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Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Fishing the Rockies in South West Colorado

Just returned from a 15 day trip to South West Colorado, with my wife, and five of our children. Her parents have a new place on Wilson Mesa, which is located at about 9500 feet of elevation, up above Placerville. My sister in law and brother in law joined us with their families as well, so it was a very nice and memorable family reunion.

Prior to the trip, I did some research on local fishing in the area. As it's mainly small, shallow, fast flowing trout rivers and creeks, I wasn't expecting any great fishing for numbers, nor for size. I figured I'd have to be content with the gorgeous mountain views, wildlife, and just being out in God's country as they say.

Here are some pics of our from Wild Skies ranch (my in laws's place).

Here is the main house, and adjacent carriage house (where my wife and I stayed).

View off my front porch at sunrise:

And later in the day:

View from back yard:

Side view with rainbow:

The lack of "easy" fishing wasn't going to stop me from my favorite pastime, simply made it much more challenging to get to, and effectively fish for alpine rainbow and cut throat trout.

As I fished many different areas during my trip, often multiple times, I'll break down the blog post by waterbody.

1) The San Miguel River and tributary creeks:

The San Miguel river is a shallow, fast flowing river that starts up above Telluride / Mountain Village. From there, it descends roughly 7000 feet of elevation over 50 miles or so, making it very tough to present anything other than a fly. Same for Fall creek, Elk creek, Big Bear creek, and some others in the are. I fished the river twice in one day, and I had was a tiny 4-5 inch trout hit and miss my Mepps #1 spinner.

2) Woods lake:

Woods lake is a small, shallow lake up above Wilson Mesa, in the Uncompahgre national forest. Apparently, it used to be a very good trout fishery, until the Colorado department of wildlife killed off the entire lake to stock it with native cutthroat trout fry in 2012/2013. I tried fishing it 3 times, all we saw were lots of tiny fish surfacing to hit flies before dark.

As you can see, the lake forbids the use of bait, it flies and artificial lures only, making it all the more challenging.

Didn't have any success at all on woods lake, despite throwing almost every lure I brought along. Still, it has hope for the future, once those cutthroats reach a decent size. The lake itself is relatively easy to get to with about 5 miles of well paved dirt road leading up to the lake, and the view is splendid.

Trout lake:

My in laws bought their original chalet on trout lake, which lies at about 10,000 of elevation, South of Placerville and Telluride. (The lakefront property is up for sale at the present time, if any of you are interested, contact me by email). I orginaly fished trout lake back in 2013, on my first visit to Colorado. See my original blog post at:

In contrast to the first time I visited, when the lake was nearly empty due to construction on the dam, it was very full this time around, which made shore fishing very challenging. Lack of castable area, along with the fish having 10 times the space to disperse, it would have been ideal by boat. 

Luckily, there is an outflow stream from trout lake, that flows into the adjacent Priest lake, a shallow, muddy pond more than a lake. The stream did have some very nice sized trout in it, but water is very clear and shallow, so they are about the finickiest fish I've ever encountered. Still managed an eating sized rainbow trout and small brook trout from there.

Alta Lakes:

These 3 tiny man made lakes make up a free campground, up at over 11,000 feet of elevation, and located quite close to trout lake. The 15 to 20 minute ride up the mountain is treacherous, unless you have a proper vehicle, i.e 4 x 4 jeep or truck with  high clearance. At that elevation, the tree line ends, and you can still see snow patches in middle of the summer.

Once up at the campground, you'll encounter people fishing everywhere. The lakes are very shallow, and packed with eating sized rainbow trout, stocked at 10-12 inches. They are extremely finicky in the shallow clear water, and over the few times we fished there, fly fishermen where the ones having the most success. 

Avi and I managed to catch a few rainbow trout on live worms, nothing big, but very tasty.

Hope lake:

Hope lake is the highest alpine lake we fished at during our stay. Nestled in between the peaks above trout lake, it lies at over 12,000 feet of elevation. The lake is only acessible by foot, the moderately difficult trail is 2.5 miles long each way, over which period the ascent is about 1500 feet. Carrying a back pack and gear up a mountain at that altitude is somewhat challenging. Despite having acclimated over a weeks time before attempting the hike, Avi and I were breathing heavily by the time we reached the lake, about 70 or 80 minutes after getting started on our hike.

The views on the hike are breathtaking...

And here is a view of trout lake from up near Hope Lake:

And from up above the tree line at 12,500 feet.

