Fishing tailwaters a good place to start in spring

Itís springtime. Accessibility to the high country is still iffy. The rivers at lower elevations have taken on the color of chocolate milk. And the new fly rod that was a Christmas gift has cobwebs growing on it. What is a dedicated fly-fisherman to do?

Well, if youíre one of those who has a ďpoor meĒ attitude, there a couple of options. You could cast your fly into some of the really deep potholes that are beginning to appear. Or how about filling some youngsterís wading pool, stocking it with goldfish, and try to make a gentle presentation from behind a row of hedges?

If none of those ideas sounds exciting, let me tell you what I do: I fly-fish tailwaters.

For those of you not familiar with fly-fishing terms, a tailwater is water that is released from a lake at the bottom of a dam.

The most famous tailwater in this area is the San Juan River, below Navajo Dam. However, I suggest you try two other tailwaters. The Dolores River below McPhee Reservoir and Williams Creek below Williams Reservoir are two of the places I like to head at this time of the year.

Years ago, the Dolores River below McPhee was an incredible fishery. There were big brown trout to be had on dry flies, and almost nobody fished it. There were days when I drove the entire length of the river, 12 miles, and did not see another living soul. About seven years ago, the amount of water released from the dam dropped dramatically, and the fishing went to almost zero. The river became so slow and shallow that trout could not survive. It seemed a great trout fishery was lost forever.

However, a couple of years ago, I was told the Dolores was making a comeback. The flows had been increased, and trout Ė especially just below the dam Ė were alive and well. It didnít take me long to go and find out for myself if the rumors were correct. They were.

Even though it may seem like a long drive, a little more than an hour, it can be worth it. The flows coming from the dam are keeping the river at a good depth and temperature. And once again, the Dolores below McPhee is a great tailwater.

Williams Creek, below Williams Reservoir, is about 20 miles north of Pagosa Springs. Being so close to Pagosa, you will see more fly-fishermen than on the Dolores. But donít let that discourage you. I have caught lots of trout as other fishermen looked on.

Williams Creek has not been through the evolution that the Dolores has, so it has stayed a steady fishery through the years. The closer I stay to the dam, during the spring runoff, the better the fishing should be. As I wander farther downstream, the water will be cloudy and the flows will begin to increase with other tributaries emptying into the river.

On both rivers, the fish should be hungry after their winter vacation. I like to us a 3- or 4-weight rod. Being the dry-fly fanatic that I am, Iíll always start with dries. If there are no bugs in the air or on the water to imitate, Iíll use attractors. A size 16 Royal Wulff is my favorite. If that fly is ignored, Iíll try a beetle before going subsurface. Once I make the decision to go underwater, my favorite fly is a Wooly Bugger.

If those donít catch trout in the spring on those two rivers, Iíll just sit down and smoke a cigar. By the time the cigar is smoked, the trout are ready to bite. I promise.

Reach Don Oliver at