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Fly Fishing in Telluride: Spring River Conditions, 2013

By admin - Posted on 19 March 2013

Spring Fly Fishing in Telluride

Moisture rises into the low pressure system as it spins through the Central Pacific. The jet stream tracks east across the Sierra Nevada, clouds rolling across the Great Basin and piling into Utah's Wasatch Range. Moisture wraps to the south, the gyro cell covering parts of nine states and Mexico, pulling moisture from the Sea of Cortez before charging through the Four Corners to the nation's highest barrier: the San Juan Mountains of Southwest Colorado.

western storm
[Western U.S. weather map, March 19, 8:30 pm mst]   


Four storms have built our entire snowpack. Colorado is a fundamentally arid place, many parts of which qualify as desert.  Moab, Montrose and Cortez are among the driest cities in the United States, but between lie the highest mountains, the storm stopping San Juans. Here, the snow is drier than any place in Utah, the elevation of our primary ski area stretching from 8,750 to over 13,300 feet. Nine 14,000 foot peaks arise around it, gathering precipitation, the rare and sacred, the lifeblood of skiers, foresters, rivermen and trout.

A fifth spins to us now. Here in Colorado, the difference between a dangerous drought and completely normal snowpack can be just one or two storms. Snow is not a daily event as in the Cascades, but it comes in bunches. In late January, our snowpack was 45% of normal, the lowest mid-winter reading since 1989. Four storms hence, we're sitting at 75% with another ringer on the radar. Three weeks ago, the Telluride ski area recorded 39 inches in just seven days, one of the snowiest weeks in decades. To skiers, it's heaven. To fish, it's home.

klimek paco Living in the mountains, we measure weather in distinct "events" that together comprise seasonal averages, from which we deduce something about the fishing. But what? A static snowpack measurement reveals little about the weather and temperatures yet to come and less about the conditions for trout fishing. Many locals will tell you that March is the first real fishing month, a month with choices, fish that are actually looking for food, a month in which fly fishing seems not just plausible, but like a good idea. Fishing each river for the first time in March feels like opening a locked trunk, the contents of which cannot be known without a personal inspection. It is mid-March, time to fish. Here is what we have found:

San Miguel watershed 

[Upper San Miguel Watershed, from 10,500 feet on Telluride ski area, March 2013]   

San Miguel: Over the last five years, the San Miguel has been a sure thing in March. February brings heavy snow. Warming days create imperceptible pulses of melt water and the ice busts off the river from the bottom up. Trout, shocked and pleased to see daylight for the first time since November, eat all of the nymphs they can gather before runoff begins in earnest, sometime in late April. This "pre-runoff" phenomenon occurs on many freestone streams in the West. Some enjoy better fishing than others, of course, often due to subtleties in their snowmelt cycles. For example, the San Miguel is an excellent pre-runoff fishery, whereas the Dolores usually is not. The Dolores is a south-facing watershed that catches both more snow and more direct sunshine than the San Miguel. As a result, the warming days of March cause instant runoff with unfishable conditions developing underneath the snow, before the ice even recedes from the watercourse.   Our first glimpse of the actual river is often a muddy one.

This year, for the first half of March, the San Miguel was the muddy one. So much snow fell in February that the Miguel suffered hair trigger water clarity. Much of the river was icebound until last week's unseasonably warm temperatures. Below Placerville, the San Miguel has been off color on all sunny days, clearing only in the middle of the night. Most of the streambank snowmelt seems to have finally dried. February's generous snowfall has shrunk and hardened, leaving streambanks less susceptible to "bleeding" as March has progressed. The fishing is now average in overall quality and we expect continued improvement between now and late April when runoff will begin in earnest.

San Miguel Winter    

Clear water is now found throughout the day along much of the river corridor (above). Cold water temperatures are automatic, so deep nymphing is the only consistent method for connecting with the locals. A host of nymphs will potentially work, but these are the no-nonsense favorites:


Pat's Rubber Leg Stone, brown (#8-12)
Wire Prince, black or green (#14-18)
Guide's Choice Hare's Ear (#14-16)
Egg patterns, pink, salmon, chartreuse (#16-18)
Zebra Midge, red ( #18-20)
Copper John, red or green (#16-20)


More important than fly pattern is the depth of your rig. Getting hung on the bottom is part of a successful approach. If you're not losing some flies, you are not deep enough. Cover water aggressively and experiment with time of day. Subtleties of water temperature, clarity and levels will incite fish to move and feed. Don't pound water. The stationary angler tends to go fishless on the San Miguel. If the main branch is shutting you down, try fishing the Valley Floor mid-day with a dry fly. Fish will occasionally rise in the low gradient meanders above Society Turn. If no fish rise, you can blame the skunk on your choice of a dry fly. 

If the San Miguel just won't give it up, treat yourself to some relatively easy fishing on the Uncompahgre. Pa-Co-Chu-Puk State Park offers the most reliable water conditions in our corner of the state. This small tailwater currently carries only 32 cfs, but a major midge hatch sparks excellent fishing, including frequent dry fly opportunities in March and April.  

