March 14, 2016 Fly Fishing Report
A Tale of Two Winters
The heavy curtain of winter rolled back in early February, snow and frigid temperatures relenting their grasp on Southern Colorado. Open water appeared in places as a consequence of low elevation snowmelt, but the sheer depth of snow and ice on most of the San Miguel and Dolores was a reminder of the severe weather we experienced in December and January. Indeed, the pronounced swing in weather rivaled that of last spring, when over 100 inches of snow fell after the Telluride ski area closed for the season. This year, the opposite occurred. More than 220 inches fell in early winter but on the sidewalk in front of Telluride Angler, just one inch accumulated in February. Temperatures rose dramatically. Dust developed in the snowpack. Snowmelt accelerated until the great mounds blocking our view of the south side of Colorado Avenue dwindled to nothing. Trout began rising on the Valley Floor.
San Miguel River: (84 cfs below Placerville): Against all odds, spring came early on the San Miguel. The entire river became fishable in late February and as one warm week led to the next, the fish awakened. Perennially streaky in the spring, parts of the San Miguel are fishing extremely well while others seem devoid of trout. Hot zones include the Valley Floor, where fish may be caught on dry flies most afternoons, and the heart of the lower river, from Placerville to Norwood Bridge. Best fishing is mid-day and early afternoon and the most productive method, by far, is nymphing with a combination of protein (eggs and worms) and more protein (stonefly and caddis nymphs). Mayfly nymphs, including the Mayhem and Copper John, are also highly effective. A number of fish have been taken on streamers, but this is a surprisingly tricky technique in the narrow San Miguel River corridor.
Given the hit-or-miss nature of fishing the San Miguel in March, the local’s conundrum is whether to leave found fish in search of others, or to return to the same pods for the confidence builder of early season success. Remember that a primary thrill of spring fishing is finding the fish in the first place. Natural attrition is high on mountain streams. Winter habitat is scarce on the San Miguel. Not all trout find the havens of depth, flow and oxygen that provide the balance for life under the snowpack. Survivors are often found in bunches. Conditions that harbor one trout sometimes harbor many. There are several such places on the San Miguel, but also miles of uninhabited water. Enjoy the hunt.
March and April fly patterns for the San Miguel
Para BWO, #16-18 (Valley Floor)
Parachute Adams #16-18 (Valley Floor)
Griffiths Gnat #18-20 (Valley Floor)
Pat’s Rubber Legs, any color, #10-12
Prince (and its many variations), #12-16
Guide’s Choice Hare’s Ear, #12-16
Hydropsyche Caddis, #12-14
Every manner of Dirt Snake
Egg Patterns, pink, orange and red, #14-18
Copper John, Green, Red or Copper, #14-18
Sculpin and Wooly Bugger Streamers, #8-10
Dolores River: (185 cfs at Dolores): The Dolores went from completely ice bound to virtually 100% fishable in just two weeks. If you drove the river in late February looking for fishable water and found none, go do it again. The entire river below Rico is fishable, and while we are enjoying more success and longer fishing hours in the downstream reaches, the water near and even above Rico is producing fish consistently. So far, nymphs and streamers have provided all of the action. Fish larger flies with flashy materials in off color water. Trout will feed actively until runoff ramps up in April, but make sure your flies err on the side of visibility.
When cold weather persists through March, there is often no opportunity to fish the Dolores before runoff. Despite a snowpack that exceeded 150% in January, the warmth of February raised flows sufficiently to erode the river’s snowcap. The Dolores became fishable weeks ahead of normal. Tremendous snow depth exists above treeline, but in the valley the riverbanks are easily accessible and little or no shelf ice remains. The Upper Dolores has so many tributaries that its flow increases with every mile of descent. Whereas the San Miguel chugs along at a more or less constant flow from the South Fork Confluence to its juncture with the Dolores 80 miles downstream, the Dolores increases 5-fold in just 37 miles from Rico to Dolores. In spring, the river comes alive from bottom to top. The broad riffles below the West Fork confluence are the first to consistently produce fish. Private land provides a substantial refuge in this section of the Dolores in terms of both habitat and fishing pressure. As flows gently rise in March and April, fish become more active, departing their winter lies and seeking those which optimize their feeding and rest opportunities. Aquatic insect nymphs provide critical calories in the pre-runoff period. Caddis and stoneflies are rapidly maturing, their plump bodies tumbling in the current. Spring’s first hatch, the diminutive snow stone, sets the food chain in motion. Further upstream, the Dolores fishes much like the San Miguel with its holdover fish finding common refuge in deep pools. They too will spread out, but like so many spring fishing scenarios, the ice out angler often catches them in multiples.
