No Trout Remembers What Fly We Used in the 1980s
Aug 13, 2012 | 1042 views | 0 0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print

Rain. The beautiful monosyllable brings relief to our drought-stricken region. In the last week of June, the rivers of Southwest Colorado were near record low flows, but in just five weeks, green has replaced brown and yellow. Our summer weather pattern has changed from “scary” to “normal.”

In fairness, Colorado was never in the throes of a dry summer; June is empirically our hottest and driest month. March, April and May were so unusually dry, though, that rain was desperately needed to prevent worst case scenarios from playing out across the state. It has now rained on 25 of the last 30 days, the Mexican monsoon cooling the landscape and feeding our rivers.

Our up-to-the-hour fishing report from Telluride:

San Miguel:  The first rains of July were simply absorbed, the land drinking from the sky. On Saturday, July 7th, it came down for nine consecutive hours in Telluride, but the San Miguel rose only 5 cubic feet per second (from 98cfs to 103cfs) at the gauging station below Placerville. If it rained that much today, we would expect the river to double in volume. Indeed, much lighter rains have swelled the San Miguel significantly over the past two weeks. After rain, flows are settling to around 130cfs, almost 30% higher than late June.

So, now we play the clear water/dirty water game. During this period of summer, it pays to think like a local. Here are the variables we check and consider daily, the factors that contribute to fishing conditions on different sections of the San Miguel.

1)      Water levels. Check the river gauge below Placerville. Spikes are caused by rain, and sharp spikes typically correspond with dirty water.]

2)     Water clarity. Dirty water moves much slower now than at high water levels. If mud comes downstream, you can probably outrun it for a few hours. It takes 12-16 hours for stained water in downtown Telluride to travel all the way to Norwood Bridge. If it rains big in town this afternoon, the lower river (below Placerville) will be blown tomorrow morning.

3)     Partial water clarity. Half dirty is also half clean. Transitional water clarity provides our best big-fish opportunities of the summer season. Fish marginal water with big flies and heavy tippet (see below).

4)     New mudslides along the highway. Mudslides are common along Highway 145, especially on Keystone Hill, near Silver Pick Road and the Sawpit area. Mud will settle and harden in a week’s time, but recurring rain bleeds mud into the river. Mudslides are a common point source for dirty water. This is important when making on-the-fly decisions about where to relocate. If you find yourself asking “where is the dirty water coming from?” think about mudslides you may have passed in your vehicle.

In terms of fly recommendations for August, we fish the San Miguel like two different rivers: the low, clear San Miguel and the somewhat-murky “still dropping from the rain” San Miguel. Both can be highly productive, but change your flies aggressively to match conditions.

Low & Clear

Stalcup’s Para Caddis Emerger #14-16 (belongs in the hall of fame)

Snowshoe Sally #14

Extended Body PMD #16-18

Parachute Adams #16-18

Adams Wulff #16-18

Furimsky’s BDE, Rust #16

AK’s Melon Quill #16

Turck’s Power Ant #11-13 (normally recommended for the Dolores, San Miguel fish seem pleasantly surprised to see it on their river)

Mayhem #16-20

Desert Storm #20-22

Tungsten WD-40 #18-22

Winker Midge #22

Zebra Midge #20-22

Barr’s Emerger, PMD or BWO, #18-20

Superflash PT, #16-20

Tungsten Soft Hackle PT #20

Murky but dropping

PMX, peacock or royal, #6-8

Perry’s Bugmeister #8-10

Yeager’s Neversink Trude #10-12

Yeager’s Tantrum, red or gold #10

Chernobyl Ant, Orange, #8-12

Morrish’s Foam Hopper, orange or tan, #10

Flopper #10

Tungsten Poxyback Stone #10-12

Pat’s Rubber Leg Stone #8-12

20-Incher #10-14

Tungsten Flash Prince #14-16

Wired Red Ass #15-17

Queen Prince #14-16

Morrish’s Iron Sally #14-18

Tungsten Sally nymph #16-18

San Juan Worm #12-16, red or pink (“The Dirt Snake”)

Murky and rising

repair to the tavern

Dolores: In our world, the Dolores is the river that succumbs first and worst to low water. In turn, it benefits most from rain, especially in a low-snow year. Since the Dolores is a south-facing watershed, the high country snow is always gone by August 1st and it is fair to state that late season flows are primarily dependent upon rain. So, here we are in the first week of August.  The Upper Dolores is now running approximately 25 percent higher than in late June, a substantial improvement. At around 40cfs it is still well below the historical average of 70cfs for this date, but the fact that we are entrenched in the monsoon is much more important. The Dolores is fishing terrific. Fish are taking dry flies all over the river. If it keeps raining, they will keep rising.

