** This post is from contributing author, Pat Burke. **
I’m excited to post my first major trip report since starting the blog. This trip was supposed to follow ranks with many of the other big trips I’ve gone on. I hoped to have at least 4 or 5 other guys going. Unfortunately it didn’t work out and the few people that I had convinced to go had to back out. I wasn’t going to let that slow me down.Colorado is a great place. The state is unsurpassed for outdoor enthusiasts. There is whitewater rafting and tubing on every river. Bike trails along many of them. Then there are the countless ski resorts that offer skiing and snowboarding in the winter and downhill mountain biking in the summer. Hiking is huge out there and you could spend a lifetime trying out every trail. The forest service also has campgrounds EVERYWHERE. Then there are the microbreweries. Colorado has more than any other state. Every little town boasts one or more brew pubs. I wish I would have got to check more of them out. You also have a major city nearby that gives you the ability to see concerts or watch the various professional sports teams. Lastly, there is the fishing. The fishing is excellent and the scenario is beautiful. Just like central PA, you can fish year round in Colorado because of the various tailwaters. There is a wide variety of fishing types from high mountain lakes, to backcountry creeks, slow tailwaters, large floatable rivers, and lastly reservoirs full of big trout that run up all of the popular rivers in the fall or spring. If I had to pick anywhere other than State College to live, it would probably be there.
Day One- The Adventure Begins
I arrived at DIA on Saturday around 11:30. I immediately stopped at a local store to pick up a fishing license. Unlike New Mexico, the Colorado website did not allow printing out of an online license. I then went to my buddies house in town. This friend of mine was a roommate in college. After college he stayed with me off and on while he worked in Danville. Every time I go to Denver for work, I always make a point of going out early and staying at his house. It was good to see him and his wife again.
I helped him pack up and we left to go stay at his mountain house. He is an avid skier and him and four other families pitched in to buy a house in Dillon. The home is very nice. It is close to the famous gold medal section of the blue river that runs right through the shopping outlets in Silverthorne. Last time we were out there, I fished the blue river in the middle of a blizzard while my wife shopped!
When we got there, we went for a hike along straight creek up into the mountains. It was a nice hike, but I did not feel that I was accustomed to the 10,000+ feet of elevation yet. You don’t actually get tired. Shortness of breath is the best way to describe it. A big deep breath is not as satisfying. This eventually went away and I got used to it. We hiked up in about 2 miles. Along the way I spotted some beautiful cutthroats. They were small. I still wished I would have brought my rod.
Once we got back, we drove over to Frisco to Backcountry Brew Pub. Frisco is like any of the other mountain towns in Colorado. Large versions of Ohiopyle PA. The food at the brew pub was good and I got an excellent pale ale. We walked around town a bit afterwards and then went to a grocery store to pick up supplies for the week. I borrowed my buddies cooler, so I was able to at least get some lunch meat to mix up between PB&Js.
View over Lake Dillon
Hike along Straight Creek
Day Two- The Roadtrip
I woke up at 3:45 AM and started the first real day of my adventure. First stop on the trip was to go to the Stonebridge access area on the Arkansas river. This section lies between the towns of Buena Vista and Salida. It got light around 5:30. The scenery was amazing. There were various mountains that broke the pinnacle 14,000 foot elevation along the way I even was lucky enough to get some pictures of some close up pictures of bucks in velvet!
View from the parking lot
The Arkansas river was still high from the huge snow pack this year. This is one of the most famous whitewater rafting rivers in the US. The Royal Gorge section is supposed to be legendary. If I had more time, I would have stopped to check it out. The river itself is not very wide where I fished. However, it is uncrossable at these flows. Simply put, if you try to cross, you will die. The pictures I post below do not show the magnitude of how powerful the water was.
Had my first sighting with tiny cactus. Don’t bump your waders into these guys!
