A Colorado Gem: The Uncompahgre River
May 16, 2018
If you ask Colorado fly fishers to name their favorite tailwater fisheries, responses such as the Taylor, FryingPan, South Platte, and Blue Rivers will predictably roll off their tongues. And for good reason, as they have high numbers of trout, with more than a few trophies finning in plain sight. But if you are privy to the muted conversations whispered in darkened corners of fly shops across the state, you may be aware of another tailwater gradually ascending to the upper echelon of Colorado trout waters. Although you are more likely to lay eyes on sasquatch than a truly unknown Colorado tailwater, the Uncompahgre River is unquestionably the least known and most unheralded tailwater in the Centennial State.
The Uncompahgre River births out of Lake Como high in the windswept San Juan Mountains and slogs northward through the towns of Ouray, Ridgway, and Montrose as it makes its 75 mile voyage toward a rendezvous with the Gunnison River in Delta. In the language of the Ute Indians, the original stewards of this spectacular swath of God's creation, "Uncompahgre" translates to "red water spring" and is likely a reference to several natural hot springs near Ouray and Ridgway.
The tailwater section of the Uncompahgre is in Ridgway State Park adjacent to Pa-Co-Chu-Puk Campground, and locals often refer to the fishery simply as "Paco." After Ridgway Reservoir was completed in 1988, serious questions remained as to whether the 1.5-mile stretch of public water below the dam would even support a fishery. The tailrace was shallow, fast, and contaminated with heavy metals, as the upper watershed is punctuated with hundreds of leaky abandoned mines. It was like a raging gutter full of polluted water.
In 1994, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Colorado Parks & Wildlife, and Trout Unlimited together undertook a herculean habitat improvement project at Pa-Co-Chu-Puk. Truckloads of boulders were placed in the river to construct rock weirs, forming a lengthy chain of fish-friendly plunges, pools, and runs. Logs, tree roots, and rocks were also used to shore up the streambank and create additional sanctuaries. Mine cleanups upstream—together with a settling effect in the reservoir—have reduced heavy metals in the Uncompahgre, while the installation of two hydro turbines at Ridgway Dam simultaneously increased oxygen and decreased nitrogen levels in the river, drastically improving water quality. The fruit of this labor is an impressive man-made piscatorial playground.
Stealthy casts and long leaders are essential to hooking the river's largest brown trout. After a few casts, big fish get lockjaw or spook into the deeper holes, so it's essential to make the right cast the first time. Photo by Bryan Gregson
In keeping with its man-made motif, Paco's trout population is also entirely nonnative. Three-year-old Snake River cutthroat brooders, native to Wyoming, are stocked annually. These cutts average 18 inches when they are released at Paco. Ten-inch rainbow trout are stocked frequently, and once in a blue moon enormous 'bows stretching up to 30 inches are introduced as well. In addition to stockers, there are wild rainbows, and rare native Colorado River cutthroat trout that may find their way from tributaries like Billy Creek.
Despite the continual stocking of both rainbows and cutthroats, naturally reproducing brown trout are what make the Uncompahgre special, and they reach the most impressive sizes, with many browns north of 10 pounds caught every year. While there are no Mysis shrimp or scuds, the brown trout get huge eating midges, caddis, Green Drakes, and of course a steady diet of 10-inch stocked rainbows.
There is no question that the river at Pa-Co-Chu-Puk has been transformed into a formidable fishery. CPW's 2016 electroshocking survey estimated 264 pounds of trout per acre and 35 trout over 14 inches per acre, easily exceeding the Gold Medal Water threshold, the highest distinction given to any Colorado trout stream. Fishing is limited to artificial flies and lures only and all trout must be returned immediately.
The tailwater is a year-round fishery, flowing ice-free through the winter and only slightly turbid even during the belligerence of runoff. There is no best season in which to angle at Paco, as each has advantages. Bountiful summer and autumn hatches stimulate feeding and bring fish to the surface, while low and lazy water flows in winter and early spring are perfect for sight fishing with nymphs, which is the most effective technique for targeting the biggest browns. The campground sees some tourist traffic during the summer, but crowds of fly fishers are unheard of from late fall through early spring.
