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Drying Skies, Clearing Rivers

By admin - Posted on 17 September 2013

Drying Skies, Clearing Rivers      September 17, 2013

Late monsoon season a boon to fall fishing in SW Colorado

A monsoon for the ages has replenished collapsing river flows in Southwest Colorado.  The driest winter in a decade has been followed by a rainy season that lingers into mid-September.  For more than a month, the San Miguel and Dolores have flowed above their historical norms.  Given the drought of early summer, this is a fortuitous turn of events in a region famous for mercurial weather.  Global warming has affected atmospheric pressure such that major weather systems evolve more slowly.  In the words of one prominent forecaster, “Good and bad weather both last longer.”  One’s view of prolonged heavy rain depends whether you are a vacationing fisherman, a resident who will fish when conditions inevitably allow, or one of the true beneficiaries of water in the dry Southwest:  a duck, flower, tree or trout.

The anglers pushed through heavy bankside cover, pressing downstream on the bench above river, focused on game trails through scrub oak rather than the delicious pools of the canyon below.  The heaviest weather in a decade rendered the canyon unfishable for the entire summer, the turbid water prohibitively dark.  Even locals questioned whether fish could survive such conditions.  When the weather broke, the river cleared from top down.  Lower stretches were maddeningly slow to settle, so most fishermen worked the upper reaches for the remainder of the season.

It is with great anticipation that local anglers view the week of drying weather.  Historically, prolonged muddy water has been followed by spectacular fishing on the San Miguel and Dolores.  Whereas the Dolores has been fishable for about 50% of summer, the San Miguel has been clear below Placerville perhaps two days in the past two months.  Last week, both rivers hit levels that nearly equaled their season high flows, a fact that underlines the depth of early summer’s drought.  On Friday, the Dolores flowed 1,400 cfs at the town of Dolores, a 40-year high for that date.  A degree of attrition in the fish population is certainly possible, but every surviving trout will be forced to consume a summer’s worth of insect calories in the few remaining weeks of growing season.   Trout are happy to miss a meal, as long as they can make up for it later. 

With respect to foliage and color, the canyon was unrecognizable to the downstream anglers.  At streamside, head-high grass literally prevented them from observing their surroundings.  Along the bench, oaks were so thick the anglers donned chest waders just for leg protection.  Even the color of the soil was a surprise, the radiance of the red rock reduced by months of dampness.  The canyon smelled of earth.  A profusion of terrestrial insects hatched from the enriched banks.  When the two reached their downstream landmark, there was no debate on fly patterns.  Each rigged a short, heavy leader with the largest grasshopper in his box.

If the rain rolls back, here is what we expect on our favorite rivers:

San Miguel:  (500cfs and falling, should fish well under 150cfs)  Unfishable since mid-July, the San Miguel’s second season will begin following a week of dry weather.  Unprecedented mudslides silted the river below Silver Pick in a way that threatened habitat for both trout and aquatic insects, but the super-high flows of early September should scour the streambed and recharge the trout for one last feeding binge before winter puts them to bed. 

The Upper Dolores (275 at Rico, should fish under 100 cfs)   The Dolores has not earned the same “long-suffering” status as the San Miguel, but it’s peak flows last week were more shocking.  Honestly, it’s exactly what the doctor ordered.  The Dolores struggles with chronic low water.  The deluge will cheer up the trout by bolstering habitat, oxygen levels and the prevalence of waterborne aquatic insects.  The fish have been more or less completely unmolested for two weeks, a welcome break in their summer routine.  We expect angling success to increase in terms of both numbers and size.   


One angler had guided and fished this river for a decade.  The other could attribute less than twenty landed trout to his years of intermittent fishing experience.  When they scrambled down that final bank, stepped into the river and settled their gaze upstream, both knew the outcome before making a first cast.  Today would be special.  Over the course of that afternoon, the two caught more than fifteen brown trout over sixteen inches, including a couple pushing twenty.  The trout were unbiased to skill and experience, coming steadily to both anglers.  Neither changed flies, nor paused for a snack or drink.  Few words were exchanged.  Although never out of each other’s sight, the two fished in their own worlds, one on the left bank, one on the right.  The day was celebrated with high fives, head shaking and beer.  Now, almost twenty years hence, the story is retold between them with the same adjectives, highlights and head shaking as on the evening of that remarkable day. 