I hugged the banks and fished and slower water I could find. The fishing was very good for 10-14 inch wild browns. Most fish took the nymphs using a tightline rig.. There is almost no indicator water in this section. It is just way too fast. I did fish a dorsey yarn indicator a bit along the bank and picked up a few fish. I finished up around noon. It was very good action and a great way to start. I went back to the car and made a quick lunch and departed. Here are a few more pictures from my first outing on the Ark.
My final destination for the day was the San Juan in Navajo State Park. From Salida, it was still another 4 hour drive. The drive started out great with good scenery. Then after around an hour and a half, I was basically in a desert. There were 2 radio stations in this area and both were all in spanish. To pass the time I called a buddy and gave him details of the fishing so far. I got off of the phone with him just as I began seeing the Rio Grande River. I contemplated stopping at the gold medal water to fish, but decided instead to push on.
After another half an hour or so, I started to get tired. At that point I was near the South Fork of the Rio Grande. I stopped to fish a short while to wake myself up. Most of the fish were small, 6-9 inch range. Feeling refreshed I hopped back in the car and pushed on.
The rest of the drive was very nice. Wolf Pass was exceptionally beautiful. I stopped in Pagosa Springs and picked up a good IPA from Odell’s brewing in Fort Collins.
I arrived at cottonwood campground on the San Juan right around 6:00. I found my campsite and quickly put my waders on and headed down to the river. The fishing was lights out good. I got to witness first hand what 20,000 trout per mile is like. Unfortunately they were all small rainbows and browns in the 10-14 inch range. I fished a large stonefly pattern with a small red midge as a trailer under a dorsey. Most fish took the stonefly. The fish weren’t pushovers though. Good drifts were mandatory. The guys bait fishing with poor drifts weren’t doing well. My first impression of the San Juan river was it was incredible! I went back to camp and celebrated with a victory beer. I brought a tent, but decided to just sleep in the car. My ritual everyday was basically to fish all day HARD, come back to the car, drink a beer, and go to sleep. Most nights I’d start falling asleep half way through my beer.
Some pictures from my first evening on the Juan
View below the dam
Day Three- San Juan Smalls
This was my first full day on the Juan. For those that haven’t fished the San Juan, it is unlike anything you have ever fished. Before I left on this trip, I read numerous places, that some consider it the best river in the world. That is a huge claim, that will take me a lifetime of fishing different rivers to maybe prove 🙂 It is a very special place though. First off it is a giant tailwater. The water coming out of the bottom of the dam is a consistent 38-46 degrees year round. It is very cold. I suffered the first morning because I did not dress with enough base layers under my waders.
The next unique part about the Juan is it’s fertility. It is amazing. The bug life in the quality water section is mostly midges and aquatic worms, and some bwos as you get down further. I think of Penns and the WBDR as being fertile rivers. They don’t compare. As you walk in the Juan there is dust that is kicked up with every step. The fish follow you around and eat at your feet. They pull up within a foot or two of your boots. At one point, I easily had 20+ fish following me around. This is such a common occurrence that they have made laws against purposely kicking up the bottom to attract fish. This is commonly called the San Juan shuffle.
So back to the fertility. The midges hatch with such ferocity that I was absolutely covered. There was dime sized clumps of midges floating by that the fish were sucking in left in right. How the hell do you compete with that when you are using a size 20 griffith gnat. The answer is you dont… I just resorted to continuing to nymph through those periods.
That last unique part of the Juan is you basically are fishing in a desert. It is extremely hot. At the same time you are freezing your ass off because of the cold water. I had to keep getting out of the water to warm up.
So I started out by driving up and fishing the Munoz access area that a buddy recommended. Once again, the Juan was hot. From the time I started the fish were all over the RL. There were no slow periods while I was at this section. This was easily my highest numbers day. I fished Lunker Alley for a long time. This is a long deep run that slowly turns into a deep hole. The fish were EVERYWHERE in the hole. They seemed to average 12-14 inches for the most part with a few nicer fish mixed in. I did get two nice bows on a red annelid!
I still felt like I was missing something. I wasn’t seeing many of the big fish that the Juan is known for.
