Fishing Colorado's Weminuche

The Los Pinos River & Vallecito Creek
By Craig Martin, Tom Knopick & John Flick
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Around Vallecito

Vallecito Creek

A serious angler could fish forever along Vallecito Creek, popping flies into the creek's thousands of inviting riffles and pools, learning the secrets of a 20-mile stretch of fascinating high-country water. The not-so-serious can simply delight in the stream's clear water as it tumbles over falls and slows into pools ten feet deep, allowing sight of every pebble on the bottom. The scenic quality of the canyon, the majesty of the surrounding mountains, and the beauty of the stream itself are unmatched in the San Juan Mountains.

Vallecito Creek is a long but small stream located almost entirely within the Weminuche Wilderness. Its public stretch is accessible only by foot along well-used trails. The spectacular scenery of the Vallecito area is well known, and the lower miles of the trails along the creek receive heavy use by day hikers, backpackers, and fishermen. With plenty of room to spread out, the Vallecito Valley never seems crowded. A half dozen major tributary streams add to the attraction of the watershed. Opportunities to spend a week of wilderness fishing are endless. An outstanding weeklong trip is to hike up the Vallecito and Rock Creeks to the Flint Lakes, then descend along Flint Creek and the Los Pinos River. Fly-fishing nirvana!

Quick Facts
Managed by: Private, San Juan National Forest, Weminuche Wilderness
Access by: Foot
Altitude: 7,600 to 12,300 feet
Type of Water: Freestone, pocket water, meadows
Best Times: Early July to mid-September
Hatches: Mayflies, midges Maps: USFS San Juan National Forest: USGS Vallecito Reservoir, Columbine Pass, and Storm King 7.5' quadrangles.

The trailhead for the Vallecito Creek Trail is located above Vallecito Reservoir. From Durango, take Florida Road, County Road 240, north and west from 15th Street for 17 miles to the intersection with County Road 501 and turn left. (This point can also be reached 8.5 miles from Bayfield north on County Road 501.) Continue on County Road 501 about 9.5 miles past Vallecito Dam and Reservoir. Just beyond the Forest Service Vallecito Work Center, bear left on Forest Road 600 and continue about 3 miles through Vallecito Campground to the trailhead for the Vallecito Trail. The trail follows the creek about 16 miles before leaving the valley floor to climb Hunchback Pass.

Gas, food, and lodging are available on the roads along Vallecito Reservoir. Additional services are available in Durango. Private campgrounds are found along the lake, and plenty of sites are found at the Forest Service's Vallecito Campground at the end of Forest Road 600.

Although it is primarily a backpacker's paradise, several options are available for day hikes on the Vallecito Trail. From the trailhead, hike up the trail as it climbs steeply away from the river to skirt a narrow rocky gorge along the stream. After about 1.5 miles the trail descends to creek level for a few hundred yards. Here you will find some excellent pocket water. Those with more time and energy can continue hiking upstream to a string of small meadows above the first footbridge over the creek, making a 6-mile round-trip.

To explore the long middle and upper sections of the Vallecito, plan on at least one night in the wilderness. Camping locations are found between the two footbridges on the lower 5 miles of stream and in the extensive meadows above Dead Horse Creek, 7 miles from the trailhead.

Vallecito is creek-sized from the headwaters to the reservoir. The stream ranges from six feet in width in the upper reaches to ten feet wide in the meadows to more than twenty feet wide in the lower canyon section. It has a clean rocky bottom throughout. The water is almost always crystal clear, which, combined with the pastel colors of the streambed rocks, makes for a stream as pretty as any in Colorado.

The sprawling watershed has much terrain above timberline, which creates an extended runoff. High water begins in late April and continues through late June or early July. Although the stream is fishable during runoff, dangerous currents make fishing then inadvisable. The stream is in its prime from mid-July to mid-September.

