Immediately downstream from the bridge is the river gauge for the Upper Dolores River, known as “Dolores at Rico” on the USGS river flow website. The monitoring equipment looks like the set of a 1970’s B-run space movie. An awkward trolley hangs idly from a heavy cable. Several metal cones point skyward from within a fenced enclosure. A small solar panel tracks the sun. It is not evident how the equipment measures stream flows by the cubic foot, nor how the information is transmitted to an orbiting satellite to be bounced back to earth. That, however, is the function of this site. Hourly measurements show that the Dolores near Rico presently fluctuates between 40 and 60 cfs. These are ideal flows for the wading angler, but a mere 20 percent of the historical average for late June. What will become of the Dolores in late summer is the subject of speculation. Right now, the fishing is lights-out, indisputably the best conditions we’ve seen in many years. Like heathens dancing before the inferno, we must fish while the river still flows. The trout may vanish tomorrow, but today, they rise.
The middle miles of the Upper Dolores pass through folded ridges and mixed forests of fir, spruce, aspen and narrow leaf cottonwood. In June and early July, this is one of the greenest places in Colorado. It is a place with color contrasts both subtle and bold. Red rock bluffs stab the azure sky, meadows of yellow grass lie beneath the dark trunks of conifers and striking paper-white trunks of aspen. Everyone who regularly passes through this valley has paused to play the “how many shades of green can I count” game. It’s worth playing with and without sunglasses for the shear temporal pleasure of allowing shades of green to sooth your eyes.
The river, too, is soothing here. The Dolores watershed is a network of valleys, whereas the San Miguel is a network of canyons. The distinction is evident in the pace of the water. The Dolores seems to have chosen its valley, whereas the San Miguel is perpetually attempting to escape its watershed. The Dolores strolls while the San Miguel sprints. Fishing the Dolores, we feel compelled to absorb the scenery, while on the San Miguel, we are compelled to watch our feet in the tumbling currents. Of the Dolores, veteran guide Dave Hill observes, “It’s a prettier river.”
There are at least six significant hatches underway on the Upper Dolores: caddis, yellow sally stoneflies (three sizes and colors), giant golden stones, large grey mayflies, Pale Morning Dun mayflies and midges. Hoppers, beetles and ants are all over the lower river, progressing upstream with each sunny day. Fish learn faster in low, clear water, so while Stimulators and Bugmeisters work today, we will soon need more exacting dry flies to catch rising fish. Thanks to lower water gradient, Dolores trout free-rise more than their San Miguel cousins, but they also become much harder to catch. Here are some semi-technical dry flies for the Upper Dolores in early July:
Stalcup’s para caddis emerger #16 Downwing para caddis #16 Extended body PMD #16-18 Burk’s Silhouette Dun PMD #16-18 Harrop’s Thorax CDC PMD #16-18 Parachute Adams #16 Turck’s Power Ant #11-13 Fire Beetle #16 Snowshoe Sally #16
If droppers are deemed necessary:
Tungsten Micro May #16-18 Anatomical PMD #16-18 Tungsten Sally Nymph #16-18 Mayhem #16-18 Soft Hackle P.T. #18 Kyle’s Superflash P.T. #16-18 Bubbleback Emerger #16-18
Time of day becomes critical in low water conditions. Trout still feed, but not all day long. Unlike last summer, our highest water year since 1995, the morning hours will be most reliable. Get out there at 8 a.m. and expect to find rising trout. Take a siesta after lunch and come back for an evening round. Mid-afternoon will be slow under a high sun.
The San Miguel, carrying more water and hiding in a canyon, will remain cool and consistent deeper into July than the Dolores. By a thin margin, the mornings are fishing stronger than afternoons. Rain or even clouds could change that. The Dolores has more species of morning-hatching mayflies than the San Miguel. The San Miguel’s caddis hatch in the afternoon, so it won’t take much encouragement for trout to feed in the afternoons for most of summer. Right now, our best dry fly fishing is late morning and evening. We’re seeing free-risers with uncharacteristic frequency, the result of huge insect hatches corresponding with low flows.