After a banner morning, I decided to go explore some new water. First I went to the pumphouse access which is outside of the quality waters. I fished the dorsey with a rubber legs. It was more of the same. As quickly as I could cast, I was pulling another fish in. They were all small. At this point I was starting to roast though. I left and broke down and bought a buff. It was one of the best moves I made. Not only did it save me from roasting, it also saved me from savage mosquito attacks on other rivers, and it also help decrease glare and spot big trout. So I buffed up and the went to the access by the dam.
The water here is very nice with deep drop offs. I seen many more big fish up here, but I was having trouble hooking anything but small trout. I made it back to camp around 8:00 and performed my ritual of falling asleep drinking a beer. The plans for the next morning, were to drive to Durango at first light. Here are some pictures from my first long day on the Juan.
A friend following me
View from Munoz Access
Day Four- The Animas
For weeks I had been watching the gauges on the Animas. For whatever reason, I grew attached to this river without ever fishing it. Maybe it was allure of big brown trout. Anyways, the guys at Duranglers said 500 cfs is the magic number for the river to be able to wade partially. It finally dropped to that level 2 days before I arrived in Durango.
Durango is a very cool town. It is tourist town and is known for the Silverton railroad that goes along the Animas. While fishing, I was lucky enough to catch sight of the train going by with all of the tourists loaded up on the train.
I woke up early and left Cottonwood campground to make the hour drive to Durango. I’m not sure where to go with this report, other than to say I was extremely let down. The fishing was tough. I caught around a dozen fish fishing all day. All but two were freshly stocked rainbows. I fished at the Colorado Wildlife Office, Santa Rita Park, and behind Home Depot. All of this water was very nice. It just felt like there weren’t a lot of fish. I must have been doing something wrong because it is ranked gold medal trout water. Probably my biggest struggle of the day was the rafters. That was by far the worst rubber hatch I have ever witnessed. They came by every 30 seconds making it impossible to fish. Worse yet, almost every boat asked how I was doing. At first this was fine and I didn’t mind answering that I was doing poorly. After a while though, it was like rubbing salt in an open wound. So eventually I just went unresponsive and gave them the blank stare as they floated by. Assholes.
One of the only browns
Standing on a giant bolder fighting a fish
Day Five- Redemption
Every big trip I go on, I always have one day that stands out more than the others. In Yellowstone, it was the day slaying trout in the backcountry on slough creek. In Alaska, it was our fly out to contact creek where we caught artic char and rainbows at will. On the Delaware last year, I had an amazing day in Hancock where I stood in one spot and caught one 15+ inch fish after another and never needed to move for hours. Well for this trip, today was the day. When I look back at this trip over the year, this will be the day I will always remember.
I needed a pick me up from the previous slow day. Up to this point I had not been seeing many big fish.
Back to New Mexico
Navajo Lake. The source of all the cold water
I went back up by the dam where I seen the most big fish previously. I started in the flats right below the uppermost point you are allowed to fish. The water was around 2 feet deep in most spots. The thing about the San Juan is there are fish everywhere. You just need to move slow and try to spot them before you walk in. So I inched my way along looking for big fish. I began spotting them. They were finicky. I started out with a Dorsey indicator and two small midges fished three feet below. I had a single size one split shot on. The shot was bigger than my flies. It didn’t take long to realize the fish were scared of the split shot. I downsized my split shot to multiple smaller sized shot. I picked up 3 big fish and lost a few others.
I then walked a long ways down river. There were guys everywhere. What I didn’t know was the lower river blew out the night before from the rain. So the area a mile or two below the dam was the only clear water. I eventually out walked all of the guys and came to a very nice braided section of the river and I took the far right(river right) channel. The water was heavy and deep in here. I spotted big fish all over the place. They weren’t pushovers though. I caught a few small fish but was still having trouble with the big ones. I then changed tactics and switched over to 6x, used less weight, and performed a reach cast directly upstream of the fish and worked on landing my flies downstream of my indicator. This was what was needed to get down quickly with less weight. The fish were still spooked from the split shot and the less I used the better I did. This was the ticket. Holy hell the fishing picked up instantly. For the next 5 hours I lost track of fish caught. Half of them were beastly rainbows. I also picked up my first good brown. Most of the fish took the olive yong special. A few took the red annelid. Man was it good. This was the first time on the trip that I really wished someone else would have come with me. Instead, I laughed out loud at the craziness. It was truly special.
