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Sunday, January 30, 2011

Playing the Spring Runoff Game in Southern Colorado

You know the drill:  spring has thawed, snow is melting off the mountains, you have your fishing gear in the truck and you’re ready to go.  But where do you go a-fishin’ in Colorado when most rivers are running high?  Of course, you can hit the usual crowded tailwaters like the Frying Pan, the Blue or the Taylor and fight for space with other disgruntled anglers or, and here is the gist of the article, you can try a new angle, some new waters. 
I’ve been there too many times before.  Tie flies all winter, clean my gear, check my rods and line, get out the maps and plan the first fishing trip; check the fishing reports, peruse the weather predictions, choose a fishery then haul all my gear to one of my favorite rivers only to have seriously underestimated nature.  The river is as swollen as Mrs. Doubtfire.  Nature 1, Me 0. 
To begin with, anglers give up too quickly on high water.  Roily. Muddy. Spate.  Sometimes the best conditions for catching the most trout or the biggest trout are during this kind of high water, especially spring runoff.  The fish are less wary and much hungrier, the stoneflies are in the air and on the water and you are not as visible a target to the trout as in stiller times.  You do have to toss heavy nymphs and you can’t fish dry flies and you won’t see many rising fish but if you work the water, the payoff is there. 
You don’t want to fish high water, now do you?  What are the interesting options in southern Colorado?  How do you maximize your fishing trip so that if one fishery is blown out, you have other nearby choices?  How to play the Runoff Game and win?  I’ve compiled a list of a few of my favorite waters in southern Colorado that are usually fishable when other better-known trout rivers are not.

Hermosa Creek

This tributary to the Animas River, located north of Durango, behind Durango Mountain Ski Resort, is tailor-made for dry fly enthusiasts. Hermosa Creek runs through meadows covered in wildflowers, in a wooded canyon, past thick green forests, its cold transparent waters coursing through true wilderness on its way to meet its larger sister. Hermosa is where the Durango fishing guides get away for a fun day off to pick pocket water for eager brook, brown and rainbow trout.
            It’s a good hike from the parking lot back into lower Hermosa.  The trail is hard-packed, not especially crowded nor is it sweet solitude but the trail is up and down; you are far from the river then up above the river looking down, then riverside.  And you want to walk past those lazy bums who quit hiking the minute they got to a close access.  Just keep on walking.  The fishing is so much better the farther you walk. 
            Hermosa Creek is drop-dead gorgeous. Pamela Anderson in her prime.  The water gurgles and percolates around grey-white rocks, dumps and drops into plunge pools, slashes under cut banks, wiggles and riffles, dances and dips.  Dry fly nirvana. 
            The trout are bigger than they ought to be in a stream this size. From time to time, lucky anglers land a trout eighteen-inches legit.  The average size rainbow and cuttbow you’ll catch will be in the 10-14 inch range, the brookies will be fat and bigger than you expect. Hermosa trout rise willingly to dry flies, hatch or not.  Just get a good presentation, decent drift over new water, and you’ll get a strike. 

East Fork Hermosa Creek
Another option for small stream fishing is the East Fork of Hermosa Creek, a feeder creek to Hermosa Creek that, at first glance, doesn’t look like much. Wrong.
This winding meadow stream is both easy and challenging, beautiful and maddening. 
This is great flyfishing water, packed with small, feisty, colorful brook trout and sometimes Colorado cutthroats. This is also challenging angling, the water nearly invisible, the trout skittish, the casting demanding. Undercut banks hide these brilliant but diminutive natives. East Fork is a spring creek that snakes slowly across thick grassy meadows and hilly slopes.  Every now and again, you’ll catch a twelve-inch cutt or a ten-inch brookie that makes you forget all the six-inch trout you’ve been catching.  And the colors on these wild trout are Technicolor crazy. 
            The East Fork, at ten or twelve feet wide at its widest, and is chockfull of fish.  When it’s running high, the creek spreads out all over the meadow and you can fish a 100-yard long area for hours with every lie a bounty.  Let all the other anglers drive across the East Fork to the parking lot and hike into big sister, Hermosa Creek while you fish the pockets and cut-banks and bank pools of the little sister. 

Williams Creek: 
Located north and west of Pagosa Springs, this tailwater that doesn’t look or act like a tailwater is a year-round producer.  Because this rocky stream flows from Williams Reservoir (consistent flows and temps), because there is so much public water (can’t argue with lots of water), because the road parallels most of the river (easy access), an angler can find numerous reasons to fish Williams Creek all year long, especially during spring runoff.  
The fishery has been up and down in recent years but has remained incredibly productive.  Despite heavy usage, you can always find solitude, your own long stretch of water.  Stay away from the obvious access points, park your car along the road and take a short walk to the river that runs beside the dirt road.  There you can fish in the canyon and the pocket water or you wade in the meadow water with its instream improvements. The scenery is as breathtaking as any in the San Juans especially up at Williams Reservoir
You’ll catch mostly rainbows and cutts in the lower reaches, brookies and cutts above the lake. A few years ago, you’d catch some whoppers every now and again from this small stream but lately, not so much. The average size trout isn’t worth bragging about but you can certainly have 20 to 30-fish days, flyfishers and spincasters alike.  Don’t forget to fish the inlet and outlet of the reservoir for cruisers.  To reach Williams Creek, head west from Pagosa Springs on Hwy 160, turn north for twenty miles on Piedra Road and don’t get freaked out when it turns into FR631. After you cross Piedra Bridge, the road follows the river. 

