Fly Fishing Southern Colorado
SOUTH CENTRAL COLORADO
Colorado is truly an outdoorsman's paradise. You can find a bustling recreational presence in almost every outdoor pursuit. With a massive hub city like Denver and countless resort towns sprinkled throughout the state, there aren't many "secrets" left in Colorado. With a general funnel like Denver, most folks will be coming and going out of that part of the Front Range (generally). That has made a place like Southern CO one of the more secluded parts of this heavily visited state. When parts of New Mexico and Texas are closer than Denver, this keeps a lot of the land and water in the area traffic free.
The watersheds that start high up in the Southern Rockies have single handedly made for some of my most cherished memories of the backcountry. The San Juan and Rio Grande watersheds have LITERALLY hundreds of miles worth of prime time public water in every shape and size. Much like the water, the fish follow. You can find every species and size of trout in various capacities all throughout this part of CO. Now I feel that it is important to note that I have only scraped the very tip of this iceberg. With millions of acres worth of public land an individual could spend multiple lifetime's and never hit the same section of water twice.
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Runoff can be rough to wait on but don’t let that stop you from getting out there. The early months of spring before the bottom drops out can be productive. But once those days warm up and that snowpack really starts to give way.. Buckle up.. Your favorite stretch of river might be inaccessible for a few weeks and maybe even months.
There are still some viable options to go explore while the rest of the region is busting at the seams with snow melt torrents. I would suggest targeting tail waters, lakes/reservoirs, and smaller tributaries.
In the mountains, summer is truly the time of plenty. The days are long, the sun is warm, and life springs up from every crag & corner. Summer is the perfect season for fly fishing in the Western United States. For Southern Colorado this could not be more true. The trips made from the months of June through September comprise of everything anxious anglers dream of during the long winter deep freeze. Every single adventure is pulled directly out of a melancholy winter time daydream. For a few brief, but beautiful months, untold numbers of alpine lakes, rivers, and streams are opened up for adventurous anglers to explore. The backcountry can yield some serious rewards if you know how and where to target these fish.
Any Western State with fishable trout water during the summer is bound to draw "out of state" attention. Colorado is no exception to this rule. However the further away from Denver you go (North, West, & South) the less crowds you will run into (generally). You still have to understand that folks from out of state and locals alike will still want to play in this mountain paradise. Can you blame them? You just have to understand that there is a deviation curve with crowds. It is fairly easy to understand, and it goes as follows. The easier something is to access the more people will be there. Get it? So those roadside pull offs that parallel the river look mighty fine... BUT just as easily as you can pull in there.. So can every other “Joe” fly fishermen who think they’re Paul Maclean. Most people don’t like working for their fish, this much I know. WHICH IS FINE. I promise I am not trying to be a snob, just not my cup of tea. Plus it doesn't mean you can't catch a butt load of amazing fish at the spots. You very well can and a lot of folks have. You just have to understand that you may run into crowds, especially on the weekends. So in my experience, the more miles and elevation you add to this equation, the less people you will tend to run into. Anything with a trailhead that can span 5-20 miles will most likely land you in a fortress of solitude (if that is what you are looking for)...
So in any case summer is the perfect season for anglers to really spread out. Weather and available hours in a day allow us to hit all the spots that would otherwise be under feet of snow.
Basic Layout of Southern CO waters
Throughout the summer months of 2021 I have had some of my most incredible adventures here in Southern Colorado. With the proximity to Albuquerque, I ended up doing most of my exploring around the Rio Grande and San Juan National Forest. Both of these massive pieces of public land hold untold numbers of fishing opportunities for adventurous and casual anglers alike. Just based on my own interest, a lot of my adventures are measured in miles hiked, not so much fish caught. (So tread with caution if you plan to follow my footsteps.) But in this part of CO, much like the rest of the Mountain West, there is a fairly similar layout as far as water goes. We are talking basic watersheds folks, its as simple as following the flow. It all starts with snowmelt from the long cold winter. This will melt in the Spring and flow into mountain lakes which are the start of most tributary streams. Trib streams spider web into each other and create larger streams/ rivers as the elevation quickly drops. These will either end up in a reservoir and out as a tail water or continue into the main stem of a major river. USUALLY.
A lot of the major river stems, like the San Juan, Rio Grande, and Conejos will have major roads paralleling them. We are talking hundreds of miles of drive in access just on the main stems alone. Same goes for the majority of the reservoirs and larger lakes in Southern Colorado. There are usually a multitude of well maintained recreational sites available for any visitors traveling by. This means that accessibility is EXTREMELY EASY for any and all. There is a half decent chance you are going to run into a wide range of folks. This could be in the form of anglers, hikers, boaters, and campers alike. (Again NOTHING wrong with this.. Just saying)
Tributaries that flow into these main stems are where things start getting interesting. Most of the paved roads will give way to gravel or even dirt roads. The occasional national forest camp site or trailhead will be sprinkled along the way. These routes tend to be riddled with potholes and washouts alike, travel is going to be slow. Most modern amenities will be left at the blacktop as well. It is always a good idea to pack the car for any event that could take place that far from home. Once you reach a trailhead or a remote turn off its all about how much weight you can put on your back and how many miles your legs can handle. Again I fully believe that most folks don’t like to work for their fish. Who wants to actually have to be in shape in order to catch fish? Insane right? BUT SERIOUSLY the further down the trail you go the less anglers you are going to run into… and in turn maybe more fish..
Now again, I am by no means saying the fishing will be better in one place versus another. It is more so what you are looking to get out of an adventure. Fishing is going to be “good” almost anywhere you go, truth be told. To me summertime in the backcountry is about adventure.
