From warm, lower-elevation waters stocked with catfish, bass, perch and pan fish; to higher cool and cold-water lakes, creeks and ponds teaming with pike, kokanee salmon and a variety of trout; the fishing in few other destinations equals that of Pagosa Country.
There are several easily attainable waters in or near town, while many others lie deep in the area’s extensive wilderness backcountry. Though access requires greater effort, remote locations northwest, north and east of town afford those willing to travel by foot or horseback true tranquility and seclusion in pristine settings.
Listed below are some of the more popular sites near town. Anglers should note that when fishing in any of these areas — including designated wilderness — they must possess a valid Colorado fishing license. State regulations prohibit the use of live minnows as bait anywhere in the region, except Navajo Lake. Licenses, lures, bait and spinning tackle are available at area sporting goods stores, supermarkets and hardware stores; while local fly shops offer relative equipment, flies, suitable clothing and guide services. Most retailers will readily provide directions and up-to-date information on various destinations.
San Juan River
At times, fishing in the San Juan River through the heart of Pagosa Springs is as good as it gets. Years ago, through a Fishing is Fun grant from the Colorado Division of Wildlife, workers improved fish habitat and holding water in a section of the river on either side of the Hot Springs Boulevard bridge, by installing several rock “drop” structures spanning the width of the stream. Just last year, additional work further enhanced the fishery there and in reaches west to Sixth Street.
Meanwhile, the Pagosa Quality Fishing Project began receiving annual contributions from local merchants, with the money being used to purchase hundreds of large catchable rainbow and brown trout for placement in the river. Every summer now, several anglers catch fish weighing up to 10 pounds, while walking only a short distance from lodging, dining or shopping establishments.
The Town of Pagosa Springs also stocks ponds just off the river (behind the River Center) near the east end of town. A ramp to one of the ponds allows disabled anglers easy access, while a gazebo beckons those packing picnic lunches. Youngsters particularly enjoy fishing the town ponds.
East Fork of the San Juan
The lower stretch of the East Fork offers good fishing for rainbow and brown trout, while its pristine upper reaches are more akin to brook trout and native Colorado River Cutthroats.
To get there, the East Fork Road turnoff is approximately 10 miles northeast of Pagosa Springs on U.S. 160. As a heavily-traveled gravel road, it parallels the river for several miles, a portion of which passes through posted private property. Due to a major landslide in early 2008, the road has been closed to vehicular traffic from time to time, so wise anglers will call the U.S. Forest Service, Pagosa Ranger District at (970)264-2268 to determine its status, before heading there.
West Fork of the San Juan
Aside from good rainbow and cutthroat trout fishing, the West Fork offers quality camping in two nearby campgrounds. A left turn off U.S. 160, 17 miles east of Pagosa Springs, affords easy access to water through public and private lands. The best fishing is in the forest beyond the trailhead at the end of the road.
Echo Canyon Reservoir
Echo Canyon Reservoir (State Wildlife Area) is a cool-water fishery just west of U.S. 84, approximately four miles south of U.S. 160. It contains stocked rainbows, largemouth bass, yellow perch, green sunfish and channel catfish. Trout are best caught with lures, flies or natural bait, while bass are taken with top-surface lures, crank-baits, pork frogs or rubber worms. Perch are most easily taken with live bait, sunfish will take worms or an occasional fly, while catfish seem to prefer cut baits (suckers or commercial stink baits). Bank fishing is adequate, until aquatic vegetation thickens, at which time a canoe, float-tube or a small boat and trolling motor are most useful.
Lake Capote Recreation Area
Lake Capote Recreation Area is owned and operated by the Southern Ute Indian Tribe. Properly permitted anglers can catch stocked rainbow trout, largemouth bass and channel catfish in the shadow of Chimney Rock, and no state fishing license is required. The 45-acre lake is open to daytime bank fishers, non-motorized boaters and belly-boaters, using bait, spinning tackle or flies.
Daily permits, bait, boat rentals and supplies are available at an on-site concession. Permits are valid for one full day, or until the permittee has achieved the daily bag limit of three trout (under 16 inches in length), one bass and one catfish. Derby fishing is available for a chance to win valuable cash prizes.
The recreation area includes a modern campground, with 30 tent sites and 10 RV sites tucked among the cool pines above the lake. The RV sites have water and 30-amp electric hook-ups, while a bathhouse offers separate men’s and women’s showers, with ample hot water. To get there, travel approximately 17 miles west of Pagosa Springs on U.S. 160, then turn south on Colo. 151. The well-marked entrance is on the left.
Navajo Reservoir and Navajo State Park are Colorado’s version of Lake Powell. The park offers a full-service marina with boat rentals, visitor center (with store and conference room), rental cabins, ample tent and RV camping, picnicking areas and nature trails.
Large catfish, trout, bass, pike, crappie, perch and kokanee salmon inhabit this 15,000 surface-acre lake. About a third of the reservoir is located in Colorado, while two-thirds lie in New Mexico. As licensed Colorado anglers cross the New Mexico line, they must also possess a valid New Mexico fishing license. Live minnows may be used as bait in both Colorado and New Mexico waters.
To access the park and reservoir from Pagosa Springs, travel approximately 17 miles west on U.S. 160, then turn south on Colo. 151. Drive another 18 miles to Arboles, then turn left onto CR 982 and proceed another two miles to the park.
Williams Creek Reservoir
This 508-acre mountain lake imparts fine fishing for rainbow trout, brook trout and kokanee salmon. With lush forests and towering peaks virtually at your feet, all standard forms of fishing prove productive, though salmon are best taken with artificial lures and live bait (worms). In the morning and evening hours, bank fishing, a float tube or canoe affords sufficient access to surface-feeding fish, while during breezy afternoons, a sturdy motorboat provides superior safety. Keep in mind, whitewater wakes are not allowed.
Four Forest Service campgrounds are in the vicinity of Williams Creek Reservoir. To visit, drive three miles west from downtown Pagosa Springs on U.S. 160, then turn north on Piedra Road (CR 600). Continue north approximately 24 miles, while following signs.
Some of the finest, most contemplative fishing in Pagosa Country is found on remote waters within the National Wilderness Preservation System. The higher one goes, the more likely he or she will find native cutthroat trout in streams and lakes protected by special regulations. This is near pristine country where solitude is the rule.
As in all federal wilderness areas, travel in the Weminuche and South San Juan wilderness areas is by foot or horseback only, with no motorized vehicles, bicycles or carts allowed. The same rules apply to the 114,000-acre Piedra Area northwest of town. Because distances can be great, visitors should be in shape, plan well and plan ahead.
Weather is unpredictable and high-country travelers must pack accordingly. Layered clothing, relevant forest and topographic maps, a compass or GPS, adequate shelter, food, water, matches and a headlamp or flashlight are essential. Anglers should also inform a responsible party where they intend to fish and when they plan to return.
Up-to-date information concerning backcountry fishing is available from the U.S. Forest Service office at U.S. 160 and Second Street. You can call the office at (970)264-2268.