In the heat of mid-June, it is easy to forget that winter ended just weeks ago, the frosty nights stretching well into late May. Locals scoff that there are only two seasons in Telluride. Spring and fall can pass in an afternoon, pushed aside by the persistence of spring snows and the halcyon days of late September and October.
The hottest days are upon us in Southwest Colorado. Our limited snowpack was preserved by a cool April and May, but has cut loose with consistent 80 degree weather in the first half of June. Runoff is over on the Dolores River. The San Miguel has peaked twice and now recedes. The Uncompahgre has flowed less than 90 cfs(cubic feet per second) all spring, the Gunnison at a mere 300 cfs. Low flows promise gangbuster early season fishing, but we will duel with drought in late July and August. Rain could save us.
For now, though, the rivers have dropped and are clear. It’s time to fish.
On the Dolores: If we had one word to describe the Dolores River, it would be resilient. Proverbially challenged by low water, the Upper Dolores seems to bounce back each season. Last fall, the freestone sections of the Dolores were so low that the water appeared at a standstill. An exceptionally cold January took its toll on creeks throughout southern Colorado, with fish populations reduced by natural attrition. With little water for shelter, the Dolores’s woebegone trout should have been heavily affected. To our great surprise, we fished the Upper Dolores last week for the first time this year and found healthy numbers of rainbows, browns, brook trout and cutthroat throughout the watershed. Clearing flows now provide daily dry fly opportunities. Canyon sections are still pushy, but low gradient reaches on both the Main Branch and West Fork are 100 percent fishable and improving by the hour.
Hatches are almost too numerous to count. The most important are golden stoneflies, yellow sallie stones (actually several related species), a variety of caddis, pale morning dun mayflies and the reliable large grey Dolores mystery mayfly. Flying ants and the season’s first grasshoppers abound. The long Upper Dolores dry fly season has begun. Some of the tributary streams are still in a bit of a hurry, but even the steepest will be fishable within the week.
Best dry fly fishing is currently in the afternoon, but that will change as the midday PMD hatch intensifies and flows continue to drop. In the second half of June, expect consistent single-dry opportunities to develop in the late morning and continue through dusk. Before 10 a.m., nymph with tandems of medium-sized caddis and mayfly nymphs. Free-rising fish will become visible around 11 a.m. as the PMD emergence develops. In the absence of risers, or when fishing heavier water, go to the guide’s money rig: a Perry’s Bugmeister trailing a Guide’s Choice Hare’s Ear, Wired Prince or Pheasant Tail Soft Hackle. Deep water may be explored with the down-and-dirty Pat’s Rubber Legs or other bottom-seeking stonefly nymphs. In the first half of summer, terrestrials (hoppers, ants and beetles) will generally be more effective in lower elevations of the watershed, where air temperatures consistently rise into the mid-80’s and grass already grows waist high along the river’s gentle meanders.
The Dolores Dozen (June and early July)
Perry’s Bugmeister, #10-16
PMX, yellow, #10-16
Rubber Leg Stimulator, yellow or orange, #10-#14
Para PMD #14-16
Extended Body PMD #16-18
Parachute Adams, #12-14
Wired Prince, black and green, #14-18
Guide’s Choice Hare’s Ear, #14-18
Soft Hackle Pheasant Tail #14-18
Pat’s Rubber Legs #10-12
Tungsten Yellow Sallie Nymphs, #14-16
Poxyback Stone, #14-18
Salmonflies at mid-Hatch in the Gunnison Gorge: The most anticipated hatch of the year is mid-stride in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. The great salmonfly hatch, which generally benefits from higher water, has filled the Gorge with 2-inch long orange stoneflies, attracting anglers from around the West who seek the largest fish of their angling year on a size #4 dry fly.
Many return with little more than a sunburn, for the salmonfly is the most enigmatic of all aquatic hatches. Water temperature and every weather variable affect the intensity and length of the hatch. There is considerable debate (generally among defeated anglers) about which stage of the hatch is most compelling to the quarry. It is widely believed that trout key on the enormous stoneflies as they crawl to the banks to hatch, then again about ten days later when the females return to the water to lay eggs. Hatched salmonflies spend the days between crawling around on rocks and grass, resting, mating and preparing for the egg laying process. Direct sunlight seems to put them in the air each morning for a couple hours. High wind can blow them into the river, or away from the river. Hot afternoons usually prompt them to siesta, during which the wise angler reserves effort for the evening round. Like so many angling legends, famous stonefly fishing occurs not in long, steady sessions, but in short, unpredictable blitzes. Even the best multi-day salmonfly trips are characterized by at least 50 percent slow fishing. But that’s not what we remember.
