black Canyon and just a little more below the Forks at Gunnison River Pleasure Park. Size 16-18 blue winged olives pour off from noon to three daily, heavier with cloud cover and generally accompanied by midges so thick they stick to your waders in rafts of thousands. All small flies are working and many larger ones, too. Free risers will readily take an Adams or any blue wing pattern in the size 16-18 range. These are some of the larger BWOs we have ever seen. Midging fish are considerably more technical in terms of their preference for a small fly and realistic drift. The tactful angler lengthens and lightens the leader. 12’ 6x is just about right for running small dry flies. A longer tippet section will generally reduce drag and earn more hook ups.
Lower Gunnison Fly Box
Extended Body Para BWO, #18
Harrop’s Thorax Dun, BWO #18
Lawson’s No Hackle BWO #16-20
Burk’s Silhouette Dun, BWO, #16-18
Griffith’s Gnat, #20-24
Single Midge Patterns, #22-24
Parachute Midge, black/white, #22-24
Parachute Adams, #16-24
The Mayhem, #16-24
JuJu Baetis, #16-18
RS-2 (and its many relatives), #16-22
Early season success on the San Miguel is relative. We fish the river with different expectations in March and April than we do in July when dry fly action is all but guaranteed and trout inhabit every nook and cranny. When the snow recedes in late winter, we re-explore deep water where surviving fish have hunkered, breathing the slow, frigid currents and picking up just enough caddis and stonefly nymphs to stave off the Reaper.
This year, much of the river channel has been snow-free since early February. Water temperatures have gradually climbed under a warm atmosphere and aquatic insects began hatching early, led by midges and the “Snow Stone,” harbinger of spring. Larger nymphs, including those of the Yellow Sally and Giant Golden stoneflies are well on their way to maturity. Highly active in spring, they crawl in search of food and spend an unfortunate amount of time free-drifting on the San Miguel’s current fingers. Turn over a rock or two and you will find them. Both cased and crawling caddis exist in tremendous numbers. These, too, are easy fodder for a foraging trout.
Food supply is plentiful, but overall trout numbers are moderated by a natural lack of spawning gravel and old Darwin, who knocks off his share with ice flows and competition for limited winter holding lies. The balance varies greatly from year to year, which makes spring fishing so exciting. The most dedicated local anglers attempt to fish every deep slot, surveying the San Miguel for its largest trout which have survived not one winter but several. A 15-inch fish is considered “big” in our home river. The best month to catch one is March.
Spring Flybox for the San Miguel
Tungsten Prince and every variation, including the King and Queen Prince, Psycho Prince and Flash Prince. All sizes fish well in March.
Pat’s Rubber Legs, #8-12
Morrish’s Iron Sally, #14-18
Tungsten Yellow Sally, #14-18
Hydropsyche Caddis, #12-14
Hare’s Ear, #12-16
Guide’s Choice Hare’s Ear, #12-16
Egg Patterns (effective for drawing attention to your other fly)
The Dolores offers the shortest spring fishing window of any local river. South-facing aspects of its watershed receive so much direct sunlight that significant snowmelt occurs as soon as air temperatures crawl above the freezing point. As a result, the Upper Dolores goes from snow-covered to raging in a matter of days. This year, however, the middle elevations of the drainage accumulated little snow. The Dolores has been fishable for several weeks below Rico and will remain so until warm temperatures and longer daylight hours burn the snow in the upper basins. The Dolores has suffered no sustained cold temperatures nor ice flows this winter. Trout attrition was probably minimal. We guided our first trip of the year on the Dolores in mid-March. 15-20 fish were landed, including three of at least 16 inches. Three days later, our guides test-fished the Dolores under similar water conditions and air temperatures. They got completely skunked.
Your pre-runoff flybox for the Upper Dolores will mirror that of the San Miguel, with emphasis on large stonefly and caddis nymphs. Many anglers will fish dry-dropper rigs rather than double nymphing under an indicator. Dry fly opportunities will be rare in April, but nymphing under a big dry is a stealthy way to present a weighted fly in relatively shallow water. On the Upper Dolores, water over 18” is considered “deep.”
Q: When is the Uncompahgre our favorite river? A: When fish free-rise for 2-4 hours a day. Three years ago, our local Trout Unlimited Chapter lobbied the Bureau of Reclamation for higher winter dam releases. The result has been minimum flows of approximately 60 cfs each of the last three winters and tangible fishing benefits. Trout have remained spread out through the cold months at Pa-Co-Chu-Puk. In past years, grumpy fish would pack themselves into a few deep pools, becoming more ambivalent to our flies with each passing day. Higher flows have contributed to greater fish movement within the river, more wild fish moving onto the public land at Pa-Co, better hatches and longer feeding periods. The trout are more healthy and altogether less grumpy.
Since early February, excellent midge hatches have stimulated active mid-day feeding. We are catching fish consistently on dry flies in many sections of the river. The largest fish are still generally taken on nymphs and streamers, but even the big boys have made themselves more visible as they move from pool to pool and from deep water to shallow during peak hatches. This outstanding fishing won’t last forever, but it’s no accident of nature. Warmer water in the winter months has throttled the metabolism of the entire aquatic eco system. Bugs are growing faster and trout are eating more of them.
The Mayhem, #18-22
KF Flasher, #22-24
JuJu Midge, #22-24
Griffith’s Gnat, #22-24
Parachute Midge, #22-24
Parachute Adams, #24
Single Midge Patterns, #22-26
Extended Body Para BWO, #22
The rattling sound coming from your closet might be your fly rod.