Flies & Rods
Since most of my adventuring this summer took place in the “backcountry” of Southern CO, I am going to mainly speak on the flies needed for the backcountry. It might be kind of silly to say, but we were dialed in used “general” patterns. By this I mean, my backcountry box was full of flies that could resemble an extremely wide range of bugs. All of my terrestrials were some strange frankenstein version of a hopper/ant/chubby/parachute thing with too many legs. The same goes for all my nymphs/leeches. The beauty is that they look like everything and nothing all at once. For backcountry trout all they see is food. I have spoken on this at nauseum, however I will touch on it again. The fish that live in high alpine lakes, rivers, and streams dont have time to be picky. The growing season is short and they have to put on weight. So I subscribe to the idea that you need to be a jack of all trades and master of none with summertime flies in the backcountry. Take a wide range of everything and make sure they look like absolutely nothing.
As far as rods go, this is where conditions really start to factor in. To keep it simple, never go above a 9’ 5wt and never go below a 7’ 3wt. For starters if you fish high alpine lakes, you want a longer rod that can really give you some distance. The same concept applies for some of these larger streams. You will need to keep your distance in certain situations and that extra length is key. The last reason I would argue to lean toward a longer/heavier rod would be due to the fish. You’d be awfully surprised at how big some of these fish can get regardless of the size of water you are fishing. These are healthy environments with even healthier fish. A shouldered up bruiser can take you down town in a heartbeat and having a bit more backbone to a rod can help coax that sucker in the right direction.
If you do decide to go off the pavement and into the backcountry of Southern Colorado, there are quite a few things us anglers need to consider before we set out. Weather, wildlife, and safety are three major things to consider before ANY backcountry adventure.
Summer months in the Rocky Mountains can be extremely unpredictable with regards to weather. A mountain does not tend to listen to the opinions of a mortal “calendar”. The date can read July or August, but let me tell you the mountains can tell a whole different story. On a given day you can expect to see rain, sun, sleet, wind, cold, hot, humid, and dry. (I am well aware that I named almost every weather phase possible) Shifting weather patterns are constantly moving across the various ranges and can be as predictable as a rabid coyote. You could be fishing one drainage with sunshine and a warm breeze catching fat fish and a nice tan. Your buddy in the next drainage over could be getting hailed on with gale force winds while flash floods rip through the valley floor. On top of all that, average temps swing on a very wide pendulum. Nights and mornings can be to the bone cold and afternoons heat can burn you into heat exhaustion. If you haven’t quite seen the picture I am painting for you yet…. I will just spell it out. Be ready for E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G!! Forecasting can be difficult and as a result packs end up being heavy and full. Just kind of the nature of the beast unfortunately. I like to have a rain jacket on me at all times. With that I play the layer game like a damn onion. I will start morning adventures bundled up and slowly peel them away as the afternoon sun heats up the mountainside. Almost in direct relation to the ark of the sun, I will add layers back on until the sun finally sets. My philosophy is that I would rather carry more in extra clothes than get caught cold and wet. The age old “Have it and not need it” vs. “Need it and not have it” kind of situation.
The second thing to understand is the wildlife. Once you set foot on that trail, every stride brings you further into the wilderness and away from modern amenities. You will be walking off of the back porch of civilization and on to the front yard of wilderness. Bears don’t care who you are, Moose are bigger than you, rattle snakes (despite the name) might not give fair warning. There are certain critters in the backcountry that you do not want to cross paths with. Basic awareness of surroundings can mitigate 99.99% of the bad interactions, but we can never rule out the .01%. EVER. If any of you reading this were to observe me on my solo jaunts through the backcountry, you would hear a whole lot of “hey bear” and “hey moose” alike. If you look close you will also see that my bear spray NEVER leaves my left hip. I have had one of those .01% interactions with a bear when I lived in Idaho. I have deployed bear spray and know first hand how effective it is. As to avoid a rant, I will just say… I trust bear spray with my life. As far as rattlesnakes go.. Just know they can be present in some backcountry scenarios. Do your best to avoid “snakey” areas. I take a wide route around rock piles and fallen trees whenever they cross my path.
The last thing to keep in mind is what I like to call “safety”. The allure of backcountry fly fishing is the solitude. This is a double edged sword in many ways. In a modern world moving 100mph every waking hour of a day can be dulling to the spirit. I would prefer to not see another soul for a 24-48hr period when I am on one of these adventures. The catch is that if you were to hurt yourself or get violently ill, YOU ARE ALONE. No one is coming to look for you if they don’t know you’re there. Much like the wildlife, there are active and passive measures you can take to mitigate risk. Passive actions would be but are not limited to sending your trip itinerary and general waypoints to trusted individuals who are concerned about your overall well being. Active actions would be carrying some sort of Satellite connected device that can reach out to the modern world if something were to go South. I personally use a Garmin InReach.
The calendar might still say summer in the low country.. but Ol Jack Frost has a tendency to move into the backcountry a bit earlier. Shorter days and higher elevation are a recipe for August and September to really start feeling like Fall. Cold mornings are common and the fish follow suit. For watersheds dominated by brown trout and brook trout, these fish start showing pre-spawn tendencies much earlier than their low country cousins. Once hopper season comes to and end the aggressive nature will start to show. But again this is all short lived. Back country adventures in Southern Colorado SHOULD come to an end in early October. I say "should" because I am not going to tell you what to do.. All I am saying is that it is going to be long hikes on short cold days. You are working with diminishing returns for the most part.
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