Fishing Colorado's Weminuche

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

Los Pinos River
(The Pine)

The southwestern half of the Weminuche Wilderness Area is drained by two major streams—the Los Pinos and Florida Rivers—and their tributaries. Of these, the Los Pinos watershed is the largest, covering a sprawling portion of the wilderness west of the Continental Divide. The Florida watershed is much smaller, draining a narrow glacial valley south of Columbine Pass.

The Los Pinos River is known locally as the Pine. The river is divided into two distinct sections by the extensive impoundment of Vallecito Reservoir. The southern portion of the river below the reservoir is completely on private land and the Southern Ute Reservation, and fishing opportunities are limited. Between the reservoir and the Weminuche Wilderness the Pine flows through about 6 miles of private land, but from the wilderness boundary to the Continental Divide the Pine offers backcountry fly fishing at its finest. With over 50 miles of stream amid exquisite scenery, the possibilities for fishing adventures in the Los Pinos watershed are nearly limitless.

Quick Facts
Managed by: San Juan National Forest, Weminuche Wilderness, Southern Ute Reservation
Access by: Foot
Altitude: 6,200 to 10,500 feet
Type of Water: Freestone, pocket water, meadows
Best Times: Early July to late September
Hatches: Caddisflies, mayflies, blue-winged olives
Maps: USFS San Juan National Forest; USGS Granite Lake, Emerald Lake, Granite Peak, Vallecito Reservoir, Ludwig Mountain, Bayfield, and Tiffany 7.5' quadrangles.

The Pine lies far from any towns, but Vallecito Reservoir is the centerpiece of a large developed area that offers food, lodging, gas, and a wide variety of campgrounds. Other services are available in Durango, a short drive to the west. A small Forest Service campground is located at the Pine River Trailhead, and many other Forest Service campgrounds are found near the reservoir.

The trout found within the wilderness portion of the Pine watershed are exclusively wild fish. In the lower two-thirds of the river all common species of trout are found: rainbows, brookies, browns, and cutthroats. Above Willow Park mostly cutthroats and brook trout are found, along with an occasional rainbow. Below Flint Creek the average fish is around 8 to 10 inches. Trout up to 14 inches are common, with isolated larger fish. The entire watershed within the wilderness has special regulations. Angling is limited to flies and lures, and there is a bag and possession limit of two fish.

The upper Pine is entirely hike-in water. The easiest access to the river begins at the Pine River Trailhead east of Vallecito Reservoir at Granite Peak Ranch. The first 3 miles of river above the trailhead, as well as the trail itself, pass through the private ranch. No fishing is permitted on the ranch, and hikers into the wilderness must stay on the trail until reaching the national forest boundary. Day trips into the wilderness are possible as long as one doesn't mind the 6-mile round-trip walk.

The Pine River Trail #523 receives heavy use from backpackers and horsemen and from anglers heading to the Flint Lakes, Emerald Lake, and the upper Pine drainage. The wide trail has one of the most gentle climbs in the wilderness, which accounts for much of its popularity. In spite of such heavy use, it is still possible to find solitude amid the mountain scenery along the Pine. The remote river canyon invites overnight trips and extended stays in the backcountry. Trips up the valley of the Pine can range from 6 to 40 miles, attracting backpackers of all abilities, even young children.

Backpacking with a fly rod is one of the supreme pleasures of angling in the San Juan Mountains. Those setting out for an overnight stay in the wilderness should travel prepared to meet the mountains on their own terms. Sturdy hiking boots, foul-weather gear, and extra layers of warm clothing are essential, as is a tent for protection from the almost daily summer rains. To keep impact on the fragile wilderness landscape to a minimum, use only well-established campsites and cook with a fuel-operated stove. Four-piece travel rods are easy to lash onto backpacks, eliminating the need to carry a rod in-hand for a long distance. Bring a small hip pack or fisherman's lanyard to organize and hold your angling gear when the hiking is over and the fishing begins. A small fly box with a carefully selected collection of flies rounds out the necessary equipment for a successful trip.

To reach the Pine River Trailhead from Bayfield, go north from U.S. 160 on Vallecito Road, County Road 501. In about 8 miles bear right, then continue straight at the junction with County Road 240. This point can be reached from Durango by taking Florida Road (County Road 240) about 17 miles from the north part of town. Reach Vallecito Dam in another 9 miles and continue on County Road 501 along the west bank of the reservoir. At the Forest Service Vallecito Work Center, bear right onto Forest Road 602 and continue around the lake and up the Pine River about 7.5 miles to the trailhead at Pine River Campground.

Begin the hike into the scenic granite canyon of the Pine and the public water above Granite Peak Ranch by following the Pine River Trail as it heads east parallel to a fence. Off to the right of the trail the river looks tantalizing: However, do not trespass. Stay on the trail until reaching the wilderness boundary, 3 miles from the start. In the wilderness, fine fly fishing is found everywhere on the river.

