Pagosa Springs area Fly Fishing
San Juan Below Navajo Dam:
To enhance the quality of fishing on the San Juan, New Mexico Department of Game and Fish has special regulations in place for the water below the dam. The first 3 3/4miles below the dam is fly and lure, barbless hook, catch-and-release water and is known as the Quality Water. Angling is limited to artificial flies and lures with single barbless hooks.
Below Navajo Dam the San Juan is a large low-gradient river over 100 feet wide. The river flows through a shallow canyon with scattered vegetation on the canyon floor, like a spring creek in the desert. Willows are common along the banks and in the islands of the river. The stream is often channelized in shallow stretches, but deep runs are found almost everywhere. The flow ranges from 250 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 5000 cfs, with optimum amounts from 500 to 1000 cfs. High spring flows can vary depending on mountain snowpack and reservoir conditions. Seasonal fluctuations are to be expected, but flows do not normally change on a daily basis as in many tailwaters.
Cold water temperatures require the angler to dress warm, particularly from the waist down. Fleece pants and wool socks are a must, especially under today’s breathable waders.
Many first-time visitors to the San Juan find it easier to fish the river with an experienced guide. Both wade and float trips are available.
Near-constant flows and water temperatures create conditions on the San Juan that are quite different from nearby mountain streams. Trout are careful, selective feeders. Successful anglers come to the river prepared to match the size and color of the dominant food source for that day. Fortunately, only a limited number of insect species are found on the river.
Angling the San Juan is always a challenge. Presentations must be exact and drifts must be drag-free. The complex nature of San Juan fly fishing cannot be easily summarized in a few words. What follows is only an outline of the conditions and requirements of fly fishing this complex stretch of water.
Abundant midge hatches occur year-round, making midges the most important food source on the river. Fish feed on adult and immature insects as well as on mating clusters of insects. Midge larva and pupa patterns ranging from size 18 to 28 should be fished dead drift at varying depths, including just below the surface. Dry-fly fishing with adult midge patterns can be effective, but if conditions are right, fishing midge cluster patterns may be more productive. Midge cluster flies are often simple black-thread bodies with a grizzly hackle tied parachute-style on a white post clipped short in sizes 14 or 16. When fish are freely rising to clusters, this type of pattern can make your day.
Mayflies are found in riffles and on the flats below the riffles. Spring and fall hatches of blue-winged olives provide some excellent dry-fly fishing, especially on calm cloudy afternoons. Trout will rise to size 18 or 20 Blue-Winged Olive patterns. From early July to late September pale morning dun hatches occur in early afternoon. The hatch is often better on sunny days. Fish with size 14 or 16 pale yellow Comparaduns. If the fish are taking emergers below the surface, a variety of rusty, dark PMD emerger patterns should do well.
When no insect activity is observed, prospect for trout with subsurface patterns. Red, orange, tan, and brown San Juan Worms are effective year-round. Black or brown rabbit and marabou leeches in large sizes are a good choice in slow-moving water. Egg patterns are also popular on the river.
You should have no trouble finding fish, for they are everywhere.Adapt your fishing techniques to the location you select. The flats, the channels, the pools, and the riffles all hold plenty of trout.
The San Juan rarely disappoints experienced anglers or those who choose to go with a good guide. Due to the popularity of the river, try to hit the river on weekdays during the peak season of June to October. From November to March the river can be delightful—dress warmly and you’ll have a day like no other on the San Juan.
San Juan in Pagosa Springs
The San Juan then flows west and south into New Mexico, where it is impounded by Navajo Dam, creating a world class tailwater fishery. Below, the San Juan becomes a desert river, carving deep canyons before joining the Colorado River at Lake Powell in Utah.
Although much of the San Juan in Colorado flows through private land, there are still plenty of fly fishing opportunities on the San Juan. A short stretch of public water is found within the town of Pagosa Springs, and it offers the real possibility of landing a 20-inch trout within the town limits.
The lower miles of both forks hold populations of brown and rainbow trout. Fish remain on the small side, ranging from 7 to 12 inches. The forks hold small cutthroat trout in their upper miles.The lower miles of the East Fork receive heavy fishing pressure, and one must work the water thoroughly to find good-sized fish.The two main forks of the upper San Juan are delightful small trout streams. The East and West Forks of the San Juan are a pair of complementary streams. The East Fork is a tumbling freestone stream, and there is easy access to 6 miles of river by graded road. For the more adventurous, the West Fork offers endless hike-in water deep in the Weminuche Wilderness in rugged canyons and peaceful meadows. In general, the East Fork is easier to fly fish, and the West Fork offers more adventure and solitude. Neither stream is a producer of large fish, but they are consistently good for small trout.
