The Upper Dolores River in southwestern Colorado is one of those special places in the West where the story doesn’t revolve around memories of what the flyfishing or hunting was like “back in the day.” The “prime time” experience–when wild, lightly pressured trout attack gaudy dry flies with almost reckless abandon, and massive elk herds roam aspen-lined mountains and valleys–is happening right now.
The Dolores is a home river of sorts for me. I have fished its upper branches and small tributaries for 25 years, and I don’t think these waters have ever fished better than they do at present. I feel the same way about the hunting. That’s partly because the region’s relative isolation from big cities like Denver, Phoenix, and Salt Lake City keep it just out of reach for most weekend warriors, and partly because those hunters and anglers who have discovered this region have worked to maintain its pristine value.
If ever there were a place where the conservation agenda should revolve around maintaining the status quo, this is it. That’s exactly the goal for Trout Unlimited as it endeavors to conserve and protect these waters and this region through coordinated efforts with private and public stakeholders. It’s also why TU and Field & Stream listed the Upper Dolores one of the country’s Best Wild Places.
I had a chance to join TU last year for a three-day backcountry adventure in the Upper Dolores watershed, where I showed several TU staffers and volunteers some of my old haunts, and gleaned some new lessons and insights from them along the way.
Located in the Four Corners region of southwestern Colorado, the Dolores headwaters are high in the San Juan Mountains, a rugged patch of the Rockies that contain the highest concentration of 14,000-foot peaks in the continental United States. Getting here requires a long drive from the nearest major population centers of Denver, Phoenix, or Salt Lake City (several hours drive time from the northeast, southwest, and northwest, respectively). Air travel isn’t much more convenient, requiring commuter hops to the towns of Telluride, Montrose, Durango, or Cortez, and at least an hour’s drive after landing.
But when you get here, you’ll find a unique setting well worth any effort. Part of the appeal is what’s not here–no ski slope condos, power lines, billboards, or the like. The centers of “civilization” on the Dolores are the no-traffic-light Old West town of Rico on highway 145 and the namesake town of Dolores further down the main stem of the river where it meets the plains and is funneled into McPhee Reservoir.
Much of the Dolores River fishing “lore” revolves around the tailwater dam section below McPhee. Indeed, in the late 1980s, the Dolores below McPhee was one of the most productive fisheries in the West, akin to more notable waters like the San Juan and Green Rivers. But severe drought and increased water demands have had a devastating effect on that fishery, and it’s only now starting to tenuously reclaim the character it once had.
Even back in the tailwater heyday, I always preferred to work around the relatively small crowds and focus my attention on the Upper Dolores and it’s feeder creeks. We decided to make such a jaunt on our Best Wild Places adventure, driving 9 miles up a dirt road along the Bear Creek tributary, then hiking another mile down slope to the stream, which was no wider than a city sidewalk in most places.
I found a pond that had been created by a beaver dam and positioned myself by its natural spillway. Peeking over the twisted branches, I was eye level with the flat, glassy water of the pond and watched as trout sipped small tan caddis flies from the surface.
I fastened a simple one-fly rig (size 18 Puterbaugh black foam caddis with a tan elk hair wing) to the 5X leader on my 6-foot fiberglass three-weight and flopped a modest cast on the surface. It landed with an awkward, unappetizing thump, but to my surprise, within a few seconds, a trout sucked it down.
The fiberglass rod pitched and heaved, as I realized I’d hooked a large fish–especially for that type of water. When I landed the fish, the signature markings of a native Colorado River strain cutthroat trout glistened in the sunlight. It was an 18-incher. And it wasn’t the last of the day. Trading casts in subtle creek pockets and beaver ponds, we caught dozens more like it. The fishing was just as I had remembered. And it was a reminder that wild trout–big ones–are hidden gems in these mountains. They’re there to be experienced, so long as you’re willing to look up the small blue lines on the topo map, then roll and walk the miles to fish them.