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PBD Fish Reports

Lower Dolores

​Fishing the Dolores River, Colorado

The Dolores River is one of the best unknown places to fish for trout in Colorado

By Paul B Downing

Imagine monster trout sipping dry flies as the sun sets. Then imagine you have the place all to yourself. Paradise. Where is this wonderous place? It is tucked into the south west corner of Colorado. 

The Dolores flows southwest out of the Lizard Head Wilderness, then heads north at the town of Dolores. Just downstream from Dolores the river flows into McPhee Reservoir. 

Lower Dolores

Fishing on the river can be divided into three sections. The lower river is a tailwater flowing out of the reservoir. The middle section is above Dolores. The upper section is above the tiny town of Rico.

The lower Dolores is reached through the Lone Dome State Wildlife Area. Drive east from Hwy 491 down into the canyon, then follow road 504 south to reach the dam. The tailwater offers some of the most challenging fly fishing I have encountered anywhere. The water is low and clear so the trout are very spooky and even more selective. One time I approached the stream to be greeted with a midge hatch. Trout were rising everywhere. Great! I was going to catch a lot of fish, or so I thought. I tied on a size 20 parachute Adams and a 22 midge emerger. Surely these flies would work. They did, well sort of. On the second cast a rainbow came up and took the dry. Landing a fat 14 inch rainbow, I dried my fly and cast again with great anticipation. Trout were rising everywhere. I cast across and downstream to present the flies so that the 6X leader did not spook the trout. It didn’t work. Occasionally a trout would rise to my fly but refuse. I would get a good drift over a feeding fish only to spook it. I would then cast to another feeder only to have the same thing happen. I tried different flies. Same result. Trout would rise right next to my flies taking naturals. Finally I gave up. Those trout were just too smart for me that day.

Fortunately, the trout are not always that though. At the end of the road just below the dam is a bridge. There is great water from the bridge up to the spillway. Just above the bridge are a couple of runs and a deep pool created by an old diversion dam. The runs usually produce a couple of trout. I have caught some good fish nymphing that deep hole created by the diversion structure. Above the structure there is a good run tight against a path. This stretch often has a BWO hatch. Pay particular attention to the deeper water where the stream makes a sharp turn as there are frequently several fish rising at the point where the water drops into the deeper section. If they are not rising, they are still there feeding on midge nymphs. The big pond below the dam can be good too if there is a hatch. I have not had much luck nymphing here when there is not a hatch but I have enjoyed watching the beaver that patrols one bank.

This section held massive trout that led to it being regulated as a trophy trout water with catch and release regulations. The long drought lasting from 2007 to 2010  killed off most of those large trout. However, recent good moisture has turned things around and now the fish are growing big again.

Surprisingly large rainbows and browns come out of deep holes to take dry flies during evening hatches. I have stood in one spot and landed three 18 in rainbows at the top of a deep pool not far below the dam. Lower down river one day I enticed a nice 16 inch brown to take an elkhair caddis. As it dove into deeper water, a monster brown darted out from under a boulder and chased it. My frightened trout went wild before the monster disappeared under its boulder.

The river follows the road so access is easy. Below the bridge much of the water is run and pool structure. You will find a mixture of browns and rainbows. As you work down stream, lot of the river looks to be too shallow to hold fish. Look for the deep pools hidden at bends and around big boulders.  Dan Palin tells me he has had great success fishing to the monster trout hidden in these deep spots striping a large green wooly worm.  You will be amazed at the fish you will find. And you will revel in the beauty of the countryside.

Middle Dolores

The middle section starts just west of Dolores.  The inlet to McPhee Reservoir can be good although you will have to share the site other fishers. It is reached by an informal dirt road off the highway on the west end of town.  Here I have found BWO hatches on occasion. A nymph rig has been the most consistent producer for me in this stretch of water. Bait fishing is very popular here and in the lake. Worms, power bait and spinners work most of the time.

Above the town of Dolores (east) on Hwy 145 there are several state access points that are tucked back from the road and poorly marked so they can be hard to spot. This water is mostly deep runs and pools. Nymphing is the smart option here but you might try swinging a wooly bugger off the undercut banks and into the deep pools. This stretch produces some good size browns, but I find the fishing too spotty.  

I head up closer to Rico. Look for Road 535 going off to the left. Follow this road a mile or so to reach a public access on the West Dolores River. Walk downstream from the parking area to the beginning of private property and work back upstream. I have enjoyed evening caddis hatches on this stretch many times. I use an elk hair caddis and a beadhead pheasanttail with great success. Watch out for the trees. Several are decorated with my flies. I have not found any good public access above this point on the West Dolores although others report that there is some good fishing upstream.

A few miles above the Roar 535 turnoff you will find a parking lot on the right that provides access to Bear Creek Trail. The creek is catch and release only. I have not fished Bear Creek yet but the Dolores here fishes very well

Further towards Rico Hwy 145 passes over the river so the water is now on your left. Shortly after you cross the river, on the left side of the road as you head up river (east), there is a nice meadow with a set of runs that can fish well. I park at the abandoned bridge. Here you will find a deep hole that should fish well with live bait. I wade across the stream in the riffle above the bridge, then work my way upstream. This is a good place to fish on the edge. For some reason the browns are always on the far (south) bank which would be impossible to fish if I had not crossed the river. Fortunately, it is only a half cast to present your fly to them. A small stimulator that I tie and a beadhead brassie often work well here. There are many enticing places to fish along this section but be careful that you stay on public land.

Upper Dolores

Follow Hwy 145 through Rico to reach the upper Dolores.  You will find several access points with good pools and nice runs. One area is right along the highway. It is an open meadow with a winding willow bordered stream. One fall day I fished this stretch using a #16 royal Trude and a #18 beadhead brassie. There were nice 12 inch rainbows everywhere; at the head of pools, along brush covered banks, in the open runs. It was a great day. There is more public land here but the stream is smaller. It offers many great places to explore. 

If you continue along Hwy 145 you will come to a Lizard Head Pass and an extraordinarily scenic lake area; Trout Lake and the Priest Lakes. Then you will drop down into the Telluride area and the San Miguel River. There are many great streams and lakes in the area so you can fish all summer if you like.

Access: Much of the river is on National Forest land. The middle section has more private land so check before you fish. All sites are walk/wade.

Season: There is no closed season for trout. Winter fishing is possible in the tailwater section but I have never fished here then. Early spring is great for the tailwater. The middle and upper sections fish best in summer after runoff then on into fall. After the end of September, you will have to pick your day as winter comes early in this high country.