The Piedra supports a large population of browns, rainbows, and cutbows, with many fish in the 12- to 14-inch class. On a good day fish seem to charge out from every lie to take flies. Just up from the U.S. 160 bridge near Lower Piedra Campground stocked rainbows dominate, but most trout in the long central valley are wild fish. Deep pools hold difficult-to- fool browns. Most of the rainbows are wild, strong, hard-fighting fish; the browns are wily fighters who often jump and who use rocks and currents to help them do their best to snap leaders.
The upper forks of the Piedra offer miles of virtually untouched trout streams. Both the East and Middle Forks head well within the Weminuche Wilderness and offer miles of trailless, difficult-access fly fishing for brook trout and cutthroats. Downstream from the wilderness area the East Fork flows mainly through private land, but the Middle Fork offers 5 miles of excellent water within a half mile of Forest Road 636. The stream and road come together about 1 mile north of the junction with Forest Road 637. From that point to the Middle Fork Trailhead the river flows just east of the road, and it is only a short walk to reach the water.
The East and Middle Forks join amid the rolling grasslands north of Pagosa Springs, and just below the confluence the main Piedra River enters a narrow valley. The river flows at the foot of Devil Mountain through sedimentary rocks turned nearly on end. Walking through the valley is easy most of the way, as is access to the stream. However, the sedimentary layers are broken by faults that bring ancient hard granite to the surface. The faults create two box canyons, not too creatively named First and Second Box Canyons as encountered by those heading upstream. Access to these rugged double canyons is difficult, and wading through them, when it is possible, requires extreme caution.
A large population of stoneflies is found in the Piedra, especially in and below the Second Box. Both Pteronarcys and Hesperoperla are found in the swift water. During the hatch and throughout the rest of the year, stonefly nymphs are an excellent pattern choice on the river. Any favorite nymph pattern will do: a Giant Black Stone, Brooks Stone, or Bitch Creek Nymph. Although the stream is known as stonefly water, sporadic mayfly hatches occur throughout the day in summer, and caddis are occasionally seen in the afternoon. High-floating, high-visibility attractor flies work well in midsummer. The House and Lot, Humpy, Renegade, and Parachute Adams are some local favorites to try.
The rugged San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado make great eye candy. And they also produce some great fishing. This is an area where fishing is about more than just landing a trout. This is a place where you can experience the beauty and peace of the outdoors, enriching it by having a fly rod in your hand. One place to enjoy this experience is Williams Creek, northwest of Pagosa Springs, nestled up on the south side of the San Juans.
Williams Creek is almost a perfect trout stream. It’s obvious that stream improvements have been done in parts, with large boulders placed to enhance flow and provide some cover. It’s fairly easy to access a lot of the creek, and it flows through mostly public lands.The fish are making a comeback, supplemented by some stocking (including Cutthroats). You might catch smaller fish, but enjoy the area and come back in a couple of years. Just release your fish for now – let them thrive and reproduce so that the river continues its comeback.
Williams Creek flows through almost entirely public water from its inception to merge with the Piedra. The headwaters lie in the Weminuche Wilderness. This area is resplendent in some of Colorado’s best scenery, but demands a good day hike, or overnite. Upon exiting the wilderness, it flows through San Juan National Forest, in and out of Williams Creek Reservoir. A short stretch lies on private land, and then it’s back onto forest property. The last section goes through a fairly narrow glacial canyon before meeting the Piedra. Williams Creek is a tailwater. It’s not a huge tailwater, but one nonetheless. In order to get to the tailwater, you’ll need to drive to the reservoir, walk across the dam, and down the grass slope. Portions of the tailwater below the dam are wooded, and several large trees have fallen into the stream. However, if you can figure out how to fish it, this part of the creek holds some large trout. There is a small portion of private land downstream, hence the access from the dam. If all else fails, you can fish in Williams Creek Reservoir. This is a gorgeous spot and a reasonably large reservoir. It holds several species of trout including Colorado River Cutthroats, plus Kokanee Salmon. There are campgrounds on the lake, and boats are allowed. It’s reasonably easy to hike around the reservoir.
The Animas is home to rainbows and browns. They are strong, smart trout that are doing well in the river. The big water grows some large fish, and the Animas has a reputation for large trout. Most of the fish in the river are in the 10- to 15-inch range, but the potential for a lunker is real. A past state-record brown trout weighing over 20 pounds was wrestled from the Animas in the 1950s. Fishing for browns is often a difficult proposition involving weighted streamers and hundreds of casts for a few fish. Rainbow fishing is more consistent and offers the dry-fly fishermen a chance to find plenty of good-sized trout.
