Fly Fishing Southern Colorado – Your Complete Guide

Photo courtesy of Kevin Zacher

Colorado, home to a plethora of rivers, streams, and high alpine lakes, is the ideal location for your next fly fishing adventure. From the Salmon Fly Hatch on the Gunnison River to the Mother’s Day Caddis Hatch on the Arkansas River, there is an opportunity for everyone to get out on the water and enjoy all that Southern Colorado has to offer. Below, we will walk you through each of the major rivers, how and when to fish them, as well as guide services/fly shops in the area. 


Index:

Gunnison

Rio Grande

Uncompahgre

Arkansas

Piedra

Conejos

High Alpine Lakes

Guide Services

Fishing Regulations

Gunnison River:

Gunnison River
Photo courtesy of John Duncan

The Gunnison River offers a wide variety of fly fishing options, from techy dry fly fishing, to heavy water nymphing, to the salmon fly hatch in early summer. With various access points ranging from drive-up to physically demanding hikes, there is a place for everyone on the lengthy river. Located in western Colorado, the Gunnison is formed at the confluence of the Taylor and the East rivers in eastern Gunnison County before flowing through the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Later, it is joined by the Uncompahgre River. The river continues through desert canyons, and after winding through Dominguez canyon, joins the Colorado River. Flowing for 180 miles and passing through three different dams and reservoirs, the Gunnison offers a diverse fish population including rainbow trout, brown trout, and kokanee salmon. Between the months of Late August and October, there is a Kokanee salmon run from Blue Mesa Reservoir up the Gunnison. The exact timing differs from year to year, but mid-September is generally the peak of the run. 

Best fishing seasons:

April-September

Flies:

Dry flies:

  • Elk Hair Caddis
  • Lawson’s No Hackle (or other BWO patterns, depending on the look of the bug on the water)
  • Harrop’s Thorax Dun (Pale Morning Dun)

Nymphs:

  • Caddis (Hares Ear, Pupa)
  • Stonefly (Pat’s Rubber Leg, Prince Nymph)
  • BWO (Pheasant Tail, Slim Shady)

Streamers:

  • Mini Leech
  • Montana Whitemouth (white or olive)

For more information regarding flies to fish on the Gunnison, check out our article here.

Regulations:

The regulations on the Gunnison River vary from place to place, so be sure to verify the specific regulations for the area you will be fishing. 

For reference, please go to this Colorado Parks and Wildlife webpage.

Rio Grande River:

Rio Grande
Photo courtesy of Andy McKinley

As the second-longest river in the United States, the Rio Grande offers an abundance of fishing opportunities for all ability levels. From its headwaters between Creede and Silverton, it flows 60 miles east through to the San Luis Valley and then turns east to flow toward New Mexico. The section of the river between South Fork and Del Norte is designated Gold Medal Water. The river is then joined by more than 50 tributaries, offering various options for small, pocket water fly fishing. If you have the opportunity to do so, a float fishing trip has the potential to bring your experience on the Rio Grande to a whole different level. Regardless, there are opportunities to catch brown trout, cutthroat trout, and rainbow trout while on the water. 

Best fishing seasons:

Mid-June through October 

**Please note that the water becomes too low to float starting roughly August 1  

Flies:

Dry flies:

  • Elk Hair Caddis
  • Royal Wulff
  • Parachute Adams (later in the season)

Nymphs:

  • Bitch Creek 
  • Pat’s Rubber Leg
  • Pheasant Tail

Streamers:

  • Krystal Bugger
  • Sculpzilla
  • Meat Whistle

Regulations:

  • Daily bag limit: 4 trout
  • Possession limit: 8 trout
  • Artificial flies and lures only 
  • Brown trout:
    • Daily bag limit: 2 trout
    • Possession limit: 2 trout
    • Minimum size: 16” long
  • Rainbow trout must be returned to the water immediately 
  • There is lots of private property along the Rio Grande, so be sure to respect all signs and marked banks

For more information, please click here.