La Jara Creek:
             Take me seriously on these two warnings: 1) watch for rattlesnakes and 2) bring plenty of attractor flies in all shapes, sizes and patterns.   Along with the Cimarron River in New Mexico and Cebolla Creek near Lake City, the La Jara is one of the top wild brown trout fisheries in the Southwest and like the other two, the La Jara is great if you like catching wild browns on dry flies.  La Jara Creek is ideal as part of a three-pronged option with nearby fisheries, the Rio de los Pinos and the Conejos River. 
            La Jara Creek is not the prettiest river you’ll ever fish in Colorado.   Rocky, dusty, high desert.  The payoff? Big pools, lots of pocket water and slashing aggressive brown trout that will tear apart your flies.  The trout don’t typically grow large in this river below La Jara Reservoir but they are chunky and mean-spirited. 
When the snowpack is normal, La Jara dry fly fishing is superb from early May to early July.  The stonefly hatches in late spring, early summer are delicious. The caddis hatches are often heavy.  And the river isn’t just for flyfishers but fishes well if you like to fish worms or spinners, too.  Don’t discount the upper La Jara early especially if you can defeat the mud and snow to get back in there for isolated fishing. The trout are wilder and they take pretty much anything you toss their way.  Located west of La Jara and south of Alamosa. 

Rio de los Pinos:

I don’t want to put this one in this article but I’d be dishonest if I didn’t.  Writers like to keep these kinds of gems to themselves.  But getting back into the upper Rio de Los Pinos is so hairy, so serpentine, so remote, I’m not that worried you are really going to camp beside me. 
Oh, when you read about the cascading clear cold water, the miles and miles of perfect solitary trout water holding native Rio Grande cutthroat as pure as any Colorado river, and the brook trout as fat as small canned hams, you’ll want to take part in the adventure but it’s daunting.  The roads into the upper Los Pinos are potholed, muddy in the spring and early summer.  It’s easy to get turned-around. 
You’ll likely not see a soul on the upper reaches of the river.  I’m not talking about the crowded mile or two just above Trujillo Meadows for you will run into folks there but that seemingly-unending stretch that is reached from Forest Road 188 and its spiderweb of dirt road arteries.  The upper Rio de los Pinos is easily waded, picture-perfect with short deep pools, long runs, choppy riffles, undercut banks, big rocks and all kinds of other ideal trout habitat.  And for the topper?  These Rio Grande cutthroats are the prettiest trout on the planet, a jumble of    

Uncompaghre River: 
Below Ridgway Reservoir flows the Uncompahgre River, a few miles of rehabilitated tailwater, a stretch of obvious in-stream improvements and anecdotes galore of huge trout. The locals call it Jurassic Park for all the big dinosaurs they’ve caught in its green waters.  It’s really like no other trout fishery I’ve ever seen. 
Ridgway Reservoir is the lake-as-filter, and it effectively screens out the acidity and silt and helped this once-productive river return to normalcy after years of suffering from mining.  The fishing gets better year after year.
The fishing isn’t for every angler.  The park is a little theme park, cultivated and manicured with all the rehab work, the streamside sidewalks, the fancy campgrounds. You’ll be fooled by the dancing water thinking you can fish it like a typical freestone stream --- you cannot. You’ll have dreams of sugar plums dance in your head when you see the weirs and rocks, the tails of these pools but don’t fish exclusively there.  The big fish are typically brood fish and that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. 
Cut-banks are the key to catching these big fish.   You can catch fish in the pools but try these banks. The water along the banks is deep, cut way back under and that’s where you can do some real damage.  Swing a streamer under the bank or plop a splashy nymph or present a drag-free Blue-Winged Olive and whammo! You’ll catch a variety of trout including Colorado River cutthroat, Snake River cutthroat, rainbow and brown trout. 

South Clear Creek and North Clear Creek:             
Not many anglers have ever heard about these two productive streams, not even seasoned, avid anglers of southern Colorado.  On the map, they’re unremarkable, feeder creeks to the Rio Grande.  North Clear Creek flows through a big wide open meadow before it drops over cleverly-titled North Clear Creek Falls, tumbles through a rocky canyon before tidying up through campsites in a huge open park.  South Clear Creek has a barely-marked road and you won’t find any books or articles that can tell you much about it. 
So go there.  Fish both of them. Trust me. 
North Clear Creek holds athletic trout, fish that have lived in forceful water their entire lives.  A fourteen-inch rainbow caught in North Clear Creek is the fighting sizeable equivalent to a nineteen-incher on any other river. And they jump.  In the meadow section of North Clear Creek, brook trout are willing participants, bountiful and no bigger than 12 inches.  From the falls downstream, the river plunges into wicked deep pools, strong rainbows pop off your fly or lure and you have to lay down to get a good cast under overhanging limbs at times. 
South Clear Creek, when high, is a great trout stream.  You’ll need a four-wheel drive to get back to it and you’ll need sharp eyes to find the turnoff from Highway 149 onto this BLM land.  A mile before you get to the Rio Grande Reservoir turnoff, you’ll see a dirt road going east off the highway. If you get to the upper Rio Grande turnoff (FR 520), you’ve missed it so circle back.  The river has big browns and lots of brookies and only locals know about it.  You’ll reach North Clear Creek a few miles north on Highway 149 and it’s well signed. 

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