So it took me 2 days to figure out the san juan. There are so many fish in there that you are bound to catch some no matter what you do. There is definitely things that can be done to increase your odds of getting big fish. Thanks to my buddy Matt Grobe for the pointers. Here are what I believe are the most important items, some from Matt and some were things that I picked up while fishing.
1. Use 6x. I never buy into the theory guys have that fish can see the tippet and are leader shy. If that was the case, they would never eat. Let’s face it that our patterns have a big metal chunk hanging out there ass for the hook that is much more visible than a heavier diameter tippet. I believe sink rate and the increase in the suppleness of the tippet are the most important benefits. The fish do not like to look at anything big, so by using 6x you can use less weight. This leads me to my next point.
2. Use lighter tippet and modify your rig to get deep. I found the most effective technique was to perform an aerial mend(reach cast) and land the flies downstream of the indicator. This gives them a couple seconds of free fall before the indicator overtakes the nymphs. Often by the time the indicator had surpassed the nymphs, it was dunking with a fish on. More small split shot worked better than less big split shot.
3. If you don’t see big fish, keep walking. They are in there. With flows at 350 cfs and clear, they are visible. If you don’t see the big ones then you are in the wrong place. This trip had the dam downriver being the best place to find big fish.
4. Don’t use other big patterns no matter how well they work.
5. Spot the fish before you fish for them. I found it very effective to pull my buff up to my sun glasses, pull my hat down low, and get up high and find the fish. I was then usually able to catch them. As silly as it sounds, the buff made a HUGE difference. I’m sold on it.
6.The last tip doesn’t have much to do with big fish except that it will let you fish longer. Wear a winter under layer under your waders. The first morning I had to keep taking breaks and getting out because my legs and feet hurt so bad. I’ll note that the outside temps that day were 95. Doesn’t matter. You stand a lot in deep water and you will get cold and waste time taking breaks to warm up.
Later in the day I fished downriver. This is when I found out the water was muddy. I didn’t fish long. Both Simon Point and the campground area were basically unfishable. At this point, it didn’t matter though. I had just experienced some of the best rainbow trout fishing of my life.
Even the fat ugly ones deserve a look.
These guys had a habit of popping out of nowhere and scaring the shit out of me
Day Six- Hopper Dropper
I’ve fished dry dropper successfully a lot over the years. However, I’ve never fished hopper dropper with a big foam hopper. After my previous days success “fishing like the locals”, I decided to take some more local advice and fish hopper dropper on the Ark. All reports said the same thing, that this was the best way to fish. My decision was even easier when I got to the Ark and it had sustained 20 mile an hour wind. Tightlining was not an option today.
I left the San Juan at 6 AM and started the 4 hour trek back. After stopping along the way to check out the Piedra River and Rio Grande, and also doing some sight seeing,I arrived sometime around noon.
On the road again.
I fished the Hayden Ranch Recreation area. It is a ~5 mile public access point.This is much further upriver of where I fished the other day. The river is smaller and has a meadow like appearance. As I was there, many hoppers were getting blown all over the place, including some landing on the water. This was definitely the day to be using this rig!
Once again the fishing was lights out good. Lots of browns in the 10-16 inch range. They absolutely exploded on the hopper. It seemed like the harder you smacked it down the better. I’d say the majority of the fish took the stonefly nymph hung 2.5 feet below the hopper, but it was still really neat to see them eat that hopper occasionally. Most takes happened almost immediately. The water was still extremely fast and the best spots were pretty much on the bank on whichever side was deeper. If my go pro had been charged, this would have easily made the best footage of the trip.