The most important food source for the large trout in the Animas is sculpins. These bottom-dwelling forage fish are found in the mud and rocks throughout the river and are eagerly sought by the trout. Caddisflies are the most important aquatic insect in the Animas. Hatches begin around June 1, when they are usually masked by the later stages of runoff. The trout will actively feed if the water is high and clear, and they will often take caddis even when the water is muddy. Caddis hatches continue all summer long but tail off as the season progresses. Evening dry-fly fishing can be excellent in July and August with Elk Hair, Goddard Caddis, or Trude patterns.
A midsummer hatch of pale morning duns stimulates trout feeding in the Animas. The hatch occurs late-morning from July until early August. Match the hatch with size 16 or 18 pale-bodied flies, such as a Light Cahill or any of the specifically designed Pale Morning Dun patterns. Size 16 to 18 nymphs—either a Pheasant Tail or dark Hare’s Ear—are effective before and during the hatch.
When no hatch is on, first try fishing weighted nymphs or dropping sculpin patterns along the bottom. Prince Nymphs are also a proven general attractor pattern for the Animas. If these ideas fail to work, hopper patterns are an excellent alternative. Particularly effective is a Dry Muddler in sizes 8 to 12 skittered over the surface. Fly fishing can remain excellent on the Animas through the snows of early November. The crisp, clear days of autumn, tinted with yellow aspens on the mountain slopes, offer ideal angling weather. Many anglers throughout the San Juans consider September and October the best months to be on the Animas, as well as other rivers in the area. Watch for late fall hatches of blue-winged olives and midge activity, which can occur around midday in October and November.
The Rio Grande
The Rio Grande, the second longest river in the United States, heads in the high mountains between Creede and Silverton. The river’s mountain journey takes it 60 miles east to the San Luis Valley where, near Alamosa, it turns south to flow into New Mexico. From the headwaters to Del Norte, the Rio Grande is fine trout water, including a stretch between South Fork and Del Norte where the slow-moving meandering river is designated Gold Medal Water. Within this westward bulge in the Continental Divide the river is joined by about 50 tributaries, each of which offers classic small stream angling for small trout. With small creeks, pocket water, wide riffles, and pools, the upper Rio Grande offers the fly fisher anything his or her heart desires.
The Rio Grande is home to abundant stoneflies, and the salmon fly hatch of mid- to late June can be heavy. Although the hatch may occur during runoff, the water is clear enough to permit dry-fly fishing. Fish the hatch with adult stonefly patterns such as the Sofa Pillow, Bird’s Stone, or large Stimulators. Splashy casts that disturb the surface will often bring a vicious strike. Stonefly nymph patterns, specially the Bitch Creek, Pat’s Rubberlegs, and Twenty Incher, are a good choice all season long. Use size 6 to 10 patterns with additional weight to get them deep in the fast runs.
The trout in this big water are not very fussy, and traditional big-water western patterns like the humpy and Royal Wulff will often produce, as will flies more carefully matched to naturals. Attractors such as Elk Hair Caddis, Dry Muddler, and Royal Wulff work well throughout the afternoon and evening. Keep flies large enough to be easily spotted in the fast, choppy currents. A size 10 or 12 fly will work well, particularly on cloudy afternoons. Late in the summer or in quieter stretches of water the same patterns in smaller sizes, or a size 12 or 14 Parachute Adams, will often bring a trout out of hiding.
Brown trout swim the Rio Grande in incredible numbers, and fish are found everywhere. Browns are particularly fond of holding in deeper water near the banks and under the roots of willows in slow-moving water. In choppy runs about a foot deep trout will hold in the rocks on the bottom, freely rising to dry flies or taking nymphs at any depth. Look for current seams where a slow current passes against a faster one. Good fish can be taken from lies within a rod’s length from where you are standing. Be watchful for hidden deep runs where large nymphs can snare a good-sized brown.
Because of the size of the river and the many stretches of private property that require permission to fish, floating this stretch with an experienced guide is an excellent way to get into some large browns. The river is floatable from above Creede to Twin Mountain Bridge. With numerous access points you can plan a wide variety of trips ranging from a half-day to two days.
Before mid-June the river is generally too cold for good fishing, and after August 1 the river is too low to float. Float trips are especially desirable during the early summer, when the river is fishable but still running high. During this time the river is awkward to wade but perfect for floating. Casting into the holding water along the bank from midstream is the easiest way to reach the trout during high flows. In addition, the floating season coincides with the timing of major hatches on the river. One can float and cast salmon flies, Golden Stones, Green Drakes, and caddis to rising trout all day.
The Gold Medal Water fishes well into the fall, when angling is most productive in the afternoon. Large beadhead, Peacock, and Pheasant Tail nymphs or streamers are your best bet. Baetis hatches occur on fall afternoons, and you should fish the hatch with your favorite Blue-Winged Olive patterns.