Living a fishing dream
Tailwaters below Ridgway Dam provide year-round fly fishing
A fly angler’s mid-winter dream might include any or all of the following: A sky blue as a baby’s eyes, water flowing around your knees, no other anglers to crowd you, and a 20-inch brown trout, nose high, sipping tiny dry flies in the current.
It’s enough to make an angler pinch himself to see if he’s if he’s still haunted by sugar-plum fairies.
Places such as this are rare as unicorns during the summer months, but in the winter the chances are better than you think.
As winter closes in on western Colorado, the list of viable and reasonable places to fly fish shrinks.
This year has been a bit of an anomaly, with many ponds and streams remaining open through the late fall and into the winter solstice.
But we all know that won’t last, and if you want to fish flowing water on Christmas Day, there are only a handful of options available.
The Gunnison River above and below the Pleasure Park can be good fishing, if there is no shelf or anchor ice to hinder access to the river.
Tailwaters offer year-round open water, with local choices including the Taylor River (Reasonable? Be prepared for below-zero temperatures); Fryingpan River (big fish, at times a bit crowded); Yampa River below Stagecoach Reservoir (a 1.5-mile hike to the river); and Pa-Co-Chu-Puk, the mile-long tailwater below the dam at Ridgway State Park.
The last tops the list. Pa-Co offers easy access, lots of open water, relative seclusion and hefty trout that sip midges and tiny dries all winter.
“I was down there checking licenses last Tuesday and all of a sudden I hear all this whooping and hollering,” recalled Bill Bruggemen, the seasonal park ranger who patrols and monitors the river below the dam. “When I got there, this fellow asks me to take a picture of his fish because it’s too big for him to hold it and the camera.
“It was a 26-inch brown.”
Immediately on hearing the news, long-time Pa-Co devotee Carol Oglesby of Grand Junction knew what happened.
“Bruno,” she said. “He caught Bruno.”
He also released Bruno, since that section of river is strictly catch and release.
Any place the regulars name a log-sized fish has to be fun.
Ridgway State Park manager Kirstin Copeland said that although the park has “a real diversity of winter-time users, the tailwaters are probably our most popular draw.”
Occasionally the parking lot will have 20 cars in it, but most days are like Saturday, with a half-dozen vehicles awaiting their owners.
Anglers come from nearly 100 miles away to fish the park’s river, Bruggeman said.
“I always look at the license plates to get a feel of where our visitors come from and we get a lot of people from Gunnison and Grand Junction,” he said. “We had a few anglers here from Durango who told me the Animas (River) wasn’t fishing as well as they hoped.”
Last Saturday found but a handful of anglers (meaning five) on the Uncompahgre River below Ridgway Dam despite a calm day with air temperatures in the upper 40s.
A small midge hatch was coming off the water, but angler Jason Moshonas was having no part of that.
“Yeah, there are fish rising right in front of me,” said Moshonas, who recently moved to Ridgway from San Anselmo, California. “I’m using these small egg patterns, and I just caught one that was 12 or 14 inches.”
Bruggeman, a retired fisheries biologist, said anglers benefit when the river’s trout focus on eggs during this post-spawn period.
“I’ll take my grandson down there and we’ll throw these Alaska roe patterns as big as your thumb,” he said. “And we’re picking up fish like crazy.”
Oglesby, who often can be found on the Uncompahgre in the company of Phyllis Pool, Mary Graham and Nancy Burdette, said the Pa-Co-Chu-Puk section offers a near-perfect setting.
“It’s easy to get to, it’s a safe river with great fish, and we have a favorite little coffee shop in Montrose,” she said, laughing. “It’s all about companionship.”
Plus, on those mild days with a bit of cloud cover, a hatch of midge or blue-winged olive mayflies bring trout to the surface.
Catch a Christmas Day trout on a size 18 BWO and you can’t post a photo fast enough on Instagram.
“You often see dry flies down there this time of year,” Oglesby said. “Nancy’s had some luck using a pink Cahill (dry fly) but you have to keep changing flies, the fish are pretty sophisticated.
“Me? I typically fish what I can see.”
IF YOU GO
WHERE: Ridgway State Park, about 15 miles south of Montrose on U.S. Highway 550
WHAT: The park offers a variety of winter recreation, including shore and river fishing (fly and lure only, catch-and-release), hiking, birding, watchable wildlife, camping and boating (hand-launch only).
WHEN: The park hosts its annual Holiday Open House from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. on Friday.
HOW: Access to the visitor center is free; all vehicles entering the park must have a parks pass. Information at 970-626-5822.