where to fish in southern colorado
As a winter sports athlete I find myself immersed in all things snow related for most of the year. Luckily I spent my summers growing up in northern Wyoming on a family ranch that served as a how to book on all things outdoors. I have memories of standing in a grass field with my fly rod just practicing how to cast while my grandfather watched from a distance. At the time I didn’t think much of it, but now I am grateful for the limited days I do get on the water whether catching fish or not. Fly fishing serves as a kind of therapy for me or more so an escape from the real world.
Owen Olson, a seasoned guide for Rio Epic Outfitters and a childhood friend, had called me up and was telling stories of epic fishing he had done and that I needed to get down to his neck of the woods to experience it for myself. We talked through when would be best and settled on the end of April being a great fit.
On April 26th I returned back home from a last minute competition in Finland luckily making it through the trip with minimal travel issues due to COVID. I had scheduled a fishing trip for the 28th a couple months prior and was hoping that it would still be possible, I had made sure to stay up as long as I could on the plane ride back doing everything I could to have the best odds of escaping down to southern Colorado for my long awaited trip.
I woke up the morning of the 28th in Salt Lake City, Utah and set off to Durango, Colorado where I was meeting up with Owen, we would leave the following morning with our sights set on the San Juan River. I arrived in Durango that night and was feeling the weight of jet lag luckily the endless views of the amazing terrain southern Utah/Colorado have to offer kept me clinging to the wheel awaiting the next scenic overview never ceasing to grab my attention.
Driving from Durango east towards Pagosa Springs a place I had only been once before, a few years prior for a preseason training camp with the US Ski Team at Wolf Creek Ski Resort that unfortunately ended with a blown knee, you would think that I would never want to go back but I couldn’t get over how beautiful this area was and how nice the people were, I couldn’t wait to get back. For me it’s the subtle mix of old school living that incorporates agriculture and outdoorsmanship that made me fall in love with this place.
Eager to get on the water Owen, his dog Tuuk (a 135 lbs. Malamute), and I unloaded is his drift boat into the Upper San Juan River outside of Pagosa Springs. Within 5 minutes of being on the water we were all hooked up! The flash of a Colorado Brown as they dart towards your fly and then swiftly turn around back to their hiding place is an unmatched rush- the yeehaws had begun!
April is still relatively early in the fly fishing season so the fish are still a bit hesitant to dry flies, but we thought tying up a dry-dropper rig (a bigger dry-fly that floats on the surface of the water with a smaller sub-surface fly tied to the hook of the surface fly) would be fun. More often than not this time of year the dry-fly on the surface of the water is used as an indicator, if the subsurface bug has been eaten the dry-fly will plunge underwater and the fisherman will set the hook. However in my experience in faster water an aggressive brown won’t have time to hesitate so they will smash the top dry-fly which just so happens to be the case. I stood at the front of the drift boat deliberately watching my dry swim through some smaller rapids when BOOM a mature brown smashed the fly, a few more yeehaws and a gulp of something cold, it was good to be on the river.
We found camp at the base of Wolf Creek Pass not far from Pagosa Springs the night before and told old stories while sitting by the fire, a few more guides from the Rio Epic Outfitters crew eager to get on the river joined us for the night. We woke up next to the water and noticed that the flow had rises around 150-200 CFS (cubic feet per second) partly due to runoff and water regulation. When the river takes on more water often you will see more debris and cloudy water so the fish will be located in places where flow is more calm and the water is clean, they are less likely to come to the surface mainly because they can’t see so we tied up a few streamers (an often weighted fly that imitates smaller fish or subsurface critters). We began our float a little later at around 11am to give the fish time to adapt to the higher flows and find pockets of comfortable water.
Using Owen’s advice to cast my fly as close to the edge as I could and immediately start stripping worked like a charm. We had been on the water for a couple hours and moved (having a fish go after your fly) plenty of fish and boated a few we decided it would be a good time for a bite for ourselves. I sat on the side of the river eating a sandwich with Owen, his dog Tuuk, and the two other guides that had joined us the night before. We were all going back and forth telling each other about the fish we had seen that morning and one thing that was said that I will never forget was, “I would rather move 100 fish and not catch any than boat 10 and have those be the only fish I see.” This comment stuck to me…I thought more about it as the day went on and obviously I love catching fish but being able to see vast numbers of fish that a healthy body of water holds and the level of excitement it brings just to see a flash heavily outweighs getting a few in the net.
I fish because I enjoy being outdoors and getting away from normal day to day life. I have immense respect for fish and the ecosystems they occupy. If you ever feel like getting away and having an amazing experience I highly recommend making a call to my friends at Rio Grande Outfitters for a trip or even just for tips and locations to fish in southern Colorado.