This was not the Green.  It was not the Yellowstone, nor the Platte, Arkansas, Snake, nor the Madison. 
The river was the San Miguel, the year 1995. 


Our fly suggestions are specific to water clarity, by far the most compelling variable.

Flies for the San Miguel and Dolores, fall season

Murky, 6”-12” visibility

Technique: nymphing (straight up)
Tippet strength: 3X or 4X

Dry flies
PMX, any color, #6-8
Perry’s Bugmeister, #6-8
Chernobyl Ant, Orange, #8
Chubby Chernobyl, #8-10
R.L. Stimulator, #8
Rogue Foam Stone, Golden, #6
Yeager’s Tantrum, #10
Grillo’s Hippie Stomper, #10

Pat’s Rubber Leg Stone, Brown or Black, #8-10
Bitch Creek, #8
Tungsten San Juan Worm (aka the “Dirt Snake”), red or pink, #12
Wire Prince, Black/Green, #12-14
Aggravator, #12
Poxyback Stone, #10-12
Jumbo John, #8
Wooly Bugger, Black, #6-8
Sculpin streamers, #4-8

Clearing, but not clear, 12”-24” visibility

Technique: Hopper/dropper
Tippet:  4X or 5X

Dry Flies
PMX or Bugmeister, #10-12
Sodom and Nemora, #14
Chernobyl Ant, any color, #12
H&L Variant, #14
Royal or Grey Wulff, #14
Royal or Lime Trude, #14

Tungsten Soft Hackle PT, #14-16
Tungsten Yellow Sallie nymph, #14-18
Guide’s Choice Hare’s Ear, #14-16
Pat’s Rubber Leg Stone, #10-12
Tungsten Micro May, #16-18
Psycho Prince, Blue or Orange, #18
Wire Prince, #16-20
Wooly Bugger, black, #12

Clear, low water

Technique:  straight dry flies, or hopper/dropper
Tippet: 5X or 6X

Dry Flies
Parachute Ext. Body BWO, #18
Burk’s Silhouette Dun, #16-18
Parachute Adams, #16-18
Grey Wulff, #16-18
Stimulator, orange, #16-18
Kicking Hopper, #12

The Mayhem, #18-22
Micro May, #20-22
JuJu Baetis, #20
Winker Midge, olive or red, #20-22
Tungsten Soft Hackle PT, #18-20
Zebra Midge, Red or Black, #20-22

Uncompahgre:  (300 cfs)  Receiving five inches of rain in a week heightens our appreciation of dam-controlled rivers, especially small ones that lack significant tributaries.  The Uncompahgre has only fished better with the intensifying rainy season.  Cloudy days bring the heaviest mayfly hatches.  If there is one hatch we can count on around here, it is the Uncompahgre’s unflagging PMD.  Conditions are ideal for dry fly fishing because long seam lines and subtle back eddies develop when flows are between 250cfs and 350cfs.  Trout feed all day on PMD and midge nymphs.  When the wind is down and bugs are on the surface, heads pop up for hours.  The Uncompahgre’s largest fish require a nymph or streamer, but Pa-Co-Chu-Puk State Park is a great place to practice your long leader dry fly technique for small and medium sized free-risers.

Play the tech game:

Tippet: 6X, fluorocarbon preferred

Dry Flies
Burk’s Silhouette Dun, PMD, #18
Harrop’s CDC Thorax Dun, Pink Albert, #18
Film Critic PMD cripple, #18
Hairwing Dun, #18
AK’S Melon Quill, #18
Hackle Stacker Dun, PMD, #18

The Mayhem, yellow or olive, #18
Bubbleback Emerger, PMD, #18
Barr’s Emerger, #18
Micro May, Glass Bead, #20-22
Hogan’s Slow Guy, PMD, #16-18
Biot Emerger, #18
Autumn Splendor, #8-12
Sculpin Patterns, #4-6
Wooly Bugger, black or brown, #6-10



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