Trout Fishing the Rio Grande - Trout Fishing Profile

Solitary angling in the Colorado Rockies
Excerpted from Trout Fishing Sourcebook by Mark D. Williams

Location: Southern Colorado.
Section: Known as the Upper Rio Grande (also the Rio Grande del Norte), this area includes the river from its headwaters in southern Colorado as it flows from the rugged San Juan Mountains through the San Luis Valley (where the river is only a marginal trout fishery) to the border with New Mexico.
Maps: USGS Weminuche Pass, Finger Mesa, Rio Grande Pyramid, Pole Creek Mountain, Little Squaw Creek, Hermit Lakes, Workman Creek, Bristol Head, Creede, Wagon Wheel Gap, South Fork West, South Fork East, Indian Head, Del Norte, Seven Mile Plaza, Monte Vista.
Type of stream: Freestone.

Best seasons to fish: The months of June to October are generally regarded as the best times to fish the river. The Rio Grande fishes well in pre-runoff, and in fact, even though the river can be swollen during runoff, trout can be had pretty much all season. In the mountains, the river freezes over in winter.

Species to be found: Best known for its large brown trout, the Rio Grande's dominant species is the stocked rainbow. Brook trout can be caught in the headwaters, as can the occasional Rio Grande cutthroat.

Stocking/wild status: Most of the brown trout are wild, but the rainbows caught are generally stocked. The brown trout have a strong self-sustaining population and will be the fish most often caught from the Rio Grande. The other resident populations, especially the rainbow trout, have been establishing themselves with self-reproducing populations also. In recent years, the Colorado Division of Wildlife has started stocking a higher-quality, stronger strain of hatchery rainbow trout, a wild trout strain that seems to have improved the angling quality already.

Average sizes: The rainbows are catchable sizes, 9 to 13 inches long, but some holdovers do reach 16 to 20 inches. The brown trout fishery has some awfully large brownies, over 5 pounds and up. There is an amazing number of brown trout in the 16 to 20 inch range, but the largest are not always easy to catch.

Regulations: The Rio Grande has been a put-and-take fishery for some time, but regulations introduced in the last few years have significantly improved the river. Most of the river now has flies-and-lures only, limited-kill, and catch-and-release regulations. Check the rulebook for more specific instructions. The river has a 22-1/2-mile Gold Medal stretch of water from the Highway 149 bridge at South Fork to the Rio Grande Canal diversion structure at Del Norte.

Well-known areas and places to fish along the river: The Rio Grande from the area just above the Rio Grande Reservoir to the San Luis Valley has the best angling. The upper river has sparkling, clear pools holding brown trout bigger than ought to be in a stream less than 20 to 30 feet wide. The brook trout caught are a palette of colors. Much of the upper river is difficult to access and requires a four-wheel drive vehicle to reach, and after you reach the areas, they often require a hike. The headwaters of the Rio Grande provide diverse fishing conditions, such as angling in meadow stream areas, or dancing riffles, or around large in-stream rocks.

The narrow gorge the river runs through below the Rio Grande Reservoir is one of the prettiest places anywhere, especially in the fall when the aspen are aflame in gold, red, and orange, but the canyon is next to impossible to enter. The main fishery starts near Creede, at the Rio Grande Fisherman's Access Area, and all along this stretch the angler will find excellent access to the pocket water and swift runs. Above this area to the headwaters, there are over 50 fishable tributaries well worth the effort it would take to reach them. As the river flows toward the border, it picks up many more feeder streams and takes on the appearance of a major river, growing to about 100 feet wide on average.

Around Del Norte, the river is almost entirely on public land. There are trout and cover all along the river, and casting to the likely looking lies will do the trick.

Recommended Equipment

Spin fishermen will have great water to try for trout. An ultralight spinning outfit with 4 to 6 lb. test is a good setup for the river. The length of the flyrod isn't that important, but the rod should probably be no lighter than a 5 weight. Good all-around lines are 6 and 7 weight lines, but an 8 weight line can be used if deep nymphing. Sink tip lines are also useful for nymphing when the river is high.

Top fly patterns: For spinfishermen, dark spinners with silver or gold blades work well in the pocket water and pools. The Rio Grande has several important hatches, but none more so than the giant stonefly hatch, the salmonfly, which takes place in the middle of June. Mayflies and caddis hatches occur during the season, but the Rio Grande can be dry fly fished even without a hatch, using standard attractor patterns. Fly patterns to use: Adams, Royal Wulff, Royal Trude, Lime Trude, Rio Grande King, Elk Hair Caddis, Humpy, Irresistible, Renegade, Stimulator, Sofa Pillow, black or brown stonefly nymphs, Girdle Bug, Spruce Fly, Matuka, Woolly Bugger, Woolly Worm, Muddler Minnow (both topwater and subsurface), wet and no-hackle flies, and standard nymphs such as Gold-ribbed Hare's Ear, Prince, Flashback.

Recommended Techniques

There are no specific techniques associated with the Rio Grande. Fish to structure and the edges, because the fish are there and under cover, right where they are supposed to be. Dry fly prospecting with attractor flies is popular and effective, as is attractor nymphing.

Best access points: Most of the river is accessible through the riverside roadway that generally parallels the river, national forests and other public land, like state leases, but there are points on its 180-mile journey through Colorado where private land keeps the angler at bay. The Gold Medal waters, 22-1/2 miles of river, is largely private, but there are some public accesses. Treat the private property with care.

Quality of Angling

The Rio Grande in Colorado isn't the huge river that flows through the Taos Box in northern New Mexico, nor is the Colorado fishery as famous with flyfishermen, but this might be changing due to the recently improved restrictions and stocking strategies. The beauty of the Rio Grande as it collects in the rugged mountains on the Continental Divide might be unparalleled by any similar major Western river. This is wild country, sparsely populated, punctuated by dense evergreen forests and stunning mountain vistas. Anglers can camp along the Rio Grande and expect to fish in solitude for as long as they stay.

Wadeability/floatability: Wading isn't too difficult for most of the Rio Grande, but chest waders with felt-sole bottoms are needed for many parts of the river. Rafting above South Fork is popular, but most of the river cannot be floated.

Fly Shops, Guides, and Outfitters of Interest

Rio Grande Anglers Rod and Reel Fly Shop, Creede Avenue, Creede, CO, 719-658-2955
Ramble House, Creede Avenue, Creede, CO, 719-658-2482


Campgrounds are available in national forests, state parks, and private locations. The choices for lodging will have to come from the resorts, cabins, lodges, inns, motels, and rental homes in the small towns along the Rio Grande. There are no true cities, no large towns. Creede, South Fork, Alamosa, Del Norte, and Monte Vista, along with all points in between, have lodging.


The Colorado Angling Guide, by Chuck Fothergill and Bob Sterling, Streamstalker Publishing, 1989
Tim Kelley's Colorado Fishing and Hunting Outdoor Guide, by Tim Kelley, Don Hart Publications
The Rivers of Colorado, by Jeff Rennicke, Falcon Press, 1985
No Nonsense Guide to Fly Fishing in Colorado, by Jackson Streit, David Communications, 1995

© Article copyright Menasha Ridge Press and Mark D. Williams. All rights reserved.

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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