Trout over 24 inches are caught on dry flies every year during the Gunnison salmonfly hatch. Most anglers, however, fish the hatch with the same techniques as when they expect to catch 14-17 inch fish. This is a mistake. Change your ways.
1) Fish big flies for big fish. Caddis and PMD patterns will definitely catch fish, but the real hawgs are all eating salmonflies. You bought some size #4 dry flies at your local fly shop. Fish them.
2) Rigging a size #4 dry or nymph on 4X leader is to simply empty your fly box into the river. Even dry flies should be fished on 2X or 3X. The biggest fish are not leader shy. Natural salmonflies skitter all over the river. Trout are frequently seen leaping completely clear of the water to eat salmonflies in flight, or to pluck them from rock walls. On quiet mornings, the angler may be spooked by heavy fish bawling about in shallows, crashing their unsuspecting prey. Fish develop gaping sores on their foreheads (“wall head”) from mashing stoneflies against rocks. Not leader shy. Not spooky.
3) Take plenty of floatant. Guides use a two-part floatant system (for all dry flies, not just the giant stones). Start by working a modest drop of liquid silicon or wax (Aquel, Gink, etc.) into the dry fly. After it gets eaten a few times, even a foam-bodied fly may begin to sink. Squeeze the fly with your shirt tail, extracting as much water as possible. Then, give it a hearty dusting of Shimizaki Dry Shake (“Shimi Shake”). This two-step system actually saves floatant in the long run because each application is more effective in its purpose.
4) Practice your long cast. The Gunnison salmonfly hatch really does reward the long caster. During the hatch, fish line up on the walls and deep grass banks to pick off emerging stones, which crawl to the shore rather than emerging through the water column like caddis or mayflies. The walls provide cover, perfect little breakfast nooks for the largest trout in the river. The best way to fish a bank is from the opposite bank, which usually requires deep wading and your best cast. What more could we want from our fishing?
5) Skip the waders. Slow, hot and cumbersome, waders also buoy the angler on deep crossings, making footing less secure. Accept the refrigeration of your lower extremities and inevitable case of poison ivy. They come with the territory.
6) Carry a tape measure and camera, standard props for defense of a great fish story.
Must-Have Gunnison Salmonfly Patterns
Rogue Foam Stone, #4-6
Sofa Pillow, #6
Morrish’s Fluttering Stone, #6
Rogue Foam Golden #6-10
Morrish’s Fluttering Golden, #8
Pat’s Rubber Legs, brown, #6-8
Double Tungsten Bitch Creek, red, #6-8
Jumbo John, orange/black, #6
Uncompahgre Climbs Off the Deck: Flowing at a mere 86 cfs for most of the spring, the Uncompahgre has been our go-to river while the San Miguel and Dolores have toiled in runoff. Excellent midge hatches have set the table for multi-technique fishing, including dry fly action that we’ve taken for granted. In the last three days, the Ridgway Reservoir has finally filled with corresponding flow increases for Pa-Co-Chu-Puk State Park and the river corridor downstream. We expect flows to bump upward over the next week or two, but as long as we’re in the 250-600cfs range, the Uncompahgre will be quite fishable. A high fish population at Pa-Co is the foundation for exciting sight fishing and reliable deep water nymphing. Large rainbows, browns and cutthroats, both wild and stocked, are susceptible to streamers. If flows continue to rise, the successful angler will lean increasingly on nymph and streamer techniques.
Uncompahgre Flies for Late June
The Mayhem, #16-20
Bubbleback emerger, #16-18
JuJu Baetis, #18
Barr’s Emerger, PMD, #16-18
Zebra Midge, #18-22
KF Flasher, #22-24
Midge pupa patterns, #22-26
Red annelid and larva patterns, #20-24
Griffith’s Gnat #20-24
Hatching Midge, #22-24
Para Midge, black/white #22-24
Lawson’s No Hackle, PMD #16-18
Silhouette Dun, PMD #16-18
Harrop’s CDC PMD patterns, #16-18
Rubber Bugger, Black/Green #6
Sculpin streamers, #4-8
Standard Wooly Buggers, black or brown, #6-10
Duncan is co-owner of Telluride Outside, a guide and longtime Telluride resident, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for up-to-the-minute reports.