Uncompahgre River:

Uncompahgre River
Photo courtesy of Kevin Zacher

The Uncompahgre, a tailwater located in southwestern Colorado, is undeniably one of the best-kept secrets in the state. Originating in Lake Como deep in the San Juan Mountains, the river makes its way towards the towns of Ouray, Ridgway, and eventually Montrose. 75 miles from its start, the Uncompahgre converges with the Gunnison River in Delta. The river runs into the Ridgway Reservoir, before continuing downstream through a 1.5 mile long stretch of public water called as Pa-Co-Chu-Puk. “Paco”, as it is known, is largely man-made due to a massive reconstruction project completed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Colorado Parks & Wildlife, and Trout Unlimited in 1994, following the construction of the dam. Along with the man-made nature of this part of the river, the trout population is entirely non-native. Cutthroat and rainbow throat are stocked frequently, but it is the naturally reproducing brown trout that set the Uncompahgre apart. These fish reach impressive sizes with many over ten pounds being caught each year. In addition to these browns, rainbows and Colorado River Cutthroat come from tributaries along the river. Aside from Pa-Co-Chu-Puk, the Uncompahgre can be fished in many other places, generally located downstream from Ridgway Reservoir. 

Best Fishing Seasons:

While the Uncompahgre can be fished all year round, certain months cater to certain types of fly fishing. The colder months are conducive to nymphing, whereas the warmer months offer opportunities for both dry fly and nymphing techniques.

Flies:

Dry flies:

  • Mathews’s BWO Sparkle Dun
  • Elk Hair Caddis
  • Lawson’s No Hackle

Nymphs:

  • Zebra Midge
  • Mayhem 
  • Bead Head Brassie

Regulations: 

  • With the exception of Pa-Co-Chu-Puk the regulations on the Uncompahgre are as follows:
    • Bait and artificial lures are allowed
    • You can keep all fish up to the legal limit (bag limit of 4, possession limit of 8)
  • Pa-Co-Chu-Puk:
    • Artificial flies and lures only

Arkansas River:

Arkansas River
Photo courtesy of UpRiver Fly Fishing

From its headwaters located near Leadville, Colorado, the Arkansas River flows through the Arkansas River Valley before meandering through the towns of Buena Vista and Salida and eventually flowing through Royal Gorge. 150 miles late, the river winds through the Colorado Plains before continuing its journey southeast until it converges with the Mississippi in eastern Arkansas. The river’s headwaters are known for the sheer number of fish that call the river home, not for having mind-blowingly large fish. Immense numbers of naturally reproducing brown trout can be found throughout this section of the river, as well as rainbows that are introduced as fingerlings. On average, there are about 2,000 fish per mile in these 150 miles, an incredible number for a river of this size. Anyone who has floated the Arkansas will tell you that a day spent floating the river is well worth your while and that Royal Gorge is a beautiful place to visit if you are in the area. If you choose to wade fish, there are a multitude of options. Regardless of how you choose to fish the river, the best jumping-off places are Salida or Buena Vista, both offering accommodations and outfitting services year-round. In addition to the number of fish that can be found in Arkansas, the river is also known for its famed Mother’s Day caddis hatch, which, as its name implies, occurs in early May.          

Best fishing seasons:

March-October

**There is winter midge fishing available in the colder months

Flies:

Dry flies:

  • Elk Hair Caddis
  • Lawson’s No Hackle (or other BWO patterns, depending on the look of the bug on the water)
  • Parachute Adams
  • Parachute Hopper 

Nymphs:

  • Zebra Midges
  • Pat’s Rubber Leg
  • Tungsten Copper John
  • Bead Head Caddis Pupa

Streamers:

  • Sheila Sculpin 
  • Mini Leech 
  • Minnow or baitfish patterns (ask the local fly shop for specifics)

Regulations:

From the Stockyard Bridge (CR 102) below Salida to the confluence with Badger Creek, 7.5 miles:

  • Artificial flies and lures only
  • Both the bag and possession limit is 4 fish, no size limit
  • All rainbow trout must be returned to the water immediately

From the Highway 24 river overpass below Leadville, downstream to the lower boundary of Hayden Ranch as posted:

  • Fishing with artificial flies and lures only
  • The bag, possession, and minimum size limit is one fish under 12 inches in length 

If you have any other questions about regulations on the Arkansas River, please click here

Piedra River: 

Piedra River
Photo courtesy of Andy McKinley

Tucked back in the San Juan mountains of Colorado, the Piedra River flows through deep canyons and the Weminuche Wilderness in the Southern part of the state. The Piedra can be divided into three different sections, the headwaters that drain from the Continental Divide into the Weminuche Wilderness, the East Fork flows through rugged canyons, accessible only by hiking in, and the Middle Fork which follows Forest Road 636, and is accessible by car and by hiking in. Between Forest Road 631 and U.S. 160, the main Piedra proceeds through 24 miles of a narrow valley and is the prime spot for adventurous fly fishermen. Below U.S. 160 the river flows across private land and onto the Southern Ute Indian Reservation. With large populations of cutthroat, brook, brown, rainbow, and cutbow trout, all three sections offer a different experience and an amazing opportunity for some off-the-grid fly fishing.

