Some things just go together. Kids on a swing. Peanut butter and jelly. National parks and adventure. Summer and fishing. Oh wait, put on the brakes on that last one.
It is early August and while school hasn’t started yet, I am hearing the sounds of back to school, such as school supply advertisements, clothing sales, and enrollment announcements. That’s normal for early August. But it does portend the end of summer. Not summer on the calendar, but summer as in “let’s get out and do Colorado outdoors stuff”.
What isn’t normal, is to hear back to school talk at the same time as talk of not being able to get out and fish my favorite river because it is still running high from this past winter’s epic snow year. The “river running high” talk is usually a June conversation. For that conversation to be going on at the same time as back to school talk, just doesn’t go together like peanut butter and jelly.
It has affected not only fishing, but other outdoor adventures as well. With the high country opening up late, delays occurred with four-wheeling the mountain passes, mountain campgrounds opening, paddle boarding rivers, hiking to a favorite alpine lake, and most any Colorado adventure that involves water or high elevation. Except for river rafting, which is enjoying an extended season.
On the other hand, water is a critical aspect of our everyday living. Having a lot for a change is good. Reservoirs are full. Agriculture has ample supply. Parks such as Ridgway State Park are busy. And high, extended flows are healthy for rivers and the ecosystem. Nature needs a good cleansing every few years.
One very large example is Blue Mesa Reservoir. With the prior years drought, the reservoir was down to 30-something percent capacity, not expected to fill even if we had a good snow water year. Not only did we have a good water year, but we had an abundant water year. Blue Mesa is full and water releases from the reservoir to the Gunnison River have been increased several times to avoid spilling.
Stream flow gauges are something I watch regularly. While the gauges occur all over the state, I pay particular attention to those in our neighborhood, such as the Gunnison, Uncompahgre, Cimarron, and San Miguel. If I am looking for an extended fishing trip or travelling, I look at others such as the Roaring Fork, Eagle, Arkansas, or wherever I might be going. I recently had a day on the South Platte at Eleven Mile Canyon and the flow chart was important to know that was an ok place to fish.
Most everywhere across the state has higher flows later in the year than normal. That has made it a challenge to find fishable water both in river and lake. Although rivers have been clear for a few weeks or more from dirty spring runoff turbidity, volumes have remained high and difficult to wade and fish. Even lakes, such as a high country lake one might hike to in July had to be postponed because of snow drifts blocking roads and trails. Trails also may have been blocked by recently downed trees even after the snow was gone. I have seen some snow slides in places they don’t normally occur.
So where to go fishing?
My most recent excursion was to the Dolores River. The Dolores begins in the high elevation forks near Lizard Head Pass, south of Telluride. In the immediate vicinity of the pass, the forks are mostly just small rivulets. But as the trickles gather together downstream of the pass and upstream of the town of Rico, it becomes a fishable creek. There is public access both upstream and downstream of Rico.
Further along the way south of Rico, all the way to Stoner, the river is interspersed with public and private land. Just downstream of Stoner, the West Fork of the Dolores comes in. The West Fork is a large drainage, so the water flow is significant and very fishable. A road parallels the West Fork for a long way.
This is a good-sized creek with a lot of public access, particularly as you get on up the road and deeper in the national forest. This entire area, from Lizard Head Pass and Rico and Stoner is mostly within the San Juan National Forest, which means many of the smaller tributaries are also public access. Just ready for exploring with a fishing rod. One can make a loop, as the forest service road up the West Fork takes you back north to Dunton and the headwaters. From there a road connects back to the highway just south of Lizard Head Pass where you started.
My day on the Dolores was productive. As I mentioned before, the water was clear but still flowing liberally. Wet wading was comfortable, but one had to be mindful of deeper and faster sections that were too much to wade. Unexpected was a grand slam – catching all four species of trout in one day in one river. Most were rainbows in the 8-12 inch range, with a few larger, then add in a few browns, a few brook, and most pleasantly, a few cutthroats to complete the grand slam. There was even a cutbow in the mix. All eagerly rose to a well-presented dry fly. Lots of fun!
Certainly the water flows all over the mountains will be coming down, making most every favorite creek a great place to visit. But with the back to school talk, I realize now is the peak time of the fishing season. There is still time to foray about fishing and camping and exploring our backyard. Get out there!
Joel L. Evans is an avid fisherman, outdoor writer and photographer, who has explored Western Colorado for decades.