Wild rainbow, cutthroat, and brook trout are found in Vallecito Creek. The fish are appropriate for the size of the stream, generally in the 8- to 12-inch range. Some deeper water in the Vallecito and its tributaries holds fine trout up to 16 inches, but these are the exceptions. The entire Vallecito within the Weminuche Wilderness is managed as fly-and-lure only water, and there is a bag and possession limit of two fish in effect. Anglers within the wilderness are encouraged to limit their catch and to release all fish over 12 inches back to the water.

About a half-mile above the trailhead the Vallecito flows wildly through a narrow gorge with a high stream gradient. This stretch has the most difficult access of any part of the creek. Large boulders and tight vegetation make this an awkward place to fly fish. The stream plunges over waterfalls and through pocket water for about 2 miles. Most of the trout in this section of river are small, but difficult-to-reach pools often hold larger trout. Wear hip boots and plan to stay out of the stream as much as possible. Always use caution when fishing this stretch.

Because the stream is small and the vegetation is thick there, a short rod is best for fly fishing the gorge of the Vallecito. Use 8-foot leaders and stout tippet, and plan on keeping most of the fly line off the water. Most casts can be made by flipping the end of the rod, or just reach and place the fly in the desired current. Work many short casts into every possible trout lie on the way upstream. Either wet or dry flies can be effective in the pocket water.

Fly fishing is less taxing past the first footbridge on the Vallecito Trail and upstream in the wide valley at the foot of the Needle Mountains. Here the stream flows through more open country, and wading and casting are easier than below. The Vallecito still has a high gradient, but intermittent meadows offer twists, bends, and undercut banks. Stealth tactics need not be so rigorous as on more quiet waters. To avoid spooking larger fish, keep wading and casting to a minimum. Be prepared to fish the water thoroughly, casting to every likely lie in the stream. Patience will be amply rewarded.

Vallecito Creek has a wide variety of aquatic and terrestrial insects. Mayfly hatches occur throughout the summer, and caddisflies swarm over the river in the evening. When bugs are on the water, almost any fly pattern can be successful. Use an Adams, an old reliable Blue Dun, an Elk Hair Caddis, a Royal Wulff, or a Renegade in sizes 14 to 18 in the quieter stretches. Watch for red quills in late July, and fish the hatch with a size 12 to 14 Red Quill pattern. In July a fine hatch of golden stone flies occurs along the entire creek. During the hatch, dry fly fishing with a size 10 Stimulator can be exciting, or try skittering a size 10 Dry Muddler across the surface. Stone fly nymphs are an excellent choice at any time. Winged wet flies and soft-hackles are excellent searching patterns. Swing wet flies through pools and pockets, being careful not to disturb the surface with the fly.

For most of the summer, terrestrials are the most important insects on the water. The abundance of overhanging vegetation and the wide meadows lining the stream bring a wide variety of ants, beetles, and grasshoppers into the water. Black and brown ant patterns are a fine choice to fish along the banks in quiet water. Under trees and willows, beetles from size 10 to 16 will often bring a trout to the surface. In the meadows, hoppers are found in a wide range of sizes from 8 to 14. Fish them with a hard cast to make a splash, then pull them in a series of short twitches across the surface.

As you climb up the valley on the Vallecito Trail, the creek becomes smaller as major tributaries enter. The first major branch is Johnson Creek, about 8.5 miles from the trailhead. Fishing is good on this tributary, but the area is often crowded with hikers coming down from Columbine Pass. Above Roell Creek, a mineral seep located on a slope above Rock Creek adversely affects the water quality in the Vallecito. Angling in this stretch is generally poor, with only a few small brook trout and cutbow hybrids present. Conditions improve above the junction with Rock Creek, but at this elevation the Vallecito is rather small.

Grab a four-piece rod and a backpack and head up the Vallecito. If you can keep your mind off the exquisite scenery for a few minutes, you'll find plenty of trout willing to sample your flies.

© Article and map copyright Pruett Publishing.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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