Man I love the view on the Ark
Hey Hey, Cutbow on the hopper
The hopper of choice
This bitch of a brown trout almost cost me my helios. My flies were drifting along the bank when the hopper dunked. I set the hook and flung my flies behind me. Thought I just hit bottom. I didn’t realize I actually launched a 4 inch fish behind me. As my flies were straightening out in the air behind me, I quickly came forward with another cast. I must have a light grip on the rod when casting because as soon as I came forward, the weight of this little guy sent my rod flying behind me in to the roaring Arkansas rirver. I had to have looked like a professional baseball player whiffing when throwing a ball. Through fast thinking and quick footwork, I retrieved my rod without breaking my ankle.
I call him Little Bitch
Around 4 a nasty thunderstorm rolled through. I looked at the radar and I seen that I could drive around it. I drove the 1.5 hour drive to Silverthorne to fish the blue. When I got there the water looked too high to fish. I then picked up and drove to Vail to fish the gold medal waters of gore creek. I had a hard time finding any river access inside of Vail. I ended up going the whole way down to where Gore Creek meets the Eagle River and I fished there.
The confluence of Gore Creek and Eagle River
This little creek was maybe the most dangerous place I waded on the whole trip. It is narrow. Maybe 15 feet wide, but it has 100 cfs plowing through there. It is deep and very fast. There were very few places to cross and there were huge boulders all over the place. I almost went for a swim numerous times trying to get in position. It was worth it though. I continued using the hopper dropper rig targeting any soft water I could find. The fish were willing and I even picked up a few on the hopper. Good fun!
Victim of a hopper
Day Seven- Mosquito Massacre and The Departure
I slept the previous night in Dillon in the parking lot at La Quinta Inn. Yes, my plans were falling apart as the trip wound down. My buddy couldn’t make it back to his mountain house because his dog had gotten surgery that day. I was too cheap to pay for a hotel room so I tossed and turned all night in the well lit parking lot. I eventually gave up on sleep at around 430 and drove the one hour drive to Kremmling(Parshall) to fish the gold medal section of the Colorado river. I specifically moved upriver away from where the blue river met the Colorado because the blue was so high.
The walk in
I got there at first light and hiked in at the sunset bridge access area. As I got into the woods, I was swarmed by Mosquitoes. They were all over me. Luckily I had a long shirt on and the buff. I pulled the buff up high and the only exposed spot on me was my hands.
When I got in the river the mosquitos swarmed for a while but eventually dissipated and left me to fishing. The fishing was pretty slow. More or less, it was inconsistent. They weren’t really focused on anything and I had to switch around a lot just to get them to take something. Over all the PSW was the best. Then a stonefly nymph. I fished until around 10:30, fishing a hole for a while, then picking up and cutting through the woods to the next spot. Every time I went in the woods I got massacred by mosquitoes. It was brutal. They were everywhere. Easily hundreds on me. I started to run when I went into the woods. They were ravaging my hands even with 100% deet on. Thank god I had the buff. It was my savior. Each time I got back in the water, they’d leave me alone after about 5 minutes. It was relentless though. I procrastinated about moving spots because of the walk in the woods. Sometimes I would run to get away. At one point a bird flew up right in front of me and I practically punched it out of the air trying to get back to the river in a mad dash. I got feathers! I’m not lying in saying that I had to have looked like a crazed maniac running through the woods to get away from the mosquitoes.
The fish seemed to average an inch two bigger in this river. On the way back to my buddies place, I seen much nicer water below hot sulphur springs. I’d recommend for anyone else who goes up to fish the canyon in this section. It looked really nice.
Mouth full of meat
So that’s about it. My goal was to be a trout bum for the entire week and fish as many different famous waters as possible. It wasn’t pretty. I slept in my car, ate lunch meat and fruit every night for dinner, and fished every minute possible. A vacation is usually meant to be a relaxing time. This trip was anything but that. I’m sitting here after a week of fishing and I am exhausted. I wouldn’t have it any other way though.
One last benefit of the buff… You can make it into a dew rag.