From December through April, the trout feast sleepily on subsurface midges and Blue-winged Olives, and my early-season tactics always revolve around these two insects. Cast to fish you've spotted with a dual-fly nymphing rig made up of a Zebra Midge, Miller's D-Midge, Bat Wing Emerger, Barr's Beadhead BWO Emerger, Craven's Juju Baetis, or Garcia's Darth Baetis in sizes 18 to 24. I've found fish at Paco to be particularly enamored with red midges, but black and gray catch fish as well. You can catch plenty of fish blind casting at Paco, but if you're merely "fishing the water" you won't encounter the truly big fish, or even realize they are present.
There is an old fly-fishing adage that states: "The difference between a good nymph fisher and a great one is often one split-shot." This is often true at Paco, so use enough weight to get your flies down where the fish are. If you find trout slurping midges or BWOs on top, try small dry flies such as Roy Palm's Special Emerger, Furimsky's B.D.E. BWO Emerger, or Mathews's BWO Sparkle Dun. Don't expect to hook Paco's biggest browns and 'bows on drys, as instinct informs them that rising to the surface for a minuscule midge or BWO is an unhealthy caloric exchange.
Matt McCannel, head guide at RIGS Fly Shop & Guide Service in Ridgway, perhaps enjoys more success on Paco's biggest brown trout than anyone else. "Patience is the key because you'll be doing more hunting than fishing," says McCannel. "You've got to spot these fish. If you can't see them, you've got no chance at all. I bring multiple pairs of polarized sunglasses to the river, with different types of lenses, because these big browns are difficult to find."
The most common mistake McCannel regularly sees is fly fishers getting into the river where they shouldn't. He counsels anglers to remain on terra firma if possible, to avoid spooking fish when angling this relatively diminutive tailwater.
One of McCannel's favorite flies is a product of his own vise, a size 22 Neon Nightmare midge. He often trails a size 24 Dorsey's Top Secret Midge as a dropper. Contrary to what you might expect, McCannel and others report little success duping Paco's largest brown trout with streamers.
Brown trout are the main beneficiaries of the state's rainbow trout stocking program, but larger cutthroat trout also get in on the action. Photo by Ryan McVay
"Paco's biggest browns almost exclusively eat nymphs, and they are line shy," says McCannel. "I sometimes use leaders as long as 30 feet. And you've got to make your first drift count because these fish will only move an inch or two to accept a fly."
McCannel's preferred rod for Pa-Co-Chu-Puk is a 5-weight, 9.5-foot Sage X outfitted with a long leader terminating in 5X or 6X tippet.
My favorite season to fly fish Pa-Co-Chu-Puk is summer, as I enjoy observing insects and casting to rising trout. While caddisflies cause a feeding fracas all summer long, Paco's two most interesting summertime hatches are Green Drakes and Pale Morning Duns.
Pale Morning Duns hatch in the early afternoon and provide consistent surface feeding from August into early October. Because Paco's PMDs are orangish-pink in color, a Pink Cahill or Harrop's Last Chance Pink Albert Cripple in size 16 perfectly parrot the real insects. For nymphing situations, I use either a Beadhead Flashback Pheasant Tail, Beadhead Barr's PMD Emerger, or a Two Bit Hooker in sizes 14 or 16.
Paco's Green Drake hatch is more subdued than the emergences celebrated on other, more famous Colorado fly waters. "Our Green Drake hatch, which begins in mid-July and lasts into early August, is not a blanket hatch," says McCannel. "You'll maybe see 50 Green Drakes on a good day, and rarely more than 100 even during the peak of the hatch. However, the drakes do get eaten. The best days are when drakes overlap with PMDs and you can fish Drakes in the morning and switch to PMDs in the afternoon."
Uncompahgre Green Drakes have a brown tint, and McCannel's favorite pattern is actually Furimsky's Foam Brown Drake. I've had phenomenal drake days with Furimsky's B.D.E. Green Drake and a Green Drake Hairwing Dun. Cutthroat and rainbows rise to the drake but unfortunately, Pa-Co-Chu-Puk's biggest browns rarely make the effort.
Autumn angling at Pa-Co-Chu-Puk can be glorious. Tim Patterson, owner of RIGS Fly Shop, calls fall Paco's sleeper season.