Most effective San Miguel patterns include some standard attractors, fished on the small side:
Trudes, royal or lime, #16 Elk Hair Caddis, brown or tan, #16 Stimulator, yellow or orange, #16 PMX, yellow, orange or peacock #14-16 Perry’s Bugmeister #16 (as a single dry) Stalcup’s para caddis emerger #14-16 Downwing parachute caddis #16 Snowshoe Sally #14-16 H&L Variant #14-16 Dry dropper combinations catch the most overall trout:
Perry’s Bugmeister #8-12 Chubby Chernobyl #10-12 PMX, yellow, orange or peacock #8-12 Yeager’s Neversink Trude #10-14 Grillo’s Pool Toy #10 Grillo’s Hippie Stomper #12-14 Chernobyl Ant #10-12 Rubber Leg Stimulator #8-14 Sodom & Nemora #12 Grand Hopper #10 Yeager’s Tantrum #10
Droppers Micro May #16-18 Mayhem #16-18 Tungsten Sally Nymph #16-18 Soft Hackle P.T. #14-18 Guide’s Choice Hare’s Ear #16-18 Anatomical PMD #16-18 Psycho Prince, blue or orange, #16-18 Hogan’s Petrified Pupa #14 Morrish’s Iron Sally #16 Tungsten Rainbow Warrior #16 The Uncompahgre at Pa-Co-Chu-Puk will play an important role in our mid-summer fishing. With a current dam release of 171 cfs, the “Unc” will soon carry more water than either the San Miguel or Dolores. A terrific fish population and the best hatch of PMD mayflies in SW Colorado will provide explosive dry fly fishing through July and possibly all the way through August. The Uncompahgre’s blanket PMDs are prolonged by the near constant temperature of its dam-controlled flows. In many summers, PMDs hatch from late June through early October. Low flows will shorten the hatch, but the PMD will be the featured menu item for most of the summer. Strong dry fly fishing will attract plenty of match-the-hatch anglers, which, if they do their job, will educate the fish.
One of the natural paradoxes of fly fishing is that great fishing causes the fish to become harder to catch. This makes us want to catch them even more. Don’t try to explain to your non-angling friends. So we predict amazing dry fly fishing for large fish that will become increasingly hard to catch. Right now, the big Pa-Co cutthroats are not particularly wise, so if you prefer easy fish, go now before their education progresses.
When the trout get tough, go tech:
Burk’s Silhouette Dun #16-18 Para Red Quill #16-18 Harrop’s CDC Thorax Dun #16-18 (any fly designed for the Henry’s Fork is believable to an Uncompahgre trout) Lawson’s No Hackle PMD #16-18 (this all-time best technical mayfly dry was also created on the Henry’s Fork) Film Critic PMD Cripple #16-18
General tips for low water fishing
Fish further upstream: In freestone rivers like the San Miguel and Upper Dolores, the trout will move upstream to find suitable habitat in a low water year. The key variable is water temperature. Trout can survive in water pushing 80 degrees, but would prefer temperatures below 67-70 degrees. Feeder creeks may become thin, but will remain cool enough to keep trout happy.
Watch water temperatures: Carry a thermometer and measure water temps regularly. Your most productive fishing will consistently occur between 58 and 65 degrees in July. Adjust your fishing hours and position on the river accordingly.
Smaller flies, single dries: The largest aquatic insects have already hatched this season. We’ll still catch fish on Bugmeisters and hopper patterns, but smaller dry flies will work more consistently. Go small on your droppers, too. Guides are already running size #16-18 nymphs under large dry flies. Soon, we’ll be fishing size #18-20 nymphs under #12-14 dries.
Fish the mornings.
Light leaders: Fish are not yet leader shy on the San Miguel, but on the Upper Dolores and Uncompahgre we’ll be fishing 6X tippets for most of the summer.
Light line rods: A 3-weight presents the fly more gently than a 5-weight. 5 and 6-weight are ideal for the Gunnison, but fly rods designed for the Gunnison are not at home on the San Miguel and Dolores. We will fish our 2, 3 and 4-weights from this point forward.
Walk softly: This cannot be overemphasized on freestone streams. Trout that live in tailwaters, such as the San Juan, are virtually impossible to spook. They have simply grown accustomed to having people dressed in waders stomping around in their river, waving sticks over their heads. San Miguel and Dolores fish still act like wild trout. If they see you, they will flee. If they hear you or feel your vibrations, they are gone. A fish that spooks in the tailout often races to the head of the pool, alerting his brothers and sisters in the process. Trout have 300 degrees of vision around their body, blind only in the rear. Think about that when you approach a good looking pool. Work strictly upstream to consistently approach fish from their blind spot. Cast short before you cast long. Throw a single dry before plunging in with nymphs. These old-school tactics will pay major dividends to the careful angler.
Have fun out there! Enjoy the perfect fishing conditions and call us for guidance or guides.
Book your guides now for July, our busiest (and best) month of the year.
John Duncan, co-owner of Telluride Outside, a guide and longtime Telluride resident, can be reached at HYPERLINK "mailto:email@example.com"reservationsHYPERLINK "mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org"@HYPERLINK "mailto:email@example.com"tellurideoutsideHYPERLINK "mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org".HYPERLINK "mailto:email@example.com"com. For information on fly patterns for the San Miguel, and for a week-by-week forecast for the Upper Dolores, please view this story online at watchnewspapers.com.