Above the wilderness boundary the Pine flows through a broad flat-bottomed canyon overlooked by sheer walls of blocky granite. With most anglers headed to more remote destinations, the stretch of river just above the wilderness boundary is well worth the effort for those looking for a day trip. Much of the river in the first 2 miles of public water is relatively open with easy casting, easy wading, and plenty of small brook trout and browns. Most trout are small, but a few nice fish up to 16 inches can be found.

This lower stretch of the Pine is an ideal place for beginning fly fishermen and children. The open nature of the riverbanks, the slow pace of the river currents, and the plentiful brook trout melt away many of the frustrations that beginners often face. Little wading is required, and casting from the gravel bars into the main flow or to the deeper runs near the opposite bank is an easy technique that can quickly lead to a fish. Pattern selection is unimportant, and beginners can fish easily seen white-winged attractors or grasshopper patterns with good results. To make fishing as easy as possible, those just starting out in the sport can fish House and Lot, Royal Trude, Royal Wulff, and parachute hopper patterns tied with a white post.

Beyond the intersection with the Emerald Lake Trail, about 6 miles from the start, the Pine flows through a thundering canyon. Boulders, plunge pools, and waterfalls are found for the next 3 miles. Here anglers must scramble down from the trail to reach the river below. Frequently the canyon bottom is boxed in, so expect to work hard to fish this stretch of water. Anglers will find fewer fishermen in this stretch than in the more popular water above. It is not uncommon for the banks to be brushy in this stretch, and casting can be difficult. The stream is up to forty feet wide, but it can't be crossed everywhere. Most casts can be made from the banks, and wading is not always necessary. If you get into the water, hip boots with good felt soles will be useful. The bottom is slick and the currents are fast.

Scattered pools up to eight feet deep and thousands of pockets make this stretch worth the effort. A quarter-mile of stream should keep you busy the entire afternoon. With either high-floating dry flies or nymphs, use a short leader. The turbulent water permits getting up close to the fish, and memorable fish can be taken from a rod's length away. To get a more natural float through the complicated currents, keep most of the fly line off the water. Use short-line nymphing techniques to get subsurface patterns to the bottom of the river.

In fast currents trout don't have time to think much about food floating by, and so the fish in the pocket water are not very fussy. Use high-floating patterns designed for rough water. Select a Humpy, any of the Wulff series, or an Irresistible. Large sizes, from 10 to 14, are effective. Apply a generous coat of floatant to the fly. Cast into all small pockets of slack water along the stream edges, behind and in front of rocks, and at the foot of plunge pools. It takes only a couple of seconds of good drift to induce a strike. Keeping most of the fly line off the water will help get a drag-free float through the complex currents.

Nymphs can also be effective in the pocket water. In the fast currents patterns should be large and have a bit of flash. Any pattern with peacock can be effective, for instance a Zug Bug or Prince Nymph. More subtle nymphs, like the Gold Ribbed Hare's Ear, Muskrat, March Brown, and Pheasant Tail, work well in sizes 10 to 14.

Above the canyon about 9 miles from the trailhead the valley opens up into the lovely Willow Park. Here the river meanders through long open meadows in a scenic valley with waterfalls cascading down the cliffs on the east side. It is a wonderful spot in which to spend a couple of days. Carry in a four-piece travel rod at least 8 feet long, and some 9-foot leaders and 4X to 5X tippet material.

At Willow Park the Pine is still a small river from thirty to forty feet wide. Anglers will find a twisting stream with dozens of turns. The river is typical meadow water with shallow gravel bars, meanders, and deep undercut banks. Riffles are common, as are smooth-running slicks and stillwater bends. Few rocks break the surface of the water. The banks are mostly free from obstructions, and casting is easy from almost every" where. The bottom is clean gravel, and wading is easy. In summer, plan on wet wading in old running shoes or all-terrain sandals.

The trout in the meadow water are wilderness fish, but they are not as fussy as one might think. However, because this area receives moderate use from anglers, the trout are spooky: A careful approach to the stream is required. Stay low, and keep casting to a minimum. Any fly line drifting over a fish will put it down, so carefully plan each cast to insure that only the tippet will float near the target. Wade as little as possible, but crisscrossing the stream to get into the best casting position is important.

Dry flies are an exciting way to fool the trout in the Willow Park area. Cast to rising fish, or prospect with attractors through the riffles. Pay special attention to the numerous undercut banks found in the turns of the stream. A dead-drift float is almost always appropriate. Throughout the summer evening caddie is the most important hatch of the day. Sporadic mayfly hatches do occur, and anglers should try to match major bug events. Most important are attractor patterns. In still water or during thin mayfly hatches, Parachute Adams, Ginger Duns, or yellow-bodied Comparaduns in sizes 14 or 16 are excellent. A pattern that has proven its worth on many occasions is the House and Lot size 14. In the late afternoon and evening a Peacock Caddis in size 12 or 14 is the best bet. In late summer and fall a blue-winged olive hatch is important.

