In fishing terms, the implications are simple: the rivers will be relatively low and clear for the first half of the season, offering exceptional angling.
Late-season rain will be critical. Roughly every two years in three, Telluride is entroughed in a tropical monsoon that lashes up from the Sea of Cortez in July and August. If our monsoon starts early, as it did last year, we'll be just fine. Late-season river flows and alpine wildflowers always depend on summer rain, but the consequences of no rain will be much greater in a year with so little snow.
So grab a fly rod and head for any river in southwest Colorado. Many of our streams are still clear; our runoff will for only three or four weeks. Dam-controlled fisheries like the Lower Dolores and Black Canyon of the Gunnison will see no high water this year, providing an outstanding opportunity for early-June fishing on rivers that are normally muddy.
Here is a river-by-river account of current fly fishing activity near Telluride. The lack of runoff has revealed normally hidden hatches and, with rising trout on almost every river, a chance to capitalize on fly fishing's never ending quest: to be in the right place at the right time.
San Miguel: In 2002, we wet-waded the San Miguel on May 31, catching fish on hoppers, caddis and other dry flies normally reserved for July. This year, we expect it will peak between 550 cfs and 650 cfs in the first week of June, with warm weather testing the constitution of the snowpack. Flows have risen steadily for the last several days, bleeding the high country and ushering the clear water period of high summer. As soon as the San Miguel drops, the fishing should be truly spectacular.
Hatches and fly selection: The San Miguel may be the second best caddis river in Colorado. The title certainly belongs to the Arkansas, but there is probably no other river that experiences the blanket caddis hatches of early summer on the San Miguel. The problem is that in most years the heaviest hatches coincide with peak river flows. The carpet of caddis flopped upon your windshield every time you drive down Highway 145 provides no fishing opportunity on the river you can see right next to the road. This year will be different. Low water serves up the year's best fishing in June on the San Miguel. Enormous caddis hatches will have every trout in the river feeding on top.
Fly patterns for early-mid June
Bloom's Para Caddis #12-16
Para Caddis Emerger #14-16 (great for crossover PMD imitation)
Elk Hair Caddis #12-14
Trudes (any color) #12-14
Yeager's 409, yellow or brown #12-14
La Fontaine's Caddis Emerger #14-16 (there is no substitute for this classic)
Furmimsky's Diving Caddis #14-16
Pulsating Caddis, tan, #14-16
Guide's Choice Hare's Ear Soft Hackle #12-16 (it really is a guide's first choice, above)
Chubby Chernobyl #8-12 [below]
Stimulator #8-14 (great for caddis, too)
Perry's Bugmeister #8-14 (reigning king of San Miguel dry flies)
Pat's Rubber Legs Stone #8-12 (it's hard to remember life before Perry and Pat)
Wired Prince, black or black/green #12-16
Morrish's Iron Sally #14-16
Tung-head Yellow Sallie nymph #14-16
Tungsten South Fork Kern Emerger #12-16 (yellow sallie)
Tungsten Poxyback Biot Golden #12-18
Tungsten Flash Prince #12-16
The very best fishing on the San Miguel often occurs while the water is still dropping between its peak and the summer low. If it peaks around 600 cfs, start fishing one or two weeks later when flows are between 250 and 350 cfs. Wading is definitely challenging at this level, but we expect clear water and a storm of hatching insects before mid-June. The river's heaviest fish are more likely to show themselves at these flows than later in season when drought may reduce the San Miguel to a trickle.
Dolores: In any 12-month period, there is a stretch of spectacular fishing on the Dolores River. The “River of Sorrows” is more prone to water flow extremes than any river in the region, however. At comparable distances from headwaters, the Dolores experiences stream flows both twice as high and twice as low as the San Miguel. Partly for this reason, fishing on the Dolores is exceptionally streaky.
Low water periods can be excruciating and there are times when certain sections of the river appear to have no water at all. The trout survive by doing what all fish do when their habitat changes: they move. In undammed rivers such as Montana's Blackfoot, trout have been documented moving over 70 miles. In the Upper Dolores and West Fork Dolores, fish move freely for 20-40 miles before encountering natural barriers such as the falls above Rico. Along the way, they have the option of ducking into feeder creeks, many of which flow through dense forest and remain cool even when low.
Even more than the San Miguel, Uncompahgre and Gunnison, fishing success on the Dolores is a question of timing. This year, our best fishing will come at two specific times: 1) right now, and 2) after heavy summer rains.
