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If you are looking for an out-of-the-way hotspot in the Rocky Mountain west, a good place to check out is Lake City, Colorado. This small alpine town of 300 people in the southwestern part of the state is convenient to four national forests and two Blue-Ribbon trout streams, namely, the Rio Grande and the Gunnison. Lake City is situated between these two rivers along Highway 149 and is the mid-point for fishing all the pristine streams and lakes of the Lake Fork Gunnison Valley.
September is the perfect time to come to this area, as the crowds have gone home, the rivers are in great shape and the weather is nice. A major attraction of the area is the variety of fishing it offers. You can choose from alpine lakes, big lakes, big rivers, small creeks, beaver ponds or meadow streams. Lake Fork Gunnison (known locally as Lake Fork) is the crown jewel of the Lake City area. This canyon river is a medium-sized freestone stream, divided into upper and lower by Lake San Cristobal, a cold, deep natural lake caused by the collapse of a mountain several hundred years ago. The lake itself is known for its large mackinaws and enjoys excellent evening hatches that provide good dry fly fishing for brookies and rainbows using a dropper set-up with an emerger or small nymph.
There is roadside access along Highway 149 to over 20 miles of lower Lake Fork, as well as another 10 miles of mixed public and private access above Lake San Cristobal along the "Alpine Loop" mountain road (County Road 30). Lake Fork yields trout as large as 10 pounds, and rainbows and browns in the 12 to 18-inch range are caught regularly. There are mayfly, caddis and some stonefly hatches during the spring and summer but they are sporadic at best. The best (and least crowded) fishing is in September, when the aspens are turning colors and the trout are spawning in the river. There is also a fall run of kokanee salmon out of Lake San Cristobal.
Within the city limits, Lake Fork is joined by Henson Creek, a canyon creek with fishing for colorful wild brook trout and stocked rainbows. Henson Creek’s deep pools hold some surprisingly big trout, while the riffles and runs hold smaller brookies and some cutthroat trout. The upper section flows through meadows with breathtaking mountain backdrops.
The creek is flanked by tall pink and gray canyon walls, meaning that the creek has some shade on the water most of the day. Fish the shade if no hatch is present, concentrating on the pocket water (best fished with beadhead nymphs and attractor dries) and tails of the deep pools (Woolly Buggers and submerged dries such as the Rio Grande King). There is roadside access up to its headwaters.
If you want to catch 20 to 40 brookies per day, you can fish upper Lake Fork close to Lake City, as well as Big Blue and Brush creeks. John Jesse, owner of the Tackle Box (*) in Lake City, recommends Cataract and Cottonwood creeks for hot brook trout angling. If you want 20-inch trophy trout try lower Lake Fork, the Gunnison itself or the Rio Grande. Jesse says the Red Bridge area of lower Lake Fork is the place to go for three to five-pound browns that move up from Blue Mesa Reservoir.
If you want seclusion you can hike, horseback or four-wheel-drive to one of the countless alpine lakes or small streams. Got kids…? Try Soldier, Nellie, or North Clear creeks for some easy pickin’s.
My own favorite place to fish in the Lake City area, maybe the state of Colorado, is the 98,000-acre Uncompahgre Wilderness in the Uncompahgre National Forest north of Lake City. Most locals refer to the area as "Big Blue," a reference to the namesake stream in this wilderness area. A solid two-wheel-drive vehicle will make it to the jump-off-point campgrounds for this stream, but a four-wheel-drive, high-clearance vehicle makes the bumpy ride easier.
The scenery is magnificent, with views of alpine meadows, craggy peaks, 14,000-foot snow-capped mountains and dense forests. The streams are clear, cold and small but they are teeming with brook trout and the occasional rainbow and cutthroat. Be sure to check out the beaver ponds near the campground for some challenging light-leader fishing.
Big Blue, Soldier and Fall creeks are among the streams that run through the Uncompahgre Wilderness and they are three of the prettiest small trout streams in Colorado, perfect for fishing dry flies. Big Blue Creek has many meadow stretches, which means lots of lively hopper action in August and September. My brothers-in-law and I caught 15 to 20 brook trout each on a hot July day on Big Blue.
Another nearby trout fishery worth checking out is the Powderhorn area to the east. The streams and lakes here are too numerous to list, but I will single out Cebolla and Cochetopa creeks. Both yield trout much bigger than their waters would indicate, with some lunker browns lurking beneath undercut banks and streamside alders and willows. Most of the streams in this area are accessed off dirt roads from Highway 149 between Creede and Lake City. Cochetopa has had high water problems this year so it is probably a good idea to check in with Ed or John of Rio Grande Anglers (*) in Creede before heading this way. Ask them also about the trout fishing on the Rio Grande above the Rio Grande Reservoir; North Clear Creek (a great spot for plunge pools and feisty 13-inch trout) and many other waters around Creede.
If you base your fall fly fishing vacation in Lake City, there are three fly shops in town where you can get the lowdown on stream conditions and what flies to use. The persons to ask for at the three shops are Paul at The Sportsman (*); John at the Tackle Box (*); and Lyn or Dan at Dan’s Fly Shop (*). I also recommend stopping by Back Country Navigator (*) and talking to Linda about maps.
As for accommodations in Lake City, don’t look for places such as you find in Telluride and Breckenridge. Most of the digs in Lake City are moderately priced and comfortable. There is everything from rustic cabins… to bed and breakfast establishments… to lodges and motels. I usually stay at either of two rental homes I know about in the middle of town. Both are set back from the road and overlook the village. They have commanding views of the San Juan Mountains and rent for only $85 a night. Contact the owner of these two properties, Debbie Stephens (*) for rental information. Other lodging I recommend include Vickers Dude Ranch (*); Lakeview Resort (*); Crystal Lodge (*); and Moncrief Mountain Ranch (*).
Lake City is one of those places that are ideal for a family visit of a week or more. The pace is laid-back and there is plenty for the non-angler to do while you’re out fishing. There are ghost towns and mining towns nearby, hiking trails and places to ride horseback. You can also gulp down the best milkshake in North America at the San Juan Soda Company on Main Street.
I know I sound a bit boosterish about Lake City, but that’s because this place is really special. I’m sure you will agree if you go there. Just keep in mind that the place is our little secret. Okay…? – Mark D. Williams.