Among the mighty volcanic peaks of the San Juan Mountains in southern Colorado lay the headwaters of the mighty Rio Grande River.
Primarily settled by the Spanish as early as the 16th century thanks to land grants provided by the Spanish governors of Mexico, this area was Spanish territory up until about 1848 when it was ceded to the westward expanding United States.
The threads of Spanish history can still be found amongst the tapestry of culture in southern Colorado, particularly in the place names, towns, and the fast flowing waters of the rivers themselves.
Carl Ochnio embraces the DIY fly fishing spirit on his annual Colorado fly fishing adventure including some time spent on the Rio Grande River. Way to go Carl!
Besides to the Colorado River itself, the Rio Grande is one of the largest and most famous rivers flowing through southern Colorado. It offers not only great fly fishing action for anglers, but also exceptional ease of access and some of the largest trout to be had in the southern reaches of the state.
Starting at 12,000 feet elevation high in the San Juan Mountains, the Rio Grande’s initial 25 miles run through thickly forested terrain, and much of the river is wading depth until it reaches Box Canyon.
All kinds of trout from rainbows to browns can be found in these waters, but the Rio Grande is best known for its gigantic brown trout. Better still, the high altitude scenery and backdrop make every trip to the Rio Grande a memorable one.
Further down the river towards South Fork the banks of the river fall on a general mixture of private and public land, so smart anglers who don’t want to end up charged with trespassing should definitely stick to US Forest and Colorado State Wildlife Areas that compose the public sections of the river.
The nearby town of Creede also caters to the fishing tourism trade, and makes a great base of operations for your fly fishing excursions along the Rio Grande in any season.
For those that prefer to wade and fish, the upper sections of the Rio Grande are going to be your best bet. The dry fly fishing in high summer is top notch, and there are numerous pockets and riffles in the late spring and early summer when the water level is higher right after runoff. The town of Creede is definitely worth checking out for local expertise on where the best fly fishing spots are, as well as stocking up on supplies, flies, and lures.
Further downstream is the town of South Fork, where the Rio Grande meets its South Fork at Wolf Creek Pass. You can take Highway 160 here to follow the river, and there are numerous public access points that are distributed all along the way that make for some decent fishing. Be aware that you will need to deal with traffic noise, and the easier the public access is the more anglers you will find yourself competing with in peak season, too.
If you keep following the river towards Del Norte though, you will find the Rio Grande’s prime float fishing waters. Floating is not as popular here as it is in some parts of Colorado, and you can bag some very sizeable catches with minimal effort if you are willing to float the river instead of wading. This is also a Gold Medal stretch of water for big browns, so it is definitely well worth the visit to try your luck at landing that trophy fish.
The best time of year to get on the Rio Grande is mid-June to October. The salmon fly hatch typically occurs mid- to late June. Although the hatch may occur during runoff, the water is clear enough to permit dry-fly fishing.
During the summer months you can more easily take advantage of the massive caddis fly hatches that allow the local trout to grow to such a large size. As with all rivers in Colorado you can fish year round, but the best season for fly fishing is definitely that mid-June to October window.
Mid morning to late afternoon offers the best wade fishing, and if you decide to float the lower reaches near South Fork you can fish all day and still land some excellent catches.
Stream gauges maintained by the Colorado Water Resources division provide real-time stream flow for the Rio Grande River. Links to gauges of interest are provided below.
The caddis hatch is the the one you don’t want to miss, especially downstream from Creede, so pack your flies accordingly.
Here are some patterns that have proven most successful for anglers on the Rio Grande River:
A 9-foot 5-wt fly rod with floating line is perfect for fishing dry flies and small nymphs on the Rio Grande River. A tapered 9-foot leader, with tippet size 3X to 6X to match the flies you are throwing, is pretty standard.
There are a number of area fly shops and on-line retailers that publish Rio Grande River fishing reports. A few to check out are listed below.
The nearest regional airport is the San Luis Valley airport in Alamosa, CO, and it is roughly an hour’s drive from Creede. You could fly into Denver or Colorado Springs, but they are over 4 hours drive away. Creede is really the best spot for accommodations, but South Fork and Del Norte also have numerous places to stay that are both budget friendly and locally run. If you prefer to rough it there are dozens of public camping areas all along Highway 160 following the river for much of its flow from Creede to Del Norte.
Looking for more places to fish?
Check out our DIY Guide to the Best Fly Fishing in Colorado.
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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