Wet and wild fishing on upper Dolores

Low water concentrates fish

Joe Walker prepares to cast out into the Dolores River across from Joe Rowell Park in this file photo.

Stop thinking about drought, heat and wildfires, and imagine cool, refreshing water while fishing the upper Dolores River.

It's 10 degrees cooler on the river, and the rushing water and canyon create a nice breeze. And odds are, there will not be too many other anglers.

Karen Ordemann, a visitors services technician with the Lone Mesa State Park in Dolores, reports decent fishing conditions from Dolores to Rico.

"We've been hearing good feedback from visitors and campers, although one local guy got skunked and was wondering where the stocking is going on," Ordemann said.

The freestone river above the reservoir gets a lot of attention by Colorado Parks and Wildlife during the summer. Biologists stock a variety of species for sport fishing, including rainbow, brook, and cutthroat trout, and also kokanee salmon.

"There are several places where they stock on the Dolores, and Weminuche trout are stocked on the West Fork," she said. "The low water hurts in some ways, but it is also concentrating the fish in smaller areas. The campers who come here really love the fishing."

Matt Clark, Dolores backcountry coordinator for Trout Unlimited, suggests fishing higher up in the drainage.

"Near the headwaters is great right now, and also up in the tributaries," Clark said.

Because of the low waters and warm conditions, Clark reminds anglers to not overstress the fish.

"Don't play it as long, and release them as quick as possible," he said. "During low water, fish tend to get more wary."

The Dolores has the Colorado River cutthroat, a native species with silvery, green and red hues that is really beautiful to view up close. They tend to take refuge on the upper tributary creeks like Taylor Creek , Roaring Fork, Stoner Creek, Bear Creek, and also on the West Fork.

Natural fish barriers, such as steep spillovers and pool-drop features on tributaries, prevent non-native and hybridized trout fish from competing with the native stock of Colorado cutthroat up above. The fish descended from coastal cutthroat that journeyed up the Columbia River one million years ago. It is native to the Western Slope, and now inhabits less than 15 percent of its former range, according to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

But during stressful conditions of drought, Clark recommends avoiding the fragile Colorado River cutthroat, and focusing on the sport fish.

"I fish for the brookies because they are non-native, and also delicious," he says. "The more brookies you take out, the less pressure on the native fish population. To be able to eat a couple of fish is a big part of the wilderness experience, and you are doing the ecosystem a favor by eating the brookies."

The lower water is susceptible to hot weather, which is more harmful to native trout, and the limited space benefits more aggressive introduced species during feeding.

TU is in the process of conducting macroinvertebrate (fish food) studies and fish habitat analyses on the Dolores watershed. The area is understudied, Clark said, and researchers want to better understand general riparian health of the river, spawning locations, and nutrient levels.

"It is a good, solid, all-around fishery. Locals love it because we are not a major tourist destination. Telluride folks come over to the Dolores because it fishes better than the San Miguel."

Kyle Hartley, of Duranglers, suggests using dry flies on the upper Dolores with a nymph dropper floating below.

"Get out there early and fish late. Up higher the heat is less of a factor for the fish," he said. "It is a good freestone pocket-water river with no crowds."

There is a lot of private land along the upper Dolores, so be careful not to trespass. Ask permission of landowners before fishing through. A useful new website by Colorado Parks and Wildlife offers anglers a "virtual scouting tool" for fishing area rivers and lakes at http://ndismaps.nrel.colostate.edu/fishingatlas.