DIY Guide to Fly Fishing the Dolores River in Colorado

There is no better surrounding vista for fly fishing than that of the Dolores River. The San Juan Mountain Range standing proud and jagged against the skies of southwestern Colorado provides a picturesque backdrop reminiscent of paintings of the Old American West.

The region was originally famed for gold and silver mining rather than its prime fishing waters.

Today, the western slopes of the San Juan Range give birth to the headwaters of the Dolores River and it's many tributaries, all of which provide for excellent trout fishing.

Discovering the Upper Dolores River Basin, a Trout Unlimited documentary

The Dolores does not gain its reputation from “back-in-the-day” fly fishing nostalgia either. Numerous anglers have plied the banks and waters of the Dolores and consistently found luck casting among the wild trout who are less wary of flies and lures than their cousins living closer to civilization.

The headwaters of the Dolores can be found among the high country of the San Juan Mountains, and are a good day or more drive from any major city. The remoteness of the region is what really sets it apart as prime fly fishing territory though. There are no ski-slopes or condo developments, power lines, roadside billboards, or any other of the trappings of civilization. Not only are the trout plentiful, but you can also fish in peace and quiet.

Best known for brown trout, the Dolores River is also home to numerous cutthroat, rainbow, and cutbow trout. Due to the remote location populations tend to be large in number and in the individual size of each catch. 

Dolores River Map and Fishing Access Sites

map of fishing access spots on the Dolores River in Colorado

Get directions to fishing access points and real-time stream flow data with the DIY Fly Fishing Map

Best Places to Fish the Dolores River

The most popular reach of the Dolores River is below the dam near McPhee Reservoir. That stretch of water earned the river the well-deserved reputation for two things: big catches and large populations of trout. 

On the other hand, the Upper Dolores and its myriad feeder creeks is more deserted and remote than the waters near the reservoir, and if you are willing to make the 9 mile trek up the old dirt road that follows the Bear Creek tributary and mile-or-two hike to the water, you are definitely in for a real treat in terms of the trout to be had in this area.

The key to finding the best fishing spots along the Dolores River though is a willingness to get away from civilization to reach those little hidden fisheries rife with trophy worthy fish. The further you are from the highway, traffic, and other anglers, the better you will find the fishing to be. 

Be prepared to get out into the wilderness though, as these areas are notoriously hard to reach without 4-wheel drive and some narrow trails. Since most of the length of the river is public access there are far fewer concerns about accidentally trespassing on private property, too

Dolores River Flow and Current Conditions

DOLORES RIVER BELOW RICO, CO.

  • Streamflow: 282 ft³/s
  • Gage height: 2.89 ft
Streamflow GraphGage height Graph
USGS

Best Time to Fish the Dolores River

The best time of year to visit the Dolores is between mid-June and late October. The hatches are richest during the summer and autumn, and while you can fish year round in Colorado, the fishing in winter is generally slow until after the spring thaw. The best time of day for fishing is generally in the morning or late afternoon until sundown.

Best Flies for Dolores River

Hatches in the area include midges, BWO, stoneflies, caddis, PMDs, and Californicus stoneflies. The following fly patterns are all highly recommended:

  • Beadhead Prince (green/brown #12)
  • Schroders Hi-Vis Hopper (tan #12)
  • Spotlight Caddis Emerger (olive #12-14)
  • Orvis CJ Nymph (green #18)
  • Copper Wire Emerger (copper #16)
  • Mayhem Emerger (black #18)
  • WD40 (brown, #18)
  • Doculater (orange #12)

Need flies? 

Ventures Fly Co. offers a great selection of dry flies, nymphs and streamers that will catch fish just about anywhere.  Set includes 40 high quality, hand-tied flies (see list below) and waterproof fly box. 

Dry Flies
- Adams Dry Fly
- Elk Hair Caddis
- Blue Wing Olive
- Royal Wulff
- Griffith's Gnat White
- Stimulator, Organge
- Chernobyl Ant

Nymphs/Wet Flies
- Rubber Leg Nymph, Brown
- BH Pheasant Tail Nymph
- BH Prince Nymph
- BH Hare's Ear Nymph
- Barr's Emerger Nymph
- Zebra Midge Nymph, Black

Streamers
- Wooly Bugger, Black (Size #8x2)
- Wooly Bugger, Olive (Size #8x2)

Dolores River Fishing Tips

A 4-wt fly rod with floating line is perfect for fishing dry flies and small nymphs on the Dolores River.  A tapered 9-foot leader, with tippet size 3X to 5X to match the flies you are throwing, is pretty standard.

Need Gear? 

Below are recommendations for essential gear to make the most of your time on the water.

Quality rod, reel, line and rod tube at a reasonable price. Backed by Orvis 25-yr guarantee, a brand you can trust.

High performance nylon leader, great for fishing Dry Flies, Nymphs and Streamers.

Excellent knot strength, stretch and suppleness make this the finest nylon tippet.  3-pack of the sizes you'll need the most.

Heavy duty, waterproof, yet breathable.  If you are tough on waders, these are for you. Backed by Simms Wader Warranty. If they leak, they got your back.

Most durable, yet comfortable, boot on the market.  Excellent foot and ankle support.  Great for rocky rivers. Lightweight and designed for all-day wear.

Sweet pack with ample storage. Unique harness system reduces neck strain. Sleek tapered face improves visibility - you can see your feet when wading!

Durable and lightweight. The carbon fiber frame floats.  Hooks don't get stuck in the rubber mesh bag . Extra length makes it easier to net fish.  Simply the best nets on the market.

Tough, waterproof and priced right. Hold 900+ flies in slotted foam.  If you need more storage - you have too many flies!

Simple, sharp nippers at great price. Clip on retractor keeps this must have gear at your fingertips.

Strong with a fine tip. Perfect for removing split shot and hooks. Simply the best fishing pliers.

The 580 Glass polarized lenses are super clear and somehow relaxing on the eyes.  Game changer.

Note: DIY Fly Fishing earns a commission (at no cost to you) on sales made using the links above. Thank you for your support!

Dolores River Fishing Reports

There are a number of area fly shops and on-line retailers that publish Dolores River fishing reports. A few to check out are listed below.

Dolores River Trip Planning Tips

The closest local airport is in Montrose, and it is possible to get commuter flights in and out of Montrose to Denver. The upper Dolores River is far from most major population centers, and the nearby towns of Rico, Durango, and Cortez are all roughly an hour’s drive from the river itself.

There are conventional hotels where you can stay in the area, but most prefer to rent the local hunting and fishing cabins or rough it camping out in the wild. Don’t forget to research vacation homes in the area too, as you can often get excellent deals on accommodations for far less than you would pay at commercial locations.

Looking for more places to fish?


Feature image Colorado TU

About the author

Ken is an avid fisherman of 40+ years who loves to explore and find new places to fish. He created DIY Fly Fishing to help you do the same.

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