In the mountain meadows of the Pine and other streams in the San Juans, anglers should always consider terrestrials as important patterns. In general, streams become relatively nutrient-poor as one nears the headwaters. This limits the number of aquatic insects found in the water and emphasizes the importance of terrestrial insects that fall, fly, or are blown into the water from overhanging vegetation. In the summer months grasshoppers, beetles, and ants are an excellent all around first choice of pattern. Dave's Hoppers, Parachute Hoppers, or Dry Muddlers are effective throughout hopper season. In early summer patterns can be up to size 6, but in the fall keep the imitations no larger than size 10. To imitate smaller terrestrials, foam beetles and dubbed or foam ants are good choices.

Mimic the action of natural insects as closely as possible. Ants and beetles normally float dead-drift on the currents, at times floating on the surface and at other times moving below the surface. Rubber legs on beetle patterns often add a bit of motion to the pattern that reflects the moving legs of the natural. Grasshoppers can be floated on the surface or drifted as wet flies just beneath the film.

About 2 miles above the upper end of Willow Park the river divides into Flint Creek and the main branch of the Pine. From here to the headwaters both streams are creek size, much smaller than below in Willow Park. Good trails parallel both streams. The left branch of the trail leads to the Flint Lakes, which are about 6 miles from and 2,000 feet higher than the confluence. The Pine continues 10 miles northeast to Weminuche Pass on the Continental Divide. On both creeks stream gradients are higher than on the Pine below, and the trails that parallel the streams are correspondingly steeper. Fewer hikers and anglers are encountered in the upper reaches of each stream.

Above Flint Creek the Pine is about 10 feet wide; Flint Creek is a bit smaller. On the Pine, an impressive falls is located within a half-mile of the Flint Creek Trail junction. Both streams alternate between meadow and pocket water. Cutthroats and some rainbows ranging from 6 to 10 inches are found in the upper waters. As with most high-altitude trout, the fish are spooky but not selective in their feeding habits. Fish with attractor drys and terrestrials, using the careful tactics required by skittish trout.

The Flint Lakes lie at the head of Flint Creek about 16 miles from the trailhead. Nearby are Moon Lake and Rock Lake, beautiful cirque lakes tucked up against the peaks. Across the main branch of the Pine, Granite and Divide Lakes offer quality high-elevation-lake fishing. This section of the Weminuche Wilderness holds more high-elevation lakes than one could fish in a lifetime. Wanderers along the Continental Divide can use topographic maps to spot additional interesting lakes to try.

Most of the lakes in the area hold good populations of cutthroat, rainbow, and brook trout. Callibaetis mayflies, some caddisflies, and midges are the mainstays of these lakes. Dry flies can be effective in the midday Callibaetis hatch and in the evening when midges and some caddie are on the water. Actively fishing subsurface patterns is the best technique the rest of the day. Try casting caddie pupae, midge pupae, and streamers.

Granite Lake and the upper reaches of the Pine can be reached via a shorter hike beginning at the Poison Park Trailhead located near Williams Lake out of Pagosa Springs. Trails 592 and 539 lead to the upper Pine about 5 miles above Flint Creek. The trip is about 10 miles one way.

Snow generally limits access to the Pine throughout runoff, which begins in late April. High water continues through mid-June, or later during years following high winter snowpack. Conditions are perfect from July through September. Fall trips on the Pine are delightful, with red oaks and yellow willows adding a splash of color to the cliffs. Anglers will encounter fewer people on the river after Labor Day.

Those seeking less of a wilderness experience should consider the possibilities of Vallecito Reservoir, where water from the Pine and Vallecito Creek is impounded. Aside from easy access, the main attraction of the lake is the large fish that swim in its water. Rainbow and brown trout as well as northern pike grow to monstrous proportions in the fertile water.

The reservoir presents a challenge to the fly fisherman. It is intimidating to fish from a float tube, but fly fishing from a power boat is possible. Float-tubing is best in the upper end of both arms of the reservoir, where there is some shelter from the wind. The inlet areas also offer a small forest of partially and completely submerged stumps that provide excellent cover for brown trout and northern pike. Browns hold in this area all year, but mid-May through mid-June is best for pike. The reservoir offers a good opportunity to fish in late spring, when the rivers in the area are high with runoff.

For each of us, the Los Pinos River holds special memories of angling trips with friends and family. The easy grades of the walk into the wilderness and the open nature of the valleys endlessly beckon us in our dreams, both at night and during the day. Even without the speckled and spotted wild trout found in the rolling currents, the Pine canyon would be a special place amid a region filled with exquisite beauty.

© 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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