Between skiing, hiking, and legendary cultural festivals, Telluride is truly a perfect place to visit any time of the year. But one of the more under-the-radar year-round activities may catch some members by surprise: fly fishing. In Telluride, fish bite year-round, and each of the area’s main rivers offers a different fishing experience.
The Uncompahgre is one of the “big four” fly fishing rivers near Telluride, the other three being the San Miguel, the Dolores, and the Gunnison (often referred to as “the Gunny”). The Paco tailwater on the Unc is about an hour away from Telluride, located inside Ridgway State Park. It’s the closest year-round fishable water from town, and offers a more intimate walk-and-wade experience than the other year-round fishery – the lower Gunnison, which is mostly fished from a driftboat. For such a short, shallow section of river, Paco holds some surprisingly large rainbows and browns, with four-pounders not uncommon.
Since both the Gunny and the Unc are typically fishable throughout the winter, they are favorites of many skier/fly fishers looking to squeeze a day of fishing into their ski vacation (or vice versa). “Mid-March is tough to beat for both fishing and skiing in Telluride, because there’s usually the greatest amount of snow on the mountain and the least amount of snow along the river,” says 23-year veteran Telluride fly fishing guide Frank Smethurst.
You can try to do both in a day—and many do—but the fishing is often best right about when the corn snow is peaking, so it’s usually better to just rest your ski legs and focus on fishing for a full day.”
Regardless of the season, Smethurst’s ski-or-fish dilemma highlights another challenge of chasing trout in Telluride: choosing fly fishing over the many other world-class activities waiting for you outside your front door. When summer rolls around, even the most hardcore fly fishers must admit that the alternative activities in Telluride – from music festivals to mountain biking to backpacking – rival those of any mountain town on Earth. Even after settling on fly fishing for the day’s activity, your options are far from limited.
For those wanting a natural, free-flowing fishing experience, the two most popular freestone rivers are the San Miguel and the upper Dolores. (“Freestone” is an undammed river; “tailwater” is a section of river flowing below a dam.) The San Miguel is definitely Telluride’s local river, starting high above town and along the valley below, toward Placerville.
The South Fork of the San Miguel, a great fishery in its own right, joins the main branch just outside of town. About five miles up the South Fork from the confluence, the Nature Conservancy has a 67-acre preserve, where catch-and-release fishing is allowed.
The upper river can be covered with snow for much of the winter, but the San Miguel River usually offers Telluride anglers their first freestone fly fishing of the season. “March is my favorite time of year to fish it,” says John Duncan, co-owner and general manager of Telluride Outside, a local fly fishing guide service since 1984. “I love the process of inspecting the San Miguel when the ice starts melting away, it makes me feel like I’m searching a new river each season.”
Smethurst also likes late-winter fishing near Telluride, but for different reasons. “The best thing about it is spending time in the high desert,” he says. “Many people don’t even realize that Colorado has a desert, and it’s a 20-minute drive west from downtown Telluride. I think the best two rivers for winter fishing are the Unc and the lower Gunnison, where you’re fishing a few thousand feet lower than the elevation in Telluride, which is 8,750. So it’s usually much warmer than town, and there are big fish to be had.”
Telluride is a dream for any traveler, whether they want to fish or not. View Inspirato’s luxury accommodations in Telluride, which include residences large enough for up to 14 people and contemporary condos at the award-winning Lumiere hotel.
This post is adapted from Time to Rise by Tom Bie, which originally appeared in the Summer/Fall 2016 issue of Inspirato magazine.