Colorado: Big Mountains, Big Trout

By Hartt Wixom

One thing I’ve neglected in my outdoor writing is the state of Colorado. What are the natural resources of the Centennial State and what does it have for the hunting and fishing sportsman?

Considerable. Take the Gunnison River-Taylor Fork area of central Colorado. I spent three days there a few years ago on Taylor Fork trying to entice one of the giant rainbows which munch on Opossum shrimp below Blue Mesa Reservoir. Or at least they do on remnants of the shrimp which are shredded as they come through the dam. Fishery biologists stocked the lake with these crustaceans  a few decades ago and they seemed to feed more fish below the dam than above it.

Being allergic to light, the shrimp migrate deep during daylight hours and move to the surface at night. They must become disoriented near the reservoir outlet and wind up being discharged below. Anglers now look at 10-15 lb. rainbows in clear water. But catching them is something else. Local fly shop owners recommend such fly patterns as SR 2 and WD 40 (white chenille  body with two dark eyes) but a friend and I cast these two artificials endlessly with little luck.

Such highly sophisticated trout refuse anything with the slightest line drag. That means when you cast out, the line must be “mended” to avoid near current going at a different speed than your offering. Otherwise, the insect does not appear natural. Get a perfect drift and you might connect. I saw one persistent angler score on big fish but he used three different strike indicators along his line and leader, constantly adjusting them to the varying speed of currents before him.

Best I could do were a couple of three pound brown trout enticed on jigs. Then I moved on to the streams around Telluride and Durango. My friend and I caught rainbows to seven pounds on the Uncompahgre River below Ridgeway Dam, so we didn’t miss the Taylor Fork too much. The only caveat here is that these giant Uncompahgre trout had been recently stocked and were not quite the challenge as those on Taylor Fork. But the main point is, there is some superb trout fishing in Colorado.

One major disappointment was the Dolores River below McPhee Dam. Local chambers of commerce and the Colorado Fish and Game Department put out brochures touting this fishery; but so much water had been diverted for irrigation the past few years that few trout remained. One technique you can use to determine if the fish are there (when you can’t catch them) is to wade rapidly into a likely riffle waving your arms. If you don’t see V-wakes, the fish are basically in absentia. No one had bothered to tell us that this stream was dead. 

There are some access problems in this region. On the Pine River north of Bayfield, I encountered many “No Trespassing” signs and was informed by one landowner that in Colorado, streams are closed if not posted open. This is in sharp contrast to Montana which looks out for anglers by allowing public access even on private property if remaining below high water level of the stream. I managed to catch an 18-inch cutthroat in the Pine River, however, by fishing below a highway bridge. Interestingly, Colorado allows fishermen into the Roaring Judy fish hatchery where we enticed  trout with such patterns as the Prince nymph; but these were stubborn creatures despite being labeled “hatchery” fish.

I did not make it to two other famous Colorado streams, the Roaring Fork and Frying Pan River, but there are too many trout waters in this state to visit them all in one trip. We gave the Black Canyon of the Gunnison a try but it was roily high and swift in mid July. Songs of praise have been sung about the Gunnison but best timing would dictate early fall when water levels drop.

One reason to visit the above, besides fishing, is the scenery. Mountain peaks extending skyward beyond 14,000 feet are omnipresent on the horizon. Lush meadows fill the valleys. Wildlife is not hard to find. On one mule deer hunting expedition south of Montrose, I took a buck on the edge of the San Juan Mountains and on the way home saw a larger rack in a hayfield at mid-day near Norwood . Of course, Eagle and other western Colorado counties are well known for growing trophy muleys.

One nice thing for Dixieites is that the country mentioned is within one day’s travel. You can find national forest  campgrounds without much trouble, or you can use Montrose and Telluride as base of operations for motels  and restaurants. Telluride is worth an extra stop. Besides being a ski resort town, it is a center for hiking/exploring/mountain climbing/fishing. Tucked in below towering peaks, it is no longer a wild mining town, but it still has a circus-like atmosphere for the outdoorsman.

Best route into the above region is via Monticello or LaSal Junction in eastern Utah.

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