San Miguel and Dolores Rivers
Freestone Rivers Offer Peak Fishing in August
Almost a full month behind normal schedule, the San Miguel and Dolores are both peaking in mid-August. A wet spring was painstaking for early season anglers, but the reward comes now on Telluride’s back yard trout streams.
It has been three years since the San Miguel was the hottest river in Southwest Colorado. This spring’s sustained high water purged the San Miguel of heavy silt accumulated between 2012 and 2014. The great caddis hatch, which began at peak water in June, lingers now into mid-August. Yellow Sally stoneflies, giant golden stones, PMD mayflies, craneflies, midges and the first Blue Winged Olives of fall emerge. River levels rise and fall with rain, but the San Miguel dwells in the wheelhouse of best fishing flows and promises to do so for weeks to come.
We are gifted with spectacular public access to the San Miguel. Each major reach lends itself to unique tactics.
Telluride Valley Floor: De-emphasized during the Town’s acquisition process, the public land on Telluride’s Valley Floor provides casual access to some of the most beautiful fly fishing water in America. The river course itself is remarkable for its low-gradient nature, the only such stretch anywhere in the watershed. Modest sized wild trout inhabit the wandering riffles and cut banks. Anglers who fish the Northern Rockies resonate with the contours of this relaxed section of river. The scenery, however, competes only with other views of the same valley. To fish in the reflection of Telluride’s 13,000 foot box canyon is beyond ethereal. Throw dry flies on the Valley Floor: Parachute Adams, Parachute Caddis and Para Caddis Emerger, traditional upwing Adams, H&L Variant, Ausable Wulff and extended body mayflies are among our favorite patterns.
San Miguel River, South Fork Confluence to Placerville: The upper river runs through a relatively narrow canyon, so the fly water is characterized by pushy pockets and heavy bank structure. At first glance, some anglers mistake the upper San Miguel as too pushy, frequently commenting that the water seems high even when flows are low and clear. Successful fly fishing on the upper San Miguel is all about reading water discreetly and shortening your game. Fast water offers only a brief window for a fish to read the menu. Trout are often willing to take large flies on the upper river, but the angler must dissect the currents with precision. For these reasons, it pays to wade the Upper San Miguel aggressively. Fishing from the center of the river, the angler earns greatest opportunity to fish pockets with upstream casts and tuck bank casts under overhanging trees on either side. If you watch an experienced local work the Upper San Miguel, you will notice that he or she does as much with feet as with fly rod.
Dry-dropper is the predominant technique on the upper river. Our best point flies include the unsinkable Chubby Chernobyl, Perry’s Bugmeister, PMX, Chernobyl Ant, Morrish Foam Hopper, Yeager’s Tantrum and other high profile, heavily-dressed dry flies. Our best droppers include all small stonefly nymphs such as the Wired Stone, Tungsten Head Sally and Iron Sally, tungsten soft hackle patterns and dense, bright mayfly nymphs such as the Trina’s Present Tail and Kyle’s Superflash PT. Most effective single dries include an orange Stimulator in size 14-16, the H&L Variant, Parachute Adams and Parachute Caddis patterns, all in the same size range. As always, the best dirty water pattern is the Pat’s Rubber Legs Stone. As will be proven repeatedly in August, water clarity can be almost zero and the Rubber Legs will still catch fish.
San Miguel River, Placerville to Norwood Bridge: The most popular section of our backyard river is fishing lights out. We are catching trout all day long on a variety of techniques. Fish are holding in deep pools, pocket water, tailouts and riffles. In the last few days, dry flies have taken as many fish as nymphs [San Miguel dry fly fish, right]. Water temperature is hovering around 60 degrees, the temperature that stimulates greatest trout activity in the San Miguel. In fact, there is a little known gravel bar in the lower river that some call “60 Degree Beach,” because the water always seems to reach that magic threshold by the time a wading angler makes his way from the logical starting point downstream. It’s all about dry fly fishing.
Fly patterns for the Upper San Miguel will generally work on the lower river, but the intuitive angler will go down in size to catch fish consistently through August. Mayflies and midges become the predominant food source this month. Fish have eaten plenty of caddis and stoneflies and been exposed to most of our favorite fly patterns by this point in summer. Technical mayflies such as JuJu patterns and the deadly Mayhem may be used as droppers alongside “attractor midges” such as the Winker Midge and Zebra Midge. Large attractor dries will remain effective during daylight hours. In the evenings, fish realistic caddis and mayfly patterns in the size 16-18 range.
Dolores: A wet spring smiles upon a dry river. With drought to the north, northwest, west and southwest, it is simply amazing that the McPhee Reservoir is nearly full in August and the Dolores Valley is flush in shades of emerald. The month of May was the wettest on record in Southern Colorado, a gift to an arid landscape and rivers perennially challenged by low water. Today, the Upper Dolores flows 60 cfs at Rico, neither high nor low for August 12. This is the lowest the river has been all summer, however, and we are well past the long daylight hours and hot air of late June. In most summers, fish activity declines notably in August. This year, the trout are behaving as if a month earlier, free rising to hatches, snatching terrestrials and generally inhabiting every wet nook and cranny.
Overhearing a fly shop conversation earlier this week, a visitor interjected, “I fished the Upper Dolores the last 3 days. It was excellent.” Further considering his own words, the older gentleman gently swung his head from side to side, “Just excellent.”
Even on the Dolores we waited a long time for the water to drop this summer, but the fishing in early August has proven what many locals have come to believe over the decades: high water years are actually better than low water years. When the water clears, fish will feed. Too much water in June bothers fishermen, not fish. Flooded banks grow taller grass and more terrestrials. Water stimulates the ecosystem from tiniest aquatic insect to largest predator. Trout, fitting squarely in the middle, behave freely when their habitat is enlarged. Snow, runoff, rain; to the trout, it’s all just home.
Yet, as August advances, colder nights will take their toll on water temperature. Today, fish may be caught on dry flies from the top of the Dolores to the bottom. Later this month, expect the mornings to become stingy, at least with dry flies.
Cold fish may still be caught consistently on nymphs. Mayflies and midges are now the main food sources, so shed hook size and use those sparsely tied, lightly weighted size 18-22 patterns. The Mayhem, Winker Midge, Micro May, Sparkle Baetis and Split Case BWO are highly effective. Blue Wings are already hatching and will intensify as summer turns to fall. 6x should replace 5x for your dropper tippet. Use realistic terrestrial point flies on dry-dropper rigs. The Chubby Chernobyl and size 6 yellow PMX worked great in mid-July, but fish are wise to them now. Our favorite single dries include extended body mayfly patterns, small Parachute Adams, Furimsky’s BDE, Silhouette Dun and Rene Harrop CDC mayflies. Best large dries are the Morrish Hopper, Parachute Hopper, Green River Ant and Bugmeister (the latter in size 12-14). Trout will take a wide variety of nymphs, provided they are small. The Soft Hackle Pheasant Tail, Mayhem and Micro May are perhaps the most popular patterns, but the tungsten Yellow Sally, Iron Sally, JuJu Baetis, Winker Midge, Zebra Midge, Barr’s Emerger and other diminutive offerings are equally effective.
Call Telluride Outside for an up-to-the-minute fishing report and to schedule guides.