Southwest Fly Fishing

By Ryan Michelle Scavo

Southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley boasts some impressive statistics. Stretching 50 by 150 miles across southern Colorado, the valley’s expansiveness awes visitors and locals alike, as does the abundant wildlife, including charismatic megafauna such as elk and mule deer running rampant along the outskirts of Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve on the east side. And the wildlife also includes big browns, wild rainbows, and native cutthroats waiting in the waters to the west.
   The valley—one of the highest alpine deserts in the Lower 48, averaging an impressive 7,600 feet in elevation—is bookended by two of the largest wilderness areas and most recreationally diverse mountain ranges in Colorado: the Sangre de Cristo and the San Juan ranges. Significantly, the San Luis Valley harbors the headwaters of the Rio Grande and features the largest tributary of the Rio, the South Fork, which flows through the Rio Grande National Forest along rocky cliffs, through lush meadows, and amid evergreen forests with beautiful aspen stands. Best of all, access is relatively easy, as this tributary follows US Route 160 through a plethora of public lands.
   Traveling along highway 160 from the east, anglers pass through several small towns including Monte Vista and Del Norte. Depending on the time of year, visitors to “Monte” will witness scores of sandhill cranes en route to destinations on either end of their migratory path. Meanwhile, on any given day in Del Norte, you can stop by Three Barrel Brewing Company for a delicious craft brew with great local names like D-ort, a porter wittily named after the town’s Jekyll-and-Hydesque welcome sign, or plan an overnight stay at the historic Windsor Hotel, which is sure to please, thanks to Chef Regan’s unique culinary style and at-home feel and generously mixed cocktails in the Bistro BARbara.
   Continuing along the same route from these small towns, you’ll eventually arrive in South Fork, a more-seasonal-than-not highway crossroads town that sits at the confluence of the main channel of the Rio Grande and its South Fork. This is where the magic begins.
   The first time I fished the South Fork, I started downstream of the Big Meadows Reservoir and was pleasantly surprised by what this freestone stream had to offer. In the early season of early June through early July, cast a tandem rig with something flashy as a dropper, such as a Flashback Pheasant Tail, and a Parachute Adams or Elk Hair Caddis as the top fly. You’re almost sure to hook 10-plus-inch rainbows and browns.
   However, pay special heed to the river’s narrow, shaded sections, where deep pools hold 12-plus-inch native cutthroat trout. Caddisfly hatches are a sight to see in the evenings, so plan to be there when the sun is sinking low. Unfortunately, because of the combination of easy access and less-than-stringent regulations, fishing this section beyond late July may not yield as
many fish.
   When August rolls around, midday thunderstorms call for early morning and evening fishing on the middle and lower sections of the South Fork. From August through September, fish downstream of the US 160 bridge. This stretch features a mix of shallow, turbulent water and long, mellow sections with cool, deep pools. These waters hold a variety of fish—small brook trout, moderate-size rainbows, and monster browns—down to the South Fork’s confluence with the Rio Grande. Fly pattern options are equally diverse. Depending on the season and water flow, you can use anything from big, green beadhead Woolly Buggers or brown Pat’s Rubber Legs to size 16 through 20 nymphs and dries and size 10 or 12 Stimulators. Whatever your preference, you’ll find numerous access points and plenty of frisky trout; just keep an eye out for posted private lands. 
   My favorite thing about fishing the South Fork is the balance of small-town civilization and backcountry seclusion. Anglers can go from enjoying authentic Mexican food or wood-fired pizzas and local brews to landing browns, brookies, ’bows, and cutts within the hour. The easy access and diversity of the South Fork presents anglers with an intriguing fly-fishing opportunity. Whether you’re detouring for a quick fishing session while passing through or heading out on an all-day excursion, whatever your preference, the South Fork of the Rio Grande is sure to deliver.

 

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