What does a low water year mean for the Roaring Fork Valley?

This winter most of Colorado experienced unusually low snow falls. The result was that our snowpack levels in the high country were well off their averages. So when the warmer weather came in the late spring and into the summer, there wasn’t enough snow to melt off and create the volumes of water our trout streams are used to having throughout the summer. In fact, in the Roaring Fork Valley, we never really experienced a true ‘run-off’, meaning a period of weeks where the water levels are so high and the water is so off-color as to make the rivers un-fishable. I don’t recall a day in the late spring/early summer that you couldn’t fish the Roaring Fork. But what does that all mean?

Early summer fishing can be lights out!

 

Let’s start with the good news. Typically, the month of June is when our fisheries are experiencing runoff and un-fishable. But given the low levels of snowmelt we saw, June was primetime for fly fishing in the Roaring Fork Valley. What ends up happening is a couple of things:

1) some insect hatches that usually occur during runoff all of the sudden are fishable. By that I mean, you can fish those hatches because the water levels and visibility allow for it. Most notably, I’m referencing our most famous hatch, the green drakes. They typically begin hatching in the South Canyon of the lower Colorado and during low water years, you can fish this hatch in the evening and try your hand at catching mammoth trout rising to the surface to eat a large mayfly. It doesn’t get much more fun that that!

2) most of the summer hatches occur earlier due to the warmer water temps. Normally you can time the arrival of the green drakes in Carbondale right around July 4th. But this year, they arrived as much as 3 weeks earlier. So if you’re someone that tries to time your trips around a hatch, take into snowpack levels as it could help give you an idea of when to come.

 

Mid to Late Summer Fishing Can Be…Perilous.

 

No, your safety isn’t at risk, but the safety of the fish can be put in jeopardy. Why? Simply put, water levels get too low and the water gets too warm, depriving the fish of the oxygen they need to survive. As I type this, we are experiencing extreme heat and have had virtually no rain fall this summer. A wild fire is raging in Basalt and the fish aren’t doing much better.

What does that mean for you if you find yourself visiting during a low water summer?

There’s a couple of things to keep in mind. First, all is not lost. Water temperatures remain safe early in the morning. So if you are planning a guided trip, hopefully the outfit you’ve booked with has explained that the trip will begin and end early. Most outfitters in the Roaring Fork Valley have chosen to forego full day guided trips (unless the client agrees to launch at first light, usually around 5AM) and are pulling their clients off the water at around 1PM.

If you are planning on fishing by yourself, my suggestion is to be on the water very early (this is is especially true if you plan on fishing on the lower Colorado or the lower Roaring Fork) and if possible, bring a thermometer with you. When the water temp (in moving water that is around 2 feet deep) reaches 67 degrees, please understand that any fish you catch may die of exhaustion and that it’s time to call it a day. Alternately, I would suggest either going to the upper Frying Pan where water temps are constant year-round or go to the upper Roaring Fork where the water is colder. Or better yet, go explore any of the dozens of local creeks in the high country that are teeming with trout eager to eat whatever dry fly you float above them!