A wide range of subsurface flies work in March: stonefly nymphs (Pat's R.L., Wired Stone, Halfback, Poxyback), caddis nymphs (every variety of Hare's Ear, Hydropsyche Caddis, Soft Hackles, LaFontaine's patterns), mayfly nymphs (Micro May, Copper John, the Mayhem) and most of your streamer box.
Uncompahgre: (49 cfs at Pa-Co): The Uncompahgre is our primary mid-winter fishery, but these are lower flows than promised by the Bureau of Reclamation and other rivers have now eclipsed the Uncompahgre for overall fish activity. Pa-Co-Chu-Puk is always an enticing fishery because of the possibility of catching large trout. Although fishing has been just fair over the last few weeks, it is the larger fish that have been feeding. Dry fly action has been highly limited, but the following nymphs have been effective: Pat's Rubber Legs, KF Flasher Midge, Mayhem, JuJu Midge and JuJu Baetis, midge pupa patterns, Top Secret Midge, Winker Midge, San Juan Worms (variety of sizes and colors) and egg patterns. The enterprising angler also spends part of his time pulling streamers, as they produce a measured percentage of the true hogs throughout the year at Pa-Co.
Gunnison: (629 cfs in the Black Canyon): Every part of the Gunnison is fishing better than expected for this time of year. Many stretches are not yet accessible (most of the Black Canyon, for example), but our sampling has offered encouraging results. The Lower Gunnison (Gunnison Forks to Cedaredge Bridge) has produced spectacular midge hatches and the occasional Blue Wing emergence over the last few weeks, resulting in excellent nymphing and intermittent dry fly opportunities. Wading upstream from the Pleasure Park has been streaky, but good days have kicked out many +15" fish on small nymphs and dries. The Black Canyon is largely unreachable in March, but a recent foray into Ute Park produced a 21" brown on the third cast and numerous other fine trout throughout the day. Friends in Gunnison and CB report excellent early fishing on the Upper Gunnison. We certainly expect the same at the East Portal when its access road opens in early April.
In March and April, the most effective Gunnison patterns are those which imitate the nymphs of summer’s legendary hatches. Many anglers avow to keep a stonefly wet at all times when fishing the Gunny. Comparatively sparse nymphs of Pale Morning Duns and Blue Winged Olives are also important. BWOs hatch in the spring and fall, so emergers and even dry flies will take their share of fish this month. The third important fly group is caddis. Over the years, we have found that standard caddis nymphs and emergers, such as the Hare’s Ear and LaFontaine’s Emerger, offer a reliable fly choice despite a lack of hatching caddis in early spring months. Caddis may not be your hottest pattern, but keeping one rigged in a 2-fly dropper setup can help the angler avoid slumps and catch fish in a variety of water types.
The great water speculation game has begun in the Curecanti Field Division of the Bureau of Reclamation. Surprisingly high releases of 1,100 cfs were sustained through the heart of winter, but last week, flows from the Crystal Dam were hacked back to 629 cfs. This is a more typical winter flow, but local anglers and conservationists feel concern over the apparent lack of foresight and planning demonstrated by the water control commission. Such abrupt flux delivers a shock to the ecosystem in several obvious ways, not least the probability of stranding trout and other species in suddenly dry pockets and channels.
Last spring, the Bureau held releases at approximately 300 cfs into late May despite a visually growing snowpack. Then, they swung open the floodgates and increased flows more than 20-fold in a 15-day period. We experienced some of the lowest and highest water of all time in a span of three weeks. That is really not supposed to happen in a dam-controlled system. In fact, there are three reservoirs immediately upstream from the Black Canyon.
Isn’t that enough?
Fish on, friends.
Please call Telluride Angler with your fishing questions. We will be happy to steer you toward our best spring fly fishing in Southwest Colorado. 1-800-831-6230