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Dolores River report and forecast

By admin - Posted on 25 March 2020

Dolores River report and forecast

March 25, 2020
by John Duncan 

This is the first in our series of reports on the rivers of SW Colorado.  We chose to begin with the Dolores because it has fished much better than expected since ice-off, just three weeks ago.  As if awakening from a good night’s sleep, the River of Sorrows has been in a cheerful mood this spring.

Over the next few weeks, we will offer current conditions for each river, a forecast for summer and fishing tips for success throughout the season.


The Dolores today  

The Upper Dolores cuts through snowbanks near Lizard Head Pass, slashes across the mouth of Wildcat Canyon and drops over the sandstone ledges of Stoner before joining its twin, the West Fork Dolores, and strolling the last 14 miles to McPhee Reservoir.  We never know what to expect from the Dolores in spring.  In many years, heavy bankside snow melts abruptly in the first warm days, dirty water rises and pre-runoff fishing ends before it begins.  This winter, a relatively dry February and early March allowed the snow to settle and harden.  Low elevation runoff has been minimal and the river flows vaporously clear.  Snow stones hatch from Rico to Dolores, the harbinger of winter’s end, the first hatch to attract a trout’s attention as daylight lengthens.  


We’ve postholed down the steep hillsides of the upper watershed, above Rico and Cayton Campground, to check the prominent pools where trout overwinter.  Fish have been caught, but the effort-to-opportunity ratio favors water below Rico.  In fact, the lower you go, the more fishable water you’ll find this week.  We’ve been spending most of our time below the West Fork confluence on both private and public land.  This section of river is more meat-oriented than the hatch-intensive waters above the confluence.  Crawfish, damselflies and trout fry play a big role on the menu.  There are many resident trout in the “Lower Upper Dolores,” but also some bruising migratory fish that run sorties upstream from their home, McPhee Reservoir.  For some reason, lake fish rarely take a dry fly in the river.  Most are caught on streamers or nymphs bounced along the bottom.   

Fishing has been excellent below the confluence.  Trout are frequently seen freerising to the tiny black winter stonefly, which hatches mid-day.  Trout shouldn’t be arrogant in March, but for some reason, fish taking these miniscule stones are vexingly selective.  We’ve noticed this on the San Miguel, too.  A snow stone-eating fish really wants a snow stone, and it had better be well presented.  Our days are tons of fun, split between trying to catch sneaky rising fish on size #20 dry flies and dredging the deepest winter lies for potentially spectacular trout (avid angler Neal Johnson, fishing with guide Frank Smethurst last week).






 Our Forecast for the Upper and Lower Dolores

The Dolores below McPhee Reservoir will become fully accessible for fishing on May 1st when the Bureau of Reclamation opens the gate guarding the upper 5 miles of river.  We’ll have a fishing report shortly thereafter, but for now we can speculate that the probability of a high water release lies with the next month’s weather.  A dry February reduced the runoff forecast for the whole Dolores watershed.  It started snowing again this week and more is in the forecast.  If the lake fills enough to mandate a release, it could be a short one.  We expect the Lower Dolores to become the first local river to fall into shape after the traditional high water period in May.  While daunting to inexperienced anglers, there is no better place to test your skills and continue your fly fishing education than the Lower Dolores.  This is a place where guides and anglers work together at a high level to put quality fish in the net.




With an average snowpack in the high country, we predict the Upper Dolores to become fishable on approximately this schedule:

June 15:  south-facing creeks and low gradient sections of the main branch and West Fork

June 20:  sections of the Dolores below the W. Fork confluence, including the low-gradient waters of Telluride Angler’s leases on Lightenburger, Akin and Line Camp properties.  Around this time, the section of the “Upper Upper” between Cayton Campground and the Rico Canyon may also become fishable.

June 25:  all sections of the main branch and West Fork become fishable, although wading may still be challenging in places.  North-facing creeks should also fish at this time.





On-the-water tips for the Dolores

1) Look before you cast.  Whether fishing on the Upper, Lower or creek tributaries, the Dolores is a river that deserves a disciplined approach.  Only when pulling streamers do we move downstream.  Walk the banks carefully.  From mid-summer on, every inch of the Dolores is a low water fishery with spooky subjects.  At high water, the fish are tucked to the bank, easily spooked by footfall.

2) Try a dry.  The Dolores is among the most dry fly-oriented rivers in the West.  We all claim to prefer dry fly fishing.  Prove it on the Dolores.

3) Fish it early.  Of all local rivers, the Dolores is first to become fishable in early summer.  Many of our largest fish of the year are caught on the Dolores in late June and July.  As guides, we focus on this river for outstanding dry fly fishing while other rivers are still quieting down from runoff.

4) The right rods.  Virtually all of our guides fish 8 ½-9’ 4-weights on the main branch, West Fork and Lower Dolores, but a short 2 or 3-weight is a game changer in the backcountry.  The classic subalpine creeks of the Dolores were made for a Scott Fibertouch or Sage Dart.


[Telluride Angler]
[Telluride Outside guide service]



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