July 22, 2014
The first two weeks of summer monsoon have favored the south, the great band of moist air fanning the New Mexico/Colorado border, swaying east and west like an old palm in a gale. One day the rain falls in the Four Corners, the next in the heart of the San Juans. When the monsoon heaves to the east, rain falls on the margin of the land, the dense, dark air a curtain between mountains and Great Plains, lightning riddling a landscape barren and beautiful.
Rain has fallen evenly but not excessively; air temperatures have moderated; spring winds have calmed to nothing more than a breath before and after each thunderstorm. High summer in Southern Colorado: this is the season of the fly fisher, the finest hour for trout. Fish in the San Miguel and Upper Dolores do most of their growing in ten short weeks between mid-June and late August. Water temperature, clarity and insect life are all optimized. Cold blooded trout respond as they must: by feeding on every hatch, wasting no opportunity to put on weight for the long, high altitude winter.
Aquatic insect hatches seem monstrous this year. Pale morning duns have been popping on the Dolores for four weeks with no sign of slowing down. The Gray Drake, found at highest elevations of the Dolores, has hatched in unmatched clouds, settling by the hundreds upon the riffles and pools of the river’s magical tributaries. Nowhere are fish more inclined to take the dry fly, nowhere in trout fishing.
The San Miguel now falls into shape. Fishable above 300cfs, both the structure and wadeability of the San Miguel improve as flows drop between 150 and 250cfs. Aggressive locals have caught their share of early season fish, but the San Miguel has become fundamentally more accessible, adding 30 miles of public water to our impressive back yard trout grid. The Uncompahgre has dropped below 400 cfs, PMDs pouring off its glassy surface. The Gunnison, too, has come around. Roaring through the Black Canyon at over 8,000 cfs for most of June, water managers have finally dialed back the release from Crystal Reservoir to just under 1,000 cfs, arguably the best possible fishing level for mid-summer in the Gunnison Gorge.
Dolores: Dry fly heaven
Periodic, moderate rain has graced the Upper Dolores Watershed, the radiant green of late spring lingering well past the solstice. Excellent fishing began in mid-June on many sections of the Dolores, but an early start does not ensure a long season. In fact, it is generally true that any part of the Dolores that fishes extremely well in one month will not in the next. No river in SW Colorado experiences greater fluctuations in water volume and temperature. The gentle gradient of the Dolores Valley [right] offers superb habitat for trout and classic dry fly water for the angler, but as flows drop, water temperature invariably rises, the water loses oxygen and trout become grumpy.
Rain is the moderator. Rain has steadied the dropping flows, stretching the heart of dry fly season on the Upper Dolores and West Fork. Aquatic insects hatch by the millions, now colliding with terrestrials such as grasshoppers, beetles and ants.
San Miguel River: High water heals the canyon
Easy comes the silt in the San Miguel’s red rock corridor. Even moderate rains can trigger significant sloughs from the canyon’s dusty alcoves. Last summer’s rains were anything but moderate. The San Miguel suffered a series of mud flows and small flash floods that caused it to run red below the Silver Pick Bridge for most of summer and fall. This year, a larger snowpack pushed powerful runoff, the river peaking for almost 2 weeks above 1,200 cfs in the Nature Conservancy stretch below Placerville. The upper river is clean once again, yards of silt transported on high water to points further west. Trout generally endure periods of prolonged silt. It is remarkable, however, that microorganisms such as caddis and mayfly larva survive burial. When the San Miguel peaked and cleared in mid-June, aquatic insects exploded throughout the watershed: caddisflies, Yellow Sally stoneflies, golden stones, craneflies and the largest aquatic of them all, the giant stonefly pteronarcys californicus. Trout numbers may be slightly diminished, but as competition for food is reduced, the size of our fish tends to increase. At this moment of reveal, we expect excellent fishing on the San Miguel in late July, August and September.
Large flies will dominate over the next few weeks.
Return of the Gunnison
The Gunnison, river king of SW Colorado, was brutally unfishable during the famous stonefly hatch (except the very tail). Having missed June, many local anglers will dedicate July and August to the Gunnison, part out of necessity, but also opportunity. There is nothing more promising than when a long drought ends on the Gunnison. Brimming with aquatic insects and heavy trout, locals know that when conditions eventually allow, the Gunnison’s famous residents will make up for lost time. Comes now the best fishing of the year. Unpressured trout roam the periphery of their waters. Terrestrials erupt from chest-high grasses, grown tall from recently flooded banks. Early summer hatches were pushed back. Salmonflies have faded, but yellow sallies, PMDs and caddis emerge daily. Every day produces excellent opportunities for both the nymphing angler and dry fly fisherman.