So far, hard rain has favored the San Miguel, causing frequent blowouts in the Sawpit area. It has rained just as often on the Dolores, but not as hard. As a result, the Dolores has only really blown once or twice this summer. Even on the rainiest days, the Dolores’s alpine tributaries usually remain clear and dry fly action in the backcountry is almost automatic.

Effective Upper Dolores fly patterns mirror the San Miguel in August, with a few key additions:

Main Fork and West Fork Upper Dolores

Goddard Caddis (brown) #16

Extended Body BWO #18

Carl’s Foam Flying Ant #14

Cow Killer Ant #16

Twilight Caddis #16-18

Harrop’s CDC Thorax Dun, PMD #18

Dolores Creek Tributaries

Sodom and Nemora #12

H&L Variant #14-16

Royal Wulff #14-16

Stimulator, orange #16

Turck’s Power Ant #11-13 (did we mention that one already?)

Black Canyon of the Gunnison:  feast to famine. As any Black Canyon loyalist would have predicted, the explosive fishing of May and June has atrophied to “streaky at best” under conditions of constantly fluctuating water flows and a dearth of mid-summer hatches. Every year, there is a striking difference between the aquatic insect activity in June and August. The best hatches of the year all occur in June, with the possible exception of fall Blue Winged Olives.  Golden stones, yellow sallies, PMDs, caddis and the famous Gunnison salmonfly hatch all occur within a four week period, from the second week in June through the first week of July.  Then, the train just stops. Scattered caddis and midges are all that late July has to offer. August is even thinner. In high water years, flooded banks produce a bumper crop of grasshoppers, the most important terrestrial insect in the Gunnison. In years like this one, however, the dry banks are much less fertile. Much of the bankside water is too shallow to hold fish, so the few hoppers that fall into the river go uneaten. Fluctuating water is a major problem. Water is managed tightly in low snow years and flows have been altered weekly from the Crystal Reservoir to serve downstream needs. Trout are highly territorial and do not like to change their holding lies. When flows constantly oscillate, fish pull off the banks and hold in reliable, deep runs. We can still catch them with a concerted nymphing effort, but it makes the Gunnison a less interesting river to fish.  

The Gunnison is still one of the great trout streams in the West, so don’t write it off. If you head down into the canyon, keep these tips in mind:

1)     Choose a cloudy day. If the man calls for rain in Telluride, it might be a good day to fish the Gunny. At low flows, fish are particularly sensitive to sustained sunny weather. The monsoon will provide its share of strong fishing days during an otherwise thin part of the Gunnison’s fishing season.

2)     Get serious about nymphing. The Gunnison’s extensive riffle water and deep seam lines say “nymph” to even the most dedicated dry-fly angler. On the San Miguel, “nymphing” often implies “dry-dropper” fishing. On the Gunnison, “nymphing” means “nymphing.”  Take your 6-weight, a bag of lead and some big, fat strike indicators.

3)     Fish a combination of large and small nymphs until you start catching fish consistently. Hatches are light in August, so the big fish eat nymphs in various stages of development. The Gunnison is, indisputably, one of the greatest stonefly rivers in the country. Since salmonflies, goldens and other large stoneflies mature for several years before hatching, there are always some large nymphs in the river. Like crabs and lobsters, stonefly nymphs molt, triggering unpredicted feeding frenzies. It doesn’t always work out, but experienced Gunnison anglers experiment with stonefly nymphs throughout the year. Also, try some really small stuff. The Gunnison is so famous for stoneflies that many anglers forget to use midges. Midge hatches can be enormous in August, so don’t be afraid to throw small flies in a big river.

4)     Spectacular nymphing almost always occurs in riffle water. That’s not to say that the riffles always produce spectacular nymphing, but when fish are really on it, they move to the heads of pools and into the long, even riffles for which the Gunnison is almost unrivaled. Hatch activity is usually heavier in the riffles where oxygen-craving mayflies and stoneflies thrive. Riffles carry more oxygen and bugs than flat water, but are still easy habitat for trout to hold and move freely. Here is a Gunnison nymphing tip you can take to the bank: Your favorite riffle will turn on at some point during the day, whether it’s during a hatch or perhaps a period of optimal water temperature, shade, or an unidentified variable. If your favorite riffle does not produce on the first pass, come back and try it again in 3-4 hours. Timing is everything on a river as streaky as the Gunnison.

5)     Specific fly patterns are much less important than technique and timing. There is rarely a magic fly that catches fish while all others fail in the Gunnison (or anywhere else). Some of the most successful Gunnison anglers fish the same patterns they used 25 years ago: a Kaufmann’s stone, a regular Prince Nymph with no bead and perhaps a Muddler Minnow. In fact, these old standards probably work better because nobody fishes them anymore. Think the trout remember? An old trout is 4-5 years of age, so no living fish remembers what we used in the 80’s.     

John Duncan, co-owner of Telluride Outside, a guide and longtime Telluride resident, can be reached at

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