Every section of the Dolores will fish well in June. Except during the hottest weather, the river has remained clear and fishable throughout the spring period. June is a terrific hatch month on all of our local streams. Here is a week-by-week forecast for the Upper Dolores:
~ heavy caddis throughout the watershed
~ yellow sallie stoneflies at higher elevations
~ spotty giant golden stones throughout watershed
~ dry fly fishing becomes reliable by end of first week
~ heavy caddis throughout watershed
~ several species of "yellow sallie" ranging from size 12-16
~ spotty giant golden stones throughout watershed
~ grey mayflies, size 12, in upper reaches of the main branch and creeks
~ PMD mayflies begin to show in upper watershed
~ first hoppers of the year appear below the West Fork confluence
~ dry fly fishing will peak in mid-June
~ caddis begin to taper, but are still present into early July
~ yellow sallie and giant golden stoneflies hatch profusely in creeks
~ PMDs hatch in huge numbers in the upper watershed
~ peak hopper season
~ ants, beetles and other terrestrials become highly effective
Summer rains are generally considered a mixed blessing for anglers. They cool streamflow, but muddy the water for a few days in the process. This year, we'll be begging for rain. Muddy water is better than no water. When the Dolores recedes, it fishes lights-out, so watch water levels carefully and fish it on the fall. The San Miguel and Upper Dolores are both undammed and many of the year's best fish are caught during oscillations caused by summer rains.
Sound complicated? In the end, there is really nothing to lose. Bad timing is what makes good timing feel so good.
Those who love the Lower Dolores will be happy to hear this rumor: a senior downstream water right has been called, guaranteeing flows of at least 50 cfs below McPhee Reservoir for June, July and August. If it plays out, this will save the Lower Dolores from extremely warm water in the mid-summer period. The fish will be fine either way, but fishermen would vastly prefer their quarry to be spread out in all sorts of intriguing hiding places rather than gathered like a yarn ball in the dam's afterbay. No matter what happens later in the season, every savvy Lower Dolores angler would agree: fish it while you can. Grasshoppers, caddis, blue winged olive mayflies, beetles and ants are all over the place. As always, dry fly fishing occurs in fits and starts, but PMDs will start hatching by mid-June and the best surface action of the year is likely to follow. Even if the PMDs are gone before July, hoppers should sustain dry fly action into mid-July. Beyond that, it's anyone's guess.
Uncompahgre: In June, fishing the Uncompahgre centers on Pa-Co-Chu-Puk State Park [left]. Hatches are well underway at Pa-Co. Heavy midges, scattered caddis and the first PMD mayflies of the season are in the air. Water flows are currently pegged at 250 cfs. Due to the low snowpack, they probably won't get much higher. 250 cfs is a dream flow for the wading angler. The banks are filled and there is plenty of depth in pools, but the Uncompahgre is crossable in many places and the abundant structure creates enticing eddy lines.
The Colorado Division of Wildlife has found in its heart the grace to stock Pa-Co-Chu-Puk with a tanker truck full of huge cutthroats.
Gunnison: Fly fishing sails over the horizon when the Gunnison River is below 400 cfs. The fish, normally somewhat cagey, feed with heightened urgency. At this time, the entire Gunnison River can only be described as "on fire." Blue winged olive mayflies and caddis are hatching from mid-morning through late afternoon throughout the gorge, from the road-accessible East Portal to the North Fork confluence 29 miles downstream. There have been few occasions in the last twenty years in which the Gunnison has fished so consistently, trout on autopilot, slurping every hatching insect. Rainbows and browns large and small are being caught on every technique. Dry fly anglers choose their moment by the rhythm of rising heads while nymphers indulge the numbers game with the visual of countless fish suspended in the water column, every one of them feeding.
Gunnison patterns for this week
Lawson's No Hackle BWO #20
Extended Body BWO #18-20
Comparadun BWO #18-20 (it's hard to beat this simple classic)
Bloom's Para Caddis, tan or olive, #14-16
Para Caddis Emerger, tan, #14-16
The Mayhem, olive or black, #18-22
Loop Wing Emerger #18-20
Juju Baetis Emerger #18-20
RS2 (or any modern knockoff) #18-22
Hare's Ear Nymph #14-16
Guide's Choice Soft Hackle #14-16
Pulsating Caddis, tan, #14-16
Morrish's Iron Sally #14-16 [right]
Thread body midge pupas, black, tan or olive, #22
How long will it last? Not very. Low water makes the Gunnison particularly susceptible to game-ending moss blooms which have virtually halted fishing in late July and August several times in the last two decades. Warm, slow water seems the cause. So, this will be a year of extremes in the Gunnison: ridiculous fishing, until it abruptly ends.
Salmonflies? Oh yes, they will hatch soon. In the last three years, this most famous hatch has been pushed into the second half of June and early July. This year, expect the giant orange stoneflies in the first week of June, peaking on or before June 15. Of course, talk is cheap. Check back in two weeks to find out for sure.