Beau's big paco brown The trout at Pa-Co fall into two categories: 1) small and easy; and 2) large and difficult (right). Not surprisingly, the smaller rainbows (9"-12") are the ones that seem willing to rise to the daily hatch. Larger fish, including some fine browns and cutthroats, are frequently sighted in the clear tailouts and modestly deep plunge pools. Under cloudy skies, the big fish are definitely more active. Any increase in water flows is likely to cue these trout to explore their growing habitat. When this happens, they will be much more susceptible to streamers, larger nymphs and other typical big-fish fare. If the weather stays fair and the sky clear, the big boys will continue to sulk. Who's complaining? It's a privilege to have some reliable water close to home in the spring. The San Miguel is wilder, the Gunnison more exciting and Animas more capable of producing a 2-foot trout, but it is downright pleasant to settle for a few hours on the Uncompahgre's riffles and slicks. Sight fishing is the norm and the river demands just enough from your presentation to qualify as challenging.


Take the guesswork out of fly selection:

Benton's Zebra Midge, red or black (#20-22)
Winker Midge, black or olive (#20-22)
KF Flasher, black (#22-24)
The Mayhem, black (#22)
Benton's Shuckin' Midge (right), (#22) 
Simple midge pupa, red or black (#22-24)
Micro-egg, Oregon cheese, pink or chartreuse (#18)

Stalcup's Hatching Midge (#22-24)
Parachute Midge, black/white (#22-24)
Griffith's Gnat (#18-22)

Thanks to a heightened local conservation mentality and some solid work by the Gunnison Gorge Anglers Trout Unlimited Chapter in collaboration with the Colorado Division of Wildlife, the Lower Gunnison River is becoming one of the crown jewel fisheries of Western Colorado. An enigmatic stretch of river with constantly varying water flow and clarity, the Gunnison below the North Fork confluence is one of those vexing lower river stretches that becomes more compelling to local anglers as the easy fishing destinations become crowded and repetitive. The Lower Gunnison offers locals a chance to launch a driftboat and float down a stretch of lazy, lonely water that can take the whole day to fish carefully or be pushed through in just a couple of hours. This is downriver fishing at its best, complete with shady cottonwoods, automobile rip rap, dust rising from distant dirt roads, soaring raptors and the occasional barking dog.


What has improved so distinctly is the fishing itself. After the whirling disease disaster of the 1990s, rainbow trout were scarce throughout the Gunnison. The introduction of WD-resistant "Hofer" strain rainbows has been a significant success, however, especially in the lower reaches of the fishery. Locals now leave more fish in the river, especially the trophy trout that thrive in the Lower Gunnison's long growing season. A tremendous food base supports a potentially spectacular fish population. Water quality will continue to be an issue, because the silty North Fork bleeds in the rainy season and runoff period, but all-in-all, the Lower Gunnison has the ingredients of a world-class trout stream with reasonable public access for both float and wade fishing.


Water conditions are key in March. Sunny days cause low elevation runoff from the North Fork that clouds the Gunnison below its confluence. Overcast preserves water clarity and brings out heavy hatches of midges and spring Blue Winged Olives. Dry fly opportunities are almost automatic on such days, the happy fish hanging just below the surface. Consistent with most spring trout fishing, the best action is in the middle of the day, but lengthening daylight offers steady nymphing from mid-morning through late afternoon. Considering what little pressure they receive, Lower Gunnison fish are surprisingly choosy. Many Gunnison anglers over-rely on the river's famous stoneflies, fishing the big nymphs through thick and thin. Even in the Black Canyon, midges and small mayflies provide a critical food source through the 11 months in which stoneflies do not hatch. Bring your San Juan and Platte river fly boxes and rig those small flies on 6X tippet. A spring Lower Gunnison selection, for either above or below the confluence, should include the following:


juju Thread body midges (#22-24)
KF Flasher, or similar emergers (#22-24)
Zebra Midge, red or black (#20-22)
Craven's JuJu Baetis (right), (#18-20)
The Mayhem, olive or black (below, right), (#18-22)
Bubbleback emerger, olive (#18-20)
egg patterns, salmon, chartreuse or Oregon cheese (#16-18)
Pat's Rubber Leg Stone, brown or black (#8-12)

mayhem Parachute Adams (#18-22)
Lawson's No Hackle, olive or grey (#18-22)
Hackle Stacker Dun (#18-20)
Para Extended Body BWO (#18-20)
Para Midge, black and white (#22-24)
Stalcup's Hatching Midge (#22-24)

Fishing midges on the Lower Gunnison, rig as if you were on the San Juan. Leaders should be at least ten feet in overall length with multiple flies more than a foot apart so they drift naturally. 6X tippet reduces drag and should be used for all flies smaller than size #16. Your weight should also be adequately distanced from the point fly and the strike indicator positioned well up on the butt section of your leader. The idea is to increase stealth and improve the dead drift, critical tactics when fishing small flies. Strikes will be subtle, but in general the Gunnison flows with more pace than the San Juan or Platte, revealing a stopped fly.


The consensus is that spring fishing got a late start this year, but if you pass on the next four weeks, you will miss what locals regard as one of the best windows in the season. Runoff will seem never-ending if we don't take advantage of pre-runoff fishing. Did we mention the possibility of catching big fish? For Darwinian reasons, a disproportionate number of big fish are caught in the spring, their heavy bodies craving calories in the form of stonefly and caddis nymphs. If your average picture is worth a thousand words, or two thousand if the angler repeats himself, feast your eyes on this Uncompahgre rainbow that fishing client Bob Townsend caught with veteran guide William Smethurst in early March.


Unc rainbow   

Spare me the details. Let's fish.


Call Telluride Outside to book your spring fishing guides and for an up-to-the-minute river report: 1-800-831-6230.


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