Copyright 2016 James Marsh
Fly Fishing the San Juan River Colorado
The San Juan River is a big river that is about 383 miles
long that begins in Colorado; however, it isn't big in its
headwaters in Colorado. It begins along the southern
slopes of the San Juan Mountains and flows into New
Mexico. It is formed by two main forks, the East Fork
and the West Fork. It has several tributaries in Colorado
including the Animas River, its largest, the La Plata
River, the Los Pinos River, the Navajo River and the
The San Juan River is impounded at Navajo Lake by the
Navajo Dam, creating a nationally famous tailwater near
Farmington, New Mexico. We have a separate website
section on the San Juan of New Mexico.
Fly fishing the San Juan River in the Colorado section is
also very popular. The river has a population of rainbow,
brown and cutthroat trout. It flows mostly though private
property but public access is available, most of which is
located in the East and West Forks.
The West Fork of the San Juan River requires some
effort to fish but as a reward, it provides the
best opportunities and solitude. You have to hike into
the Wemnuche Wilderness to fish the majority of it.
The lower part of the West Fork flows through a valley
consisting of private property all the way downstream to
its confluence with the East Fork. Forest Road #648
follows the river upstream into the mountains to the
West Fork Campground where public access begins.
There is easy access for a short distance above the
campground along with some water that is difficult to get
Not far above the campground the West Fork flows
through a deep canyon. There is also a section of
private land to block your progress upstream in that
The river above that section must be accessed from the
Rainbow Trail. You have to hike a mile to reach public
water but it is well worth the effort. Access from the trail
to the stream isn't easy in the first few miles. It is high
above the water in most areas but access is possible. A
foot bridge on the trial crosses the river near Beaver
Creek. Access in this area is generally easier with plenty
of pocket water but there is also open meadows with
slower flowing water. Because its a three mile hike to the
footbridge, you will have less competition from other
The lower section of the East Fork of the San Juan River
is the easiest water to access but also the heaviest
fished. About six miles of the East Fork is bordered by
an unpaved road with easy access. The lower part of
the East Fork flows through a canyon with heavy pocket
water. It is narrow and tightly enclosed with trees. One
section has a several short waterfalls. Above the heavy
pocket water you will find some riffles and slower moving
meadow water that's quite narrow.
In addition to the above, there is also a short section of
public access in Pagosa Springs.
Except for the Spring runoff, fly fishing the San Juan
River can be fished year-round.
Fishing can be good before the Spring runoff. Runoff is
usually from late April or early May until early June.
Summertime is usually a good time to fish the San Juan
but the water can get a little low and warm during the
hottest part of the summer in some of the lower areas.
Early fall presents some very good opportunities. The
water is usually low but the brown trout pre-spawn time
can be great for larger fish.
If the weather cooperates, fishing during the Winter can
be good. .
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Recommended Tackle & Gear
4, 5 or 6 weight
Dry fly: 9 to 12 ft., 5 or 6X Nymphing:
71/2 ft., 3 or 4X, Streamers 0-2X
Dry fly: 5 or 6X, Nymphing: 3 or 4X,
Best Fly Rods:
Perfect Fly Supreme Four, Superb Five
or Ultimate Six
For 4/5/6 fly line
Fly Floatants and Misc Items:
Floatants, KISS Strike Indicators
Tools & Accessories:
Nippers, forceps, retractors, etc.
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