Telluride's Lesser Known Winter Activity Travelers Should Try

November 5, 2018

The hardest thing about catching a trout on Telluride’s most popular tailwater is learning how to pronounce its name: Pa-Co-Chu- Puk. This mile-and-a-half stretch of the Uncompahgre River flows from the bottom of Ridgeway Reservoir, keeping it a near constant 50 degrees and allowing for a year-round fishery. Pa-Co-Chu-Puk is a Ute Indian term—for either “water buffalo” or “cow creek,” depending on the source—and is pronounced “Pa-co-chew-puh.” But non-linguists needn’t fear, as locals long ago shortened the name of the tailwater to “Paco” and the river to “Unc.”

The Uncompahgre is one of the “big four” fly-fishing rivers near Telluride, the other three being the San Miguel, the Dolores and the Gunnison. The Paco tailwater on the Unc is about an hour away from Telluride, located inside Ridgeway State Park. It’s the closest year- round fishable water from town, and offers a more intimate walk- and-wade experience than the other year-round fishery—the lower Gunnison, which is mostly fished from a drift boat. For such a short, shallow section of river, Paco holds some surprisingly large rainbows and browns, with four-pounders not uncommon.

Since both the Gunny and the Unc are typically fishable throughout the winter, they are favorites of many skiers/flyfishers looking to squeeze a day of fishing into their ski vacation (or vice versa). “Mid- March is tough to beat for both fishing and skiing in Telluride, because there’s usually the greatest amount of snow on the mountain and the least amount of snow along the river,” says 23-year veteran Telluride fly-fishing guide Frank Smethurst. “You can try to do both in a day—and many do—but the fishing is often best right about when the corn snow is peaking, so it’s usually better to just rest your ski legs and focus on fishing for a full day.”

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Regardless of the season, Smethurst’s ski-or-fish dilemma highlights another challenge of chasing trout in Telluride: choosing fly-fishing over the many other world-class activities waiting out your front door. When summer rolls around, even the most hardcore flyfishers must admit that the alternative activities in Telluride—from music festivals to mountain biking to backpacking—rival those of any mountain town on Earth. And I hate to disappoint you indecisive types, but even after settling on fly-fishing for the day’s activity, your options are far from limited.

For those wanting a natural, free-flowing fishing experience, the
two most popular freestone rivers are the San Miguel and the upper Dolores. (“Freestone” is an undammed river; “tailwater” is a section of river flowing below a dam.) The San Miguel is definitely Telluride’s local river, starting high above town in the San Juan Mountains and flowing northwest through town and along the valley below, toward Placerville. The South Fork of the San Miguel, a great fishery in its own right, joins the main branch just outside of town. About five miles up the South Fork from the confluence, the Nature Conservancy has a 67-acre preserve, where catch-and-release fishing is allowed.

The upper river can be covered with snow for much of the winter, but the San Miguel River usually offers Telluride anglers their first freestone fly-fishing of the season. “March
is my favorite time of year to fish it,” says John Duncan, co-owner and general manager of Telluride Outside, a local fly-fishing guide service since 1984. “I love the process of inspecting the San Miguel when the ice starts melting away, it makes me feel like I’m searching a new river each season.”

Smethurst also likes late-winter fishing near Telluride, but for different reasons. “The best thing about it is spending time in the high desert,” he says. “Many people don’t even realize that Colorado has a desert, and it’s a 20-minute drive west from downtown Telluride. I think the best two rivers for winter fishing are the Unc and the lower Gunnison, where you’re fishing a few thousand feet lower than the elevation in Telluride, which is 8,750. So it’s usually much warmer than town, and there are big fish to be had.”

The “Lower Gunny” is basically anything below the bottom of Gunnison Gorge, but usually refers to the section from the Gunnison Forks—near the Gunnison River Pleasure Park—down to the Austin Bridge, a float of about 5 miles. This is the stretch that is most often floated during winter—an area Duncan describes as “the stark and stunning landscape of high-desert canyon country.” When summer rolls around, the Gunnison has several other float or hike-in sections, including Almont to the town of Gunnison, Gunnison to Blue Mesa Reservoir, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and Gunnison Gorge, just below the National Park.

