Beat the crowds to fly-fish on San Juan River

When I was contemplating writing this month’s column, I thought it would be nice if I went where the fish would take dry flies, the weather would be nice and I wouldn’t be fishing with hundreds of my nearest and dearest friends. I figured this type of research would help me gather my thoughts.

Obviously, I’ll use any reason to get on a river.

As I wracked my brain about where I could go that would meet those requirements, the San Juan River kept popping up. Now I know, many of you who fly-fish the San Juan River are thinking either this guy has never been to the San Juan or he has taken advantage of the new smoking laws in Colorado. Neither is true. I only smoke cigars, and I have fly-fished the San Juan hundreds of times.

Now that I’m a retired fly-fishing guide, I get to fish with my goals in mind, not those of a client. My goals of being relatively alone on a river where the fish will take dry flies and the weather is nice can be easy on the San Juan.

First, don’t fish the San Juan on the weekend. I pulled into the Munoz parking lot in Navajo Lake State Park at 9:15 a.m. on a Thursday and found it completely empty. The weather was clear, and the temperature was 35 degrees and climbing. This was after driving over the dam and seeing only one fisherman in the upper flats.

Where was everyone? At first I thought maybe the river had been closed, but without any signs indicating that, I booted and suited. At 9:30, still nobody else in the parking lot, I headed for the back channel. Here is where I had my ah-ha moment. It came to me as I looked up the channel completely void of any fly-fisherman: I needed to find the places others had no interest in fly-fishing.

So, secondly, cast your fly in the back channels. The back channels are between the dam and the Munoz parking lot. This is a lot of river that receives very little fishing pressure, especially if the flow is above 1,000 cubic feet per second. With less pressure, I find that trout will look at, and take, something other than a size-24 red something. In fact, my favorite fly in this stretch of water is a Parachute Adams.

There are other areas that most fly-fisherman have little interest in fishing. I like to fish upstream from the Cottonwood Campground. Bait fishermen work the water in front of the campground. Go upstream 200 yards and the number of fishermen, fly or otherwise, diminishes to zero. If the river is low, wade across to the brads. Again, you won’t be hassled with lots of folks.

Still having doubts about my choice of what to smoke. Go downstream from the campground. The pump house area seldom is overrun. If you’re there on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, chances are you’ll be the only one in the parking lot.

Now, go even farther downstream. There are public access points below Abe’s Motel and Fly Shop. To find them will take a little detective work, but they are there. Just be sure you don’t trespass on a site that is private.

So there you have it. Fish on off days, stay out of the main channels, search out areas others have no interest in and cast dry flies. I know I’ll be paying more attention to those rules of the river. And if lots of other fly-fishermen follow those suggestions, the main channels might become more welcoming.

Reach Don Oliver at