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San Miguel River report and forecast

By admin - Posted on 02 April 2020

April 2, 2020

by John Duncan, Telluride Angler 

There aren’t many San Miguels left in the world today, freestone rivers originating high in their mountains, undammed, mercurial, original, offering 30 miles of public access in easy driving distance of the two towns that lie within a stone’s throw, the combined populations of which is less than 4,000 people.  The San Miguel River flows for 60 miles through the county of the same name, a place known predominantly for the Telluride ski area, masking some of the most entertaining fishing in Colorado. 

The San Miguel is not a trophy trout river.  In fact, many of its rainbows are stocked every season by the Colorado Division of Wildlife, a campy organization that clings to the put-and-take theology of the 1950s.  Wild fish populate the main stem from side creeks, which sustain brown trout, cutthroat and brookies.  Gravel pullouts pock highway 145 as it winds west from Telluride.  In high summer, an SUV will be parked in many of these, but successful fishing requires athletic wading, so the ambitious angler easily earns solitude.  Walk a mile on the San Miguel and you’ll never make the same cast twice.  Intricate pocketwater beckons the creative caster.  Every poke involves a reach or bump, followed by urgent line mends.  San Miguel trout are not selective, but they know a bad drift when they see one.

And they see plenty.  On almost no other river will anglers fishing the same fly have such strikingly different results.  The angler catching the most fish is never casting furthest, using the longest leader or most technical fly pattern.  These traditional match-the-match tactics don’t work on the San Miguel, which often stumps accomplished anglers who practice their art on the Henry’s Fork, Fryingpan or San Juan.  On the Miguel, it’s all about the drift.  Each cast is carefully articulated around the exotic structure of this authentic, tumbling freestone.  We do most of the work with our feet, positioning for each presentation so the line crosses the fewest possible micro eddies.  It takes exactly one drag-free drift to fish a lie.  No fish?  Move on.  We fish the San Miguel at ten times the pace of a tailwater.  Cast.  Step.  Cast.  Step.  Cast.  Fish.  No fish.  Keep moving. 




Forecast for summer and fall

Water flows:  with 100% normal snowpack in the high country, we expect aggressive waders to start catching fish in the last week of June with all comers access by mid-July.  From mid-July through October, river levels will be a factor of summer rains.  The 2019 monsoon was the lightest in 10 years, so the weather gods will probably even the score in 2020.  If the monsoon materializes, we’ll have erratic water conditions in August, but some explosive moments of fishing.  Heavy rain produces a wavelength of micro runoff periods.  Muddy water rises on Monday, falls on Tuesday, rises on Wednesday, falls on Thursday.  Falling, clearing water encourages the heaviest fish in our river to do some intense foraging.  This is the season of the Pat’s Rubber Legs Stone, preferably hanging beneath a size #8 Bugmeister.  The San Miguel is a big fly, big fish river, never more so than in August.


The blanket caddis hatch of early June will be washed out by high water, per normal, but what follows will be remarkable.  Last year, the San Miguel enjoyed its deepest cleansing in 25 years as a near-record snowpack purged the silt in torrential runoff.  The streambed has never been cleaner, the bug life more prolific.  Caddis will linger through July, joined by a multitude of mayflies:  PMDs, Green Drakes and Callibaetis, followed by BWOs in August and September.  Hoppers and ants become a major food source from late July through September and caddis make a resurgence toward the September equinox.  Stoneflies are perhaps the most important food source for trout in the San Miguel.  Giant brown stones, giant golden stones and even the pteronarcys californicus “salmonfly” feed our fish when the river is too high for anglers in June.  As the water recedes, smaller stones cloud the sky, including several species of what we gloss as “yellow sallies,” ranging in size from #12-#18 and in color from olive to yellow and orange.  With both PMD mayflies and yellow sally stones in July, general imitator patterns showing yellow, orange or pink are highly effective.  Just as the larger aquatic insects seem to fade for the season, giant golden stones make a second appearance in August, keeping our size #8-12 patterns relevant into early fall.


How can you make the San Miguel your backyard river?  Fish it like a local.

Pre-runoff March and April:  Don’t miss this preseason window.  If you’re here to ski, spend a day pool-hopping on the main branch, checking deep pools for wintering fish.  Move fast.  Get in and out of your car at least 6-8 times.  If all else fails, retreat to the Valley Floor for some humbling single midge dry fly fishing.  Never been shunned by a 6-inch brookie?  Here’s your chance.

Cast shorter:  some of the best fishing of the year occurs in July as the water falls from its peak.  Why risk your hide crossing the turbulence when the trout are hugging the bank?  Work straight upstream and cast short.  No, shorter.  Use your rod tip to steer the fly.  Mend, mend, mend.  Better yet, high stick with no line on the water whatsoever.

Fish with your feet:  Walk up the center of the river in August and September.  Cast straight upstream.  Wade aggressively, then cast as short as possible, with distance serving only to conceal your presence.  Locals do much more with their feet than with the fly rod.

Keep your fly in the water.  Roll casts, water loading, side arm flicks and basic pick-up-and-lay-downs are key to casting efficiency on a river than punishes errant backcasts.  The San Miguel is made for the roll cast.  Use it.

Wade carefully.  We take our biggest swims of the year on the San Miguel.  Avoid this with high traction boots, a wading staff and a trustworthy fishing partner.

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