If you’ve got a car in Telluride, and are looking for a good one- day road trip, Colorado State Highway 145 (CO-145) is one of the country’s best state highways for fishing. The 116-mile- long roadway follows the San Miguel River northwest from Telluride for 50 miles, and follows the Dolores River southwest from Lizard Head Pass for 45 miles. There are
a few bits of private land along both rivers, but most of it is public and remote, making it easy to lose the crowds. “There are few fly-fishing destinations with the amount of public access that we have here,” says Duncan. “Most anglers are accustomed to fishing around other people, but we are spoiled by solitude in Telluride. Any extra effort—a short hike, a four- wheel-drive road or even just the creative use of a map—will probably result in all-day solitude.”

Besides solitude, another thing the San Miguel, Uncompahgre and upper Dolores have in common is a fairly reliable mayfly hatch—the Pale Morning Dun in early July. Though caddisflies come first, they often show up during runoff, when the San Miguel and Dolores are too dirty to fish. The San Miguel is a nymphing river in February and March (the “window” before runoff), but despite a lack of prolific surface hatches, trout will still key on dry flies. Best bet is to fish a dry fly with a nymph dropper, so you’re covering both zones. And if we’re discussing hatches in this part of Colorado, then—sorry, PMDs and caddisflies—but you play second fiddle to the famous salmonflies of the Gunnison.

The salmonfly is one of the country’s most famous hatches, and the Gunnison has some of the country’s most famous salmonflies. It’s always in the conversation with other top salmonfly rivers like Oregon’s Deschutes or Montana’s Madison, Yellowstone or Big Hole. If you’re in good physical shape, hiking down to the river in Black Canyon National Park is a rewarding experience. It’s also a lot of work, and if you go during the June salmonfly hatch, you won’t be alone on the trail. Fishing during the emergence of these 2- to 3-inch-long bugs is considered a rite of passage for many flyfishers, so the salmonfly event can sometimes draw a crowd. Another option is to fish the Gunny later in the summer, after the salmonflies have gone but while grasshoppers are still around.

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I was fortunate to join a private group from Telluride a few years back on a three-day August float down Gunny Gorge. It turned out to be perfect time to do it, especially if you’re more into the fishing and less into the big-water rafting of spring. (Don’t wait until too late in the summer, though, because passage gets pretty tight in the narrow part of the gorge when flows drop below 1,000 cubic feet per second.)

As for the classic, sometimes-technical tailwater experience near Telluride—
the lower Dolores River below McPhee Reservoir—anglers must understand that this special section of river is not “on the way” to anywhere. But neither is Telluride, so if you’ve made it that far, what’s a day trip to the Dolores? (The drive is a little more than 60 miles from Telluride, so a bit farther than going to Pa-Co-Chu-Puk. But don’t be afraid to stop along the way for photos at Trout Lake, or for fishing at Snowspur Creek or Lizard Head Creek.)

Duncan’s favorite time on the Dolores tailwater is early summer. “There’s no other river in my experience that comes to life quite like the Dolores,” he says. “You’ll be blown away by the number and variety of hatching bugs. And there are so many shades of green, it confuses the eye.” Duncan adds that high water on the Dolores recedes a couple weeks earlier than on the San Miguel, so it’s the first river they fish after runoff.

And finally, while tailwaters are sometimes the only fishing available during winter, it’s the free-flowing rivers that many of us desire. “Our local fishing is more focused on freestone streams than tailwaters,” Duncan says. “The San Miguel and upper Dolores are not trophy fisheries like the Frying pan, Yampa or Platte, but they run wild and free, and fishing these rivers re-immerses anglers in the natural variables of a trout stream, things like flow, temperature and clarity. I think many flyfishers feel a reawakening of their fishing senses on these streams.”