Hope lake itself is an alpine crater lake, containing nothing but some native cutthroat trout, originally stocked long ago when they dammed the creeks to create water supply for trout lake. It's waters remain near freezing temp all summer long, as most of the water feeding into the lake is snow melt, and ice cold creeks running down from snow capped peaks.

Hope lake has an amazing aqua blue colour, the picture don't do justice to the lake's beauty:

The gin clear water in this lake allow you too see a good 25+ feet down. We found a few trout concentrated in 1 shallow murkier area, but all we managed were about 5 or 6 follows, from some splendidly colored cutthroats in the 8 to 15 inch range.

We had to content ourselves by playing in the snow, being that it was the end of July.

I even got to make my first summer snowball snow ball:

Aside from fishing for trout in small alpine lakes and rivers at extreme elevation, we fished two of the states reservoirs. Located at lower elevation and well stocked by the Colorado department of wildlife, they are able to support a bigger variety of fish species.

Blue Mesa reservoir:

Blue Mesa is deep canyon reservoir located a couple hours Northwest of where we stayed, near Gunnison. We took a guide on the reservoir for a half day of Kokanee salmon fishing. Our guide Dillon from guiding service, was extremely knowledgeable and friendly.

A new species I hadn't encountered in the past, I assumed that they were similar to the landlocked salmon we have around here in the Northeast.

The Kokanee were a lot smaller that I imagined, and very stranger to say the least. As opposed to most species of salmon, the Kokanee is not a predator, it feeds on plankton, and occasionally on algae. They have an extremely soft mouth, put up almost no fight at all, and pull hooks very easily. 

They are fished by trolling small spinner baited with corn behind flasher spoons at various depths. An interesting combination to say the least, but very effective. 

What the Kokanee salmon lack in fight and size, they make up for in great taste. I must say the Kokanee are among the tastiest members of the salmonid family I have ever eaten, no wonder they are so popular with anglers in that region. 

Avi and I both landed our bag limits (5 each) of Kokanee salmon in half a day of fishing on Blue Mesa reservoir, as well as a few rainbow trout.

Blue Mesa reservoir also has some huge lake trout, the state record over 50 lbs being caught their last year. Knowing that the lake is quite warm, we didn't bother trying to target them lying deep under 100 feet. Will definitely keep Blue Mesa in mind if ever I find myself in the area closer to ice out...

Ridgway Reservoir:

Located about 1/2 hour North of Placerville, Ridgway reservoir lies at just under 7000 feet of elevation, which supports warmer water fish species such as smallmouth bass. The bass in Ridgway don't grow too big, and the D.O.W. suggest keeping all bass from there, in hopes to prevent them from getting into the streams and river and competing for food with the trout. Of course,, there are tout as well, and apparently some big pike.

Knowing that there were bass in Ridgway reservoir and with only a few days left to our vacation, I decided to hit it for an evening bite, hoping for some topwater action. Ari came along for his only outing of the trip, as he was working on clearing dead trees at the ranch for most of his stay.

We hit ridgway close to 6:00 PM, weather was still at 92 degrees Fahrenheit.

We parked at Ridgway state park, and made our way along the shoreline, casting spinners, small crankbaits and worms.

Avi caught the first bass on a worm, kind of small, but first non salmonid species of our vacation:

I followed with a better bass that hit my jointed Rapala (J9):

Ari's spinner landed him a couple trout and a few small bass:

He also encountered this green snake:

Making our way back near dark, I tied on a Pop R, probably the most effective topwater bass lure in my arsenal. It came though, starting with a couple missed hits, and then with the biggest bass of our short outing, at roughly 12-13 inches.

I followed up with another smaller bass on the Pop R, while Avi ended the outing with another bass on a worm:

I was very happy to finally have some topwater action to say the least.

Aside from the fishing, kids had a blast watching wildlife, and riding the ATV around the Mesa. 

Large herds of deer roam freely, and they often visited our back yard, making for memorable moments for the kids.

Some of the other wildlife shots I managed when I had a camera handy:

Kids enjoyed their cousins:

The adults had their time too. Visited Black Canyon with my wife, and her sister with boyfriend:

My brother in law is more of a trail fan, hitting various peaks and mountain passes by foot or Jeep.

All in all, a very relaxing vacation and fun times spent with family. Fishing on this trip sort of took a back seat to quality family time. Part of me is sad to have to leave such a beautiful area, though I must say that I'm glad to be back home where the fish are big enough to rip drag from my reel. Hope to chase down some big ones soon.

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