Best fishing seasons:

May-October

Flies:

Dry Flies:

  • Elk Hair Caddis
  • Parachute Adams
  • Lawson’s No Hackle
  • Eric’s Midge
  • Rogue Foam Stone
  • Flush Floater

Nymphs:

  • Pat’s Rubber Leg (brown and tan)
  • Pheasant Tail
  • Psycho Prince
  • Zebra Midge

Streamers:

  • Krystal Bugger (black and olive)
  • Cheek Leech
  • Meat Whistle 

Regulations:

From Piedra River Bridge through a mile and a half about Highway 160:

  • Catch and release only

Conejos River:

Conejos
Photo courtesy of Conejos River Anglers

A tributary of the Rio Grande, the Conejos River is a dream river for most fly fishermen. Located near Antonito, Colorado, the river flows for 93 miles through the Eastern slopes of the San Juan mountains, before converging with the Rio Grande. The Conejos is home to rainbow, brown, and cutthroat trout, and, similar to the Piedra, is accessed both by car and on foot. The river’s headwaters are located above the Platoro Reservoir, and this area is accessible via USFS Road 250N (from Highway 17) and is geared toward those interested in hiking. Due to the location and nature of the water above the dam, the fish are generally smaller, but so are the crowds. Alternatively, Lake Fork is another place to fish with numerous trails located off of USFS Road 250 (you can fish all the way to Rock Lake/Big Lake). Downstream from the South fork of the Conejos, the majority of the land belongs to the Menkhaven Ranch and is well marked private property.  

Best fishing seasons:

March-October

**There is winter fishing, but the weather is often brutal and cold, and fishing during this time of the year is not recommended. 

Flies:

Dry flies:

  • Parachute Adams
  • Eric’s Midge
  • Elk Hair Caddis
  • Stimulator 
  • Rogue Foam Stone

Nymphs:

  • Mercury Midge
  • Bead Head Caddis Larvae
  • Bead Head Rubber Leg Hares Ear
  • Rainbow Warrior 

Regulations:

Downstream Menkhaven Ranch through Aspen Glade Campground, Bear Creek subdivision, HEBO Corp., and Douglas properties:

  • Artificial flies only
  • The bag and possession limit is 2 trout, 16” or longer

Platoro Lower Bridge to South Fork Confluence:

  • Artificial flies and lures only
  • The bag and possession limit is 2 trout, 16” or longer

Lake Fork to Rock Lake:

  • Artificial flies and lures only
  • All cutthroat must be returned to the river immediately 

Outside of these areas, all of the Colorado Wildlife Division fishing regulations apply. For reference, click here

High Alpine Lakes in Southern Colorado:

High Alpine Lake
Photo courtesy of John Duncan

In addition to the many rivers that snake through southern Colorado, there are lots of opportunities to get off the beaten path and do a little bit of high alpine fishing on your own. As far as finding these lakes and streams goes, your best bet will be to hop on Google Earth or to visit the local fly shop. This type of fishing is techy and difficult, but in the end, will bring you to some amazing places and get you on some amazing fish. Please remember, the backcountry can be dangerous and unpredictable, so be careful and pack appropriately. For more tips and tricks, check out our article about high alpine trout fishing in Colorado here

**Between June and August, terrestrials are an important source of food for trout in Colorado. The best terrestrial flies for this time of the year include:

  • Morrish Foam Hopper
  • Turk’s Power Ant
  • Any size 16 beetle

The local fly shop will be able to give you the best suggestions for what is working at the moment, but these are the essentials that I keep in my fly box. 

Fly Fishing Guide Services in Southern Colorado:

Upper Gunnison:

Lower Gunnison:

Rio Grande:

Uncompahgre:

Arkansas:

Piedra: 

Conejos:

Southern Colorado Fishing Regulations:

The fishing regulations in Colorado vary from place to place, but it is important that you read through and understand all of the state-wide rules. Click here to view the Colorado fishing regulations. In addition to these regulations, there is a ton of private property on and around the rivers in Colorado, please observe and respect all posted signs. Before you go, a stop into the local fly shop will give you the opportunity to ask about private property, fishing regulations, and the water conditions. Be sure to pack out all of the trash that you pack in, and we will be able to preserve these delicate and valuable ecosystems for years to come.  

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