"The release out of Ridgway Reservoir significantly decreases in September, exposing big fish and feeding lanes, which allows for fantastic sight fishing," says Patterson. "PMD and BWO hatches often make for great dry-fly fishing into mid-October. Decreased pressure on the resource allows you to enjoy some solitude on the river."
Both Patterson and McCannel agree that autumn on the Uncompahgre is "leech time."
Both McCannel's Hot Head and Hell Razor Leeches dead-drifted under an indicator are especially deadly during autumn. McCannel's favorite autumn leech rig is a size 12 brown or olive Hell Razor Leech with a size 16 brown or black Mayer's Mini Leech as a trailer. "During fall, trout eat leeches like it's their job," says McCannel.
Public fly-fishing access is meager in the 27 (driving) miles between Ridgway and Montrose. Above Ridgway Reservoir, the Uncompahgre River is a hodgepodge of private and public holdings, with several access points. One spot above the reservoir where you can access a quality, short swath of river is Dennis Weaver Memorial Park, located about 1.5 miles north of Ridgway on River Sage Road.
Ridgway State Park's Dallas Creek entrance on the south side of the park gives you access to another 1.5 miles of excellent fly water immediately above the reservoir. The same park pass admitting you to Paco is good for Dallas Creek. Here, the river is spunky and shallow until it slows and deepens at its junction with Dallas Creek, which enters the Uncompahgre just above the reservoir. This fly water is home to mainly small browns and 'bows but comes alive in the fall with a solid kokanee salmon run out of Ridgway Reservoir.
Matt McCannel's Neon Nightmare midge was developed on the Uncompahgre but takes fish anywhere trout feed on midge pupae. Photo by Doug Dillingham
North toward Montrose, Billy Creek State Wildlife Area along Highway 550 offers fly fishers a half mile of quality fly fishing. This water, which fishes more like a freestoner than upstream at Paco, is most productive at lower flows, as it is difficult to fish when the water is ripping. I prefer to fish this area in March or early April, and then again during September and October as the flows out of the reservoir diminish. At Billy Creek SWA, you will find plenty of brown trout and a few rainbows, including an occasional brute, along with a handful of big Snake River cutts that migrated downriver from Paco.
There is also excellent fishing within Montrose, as some of the river flowing through town is publicly accessible. A few of my favorite accesses are the short stretch on the south side of town off of Woodgate Road, the fly water behind Target, and the sections at the upstream and downstream edges of the Montrose Water Sports Park.
Mayfly Outdoors, the parent company of both Abel Reels and Ross Reels, is currently in the process of providing a tremendous boon to Colorado fly fishers, as the company has purchased 10 contiguous parcels of land along the river totaling 150 acres. They plan to open a new reel manufacturing facility and a business park for other outdoor brands, called Colorado Outdoors (coloradooutdoors.co).
The five-year plan for the property includes extensive habitat improvement throughout the 1.5 miles of river (similar to the work done at Pa-Co-Chu-Puk). When the habitat work is finished, and the Colorado Outdoors complex is complete, the plan is to turn the 1.5 miles of river access over to the city of Montrose. Colorado Outdoors has already received a $2 million grant to build a trail system connecting Riverbottom Park to West Main Street, creating 4 total miles of contiguous river access. This additional fly-fishing access is a godsend, because paltry river access is currently a major problem on the Uncompahgre.
While the fish in this section of river are not nearly as large (on average) as at Pa-Co-Chu-Puk, the spawning habitat may be better, as the river is filled with beautifully colored wild rainbows and browns, both on city property and inside the Colorado Outdoors development.
The small downside is that irrigation return water can discolor the Uncompahgre in the Montrose area during the summer, but even when the water is off-color, the many wild rainbows and browns still seem ready to play, and the habitat work may help to mitigate the effects of the irrigation water.
In any event, improving fishing opportunities provided by the Colorado Outdoors project make this an exciting time to live in Montrose and call the Uncompahgre your home water.
Doug Dillingham is the author of the guidebook Fly Fishing the Gunnison Country. He lives in Ohio City, Colorado with his five children and his wife Gail. His website is gunnisonflyfish.com.