No river is more enjoyable to float and fly fish in summertime than the Rio Grande in Southern Colorado. The river begins in the alpine mountains above Creede, and flows through South Fork, then on to the flattening valley floor at Del Norte. Within this stretch lies one of the most underdeveloped, pristine rivers in all of the Southwest. Both rainbows and browns abound, with many tributaries running into the Rio along the way. The South Fork/Creede area is the perfect destination for a first-time float trip. With the many guest ranches, bed and breakfasts, hotels, campgrounds and RV parks, there is lodging to suit any budget. Much of the area is designated National Forest or Wilderness land, so camping spots are everywhere.
Fishing guru A.D. Dalton outlines some of our favorite floats. Included is the South Fork float.
Floating the Gold Medal Waters at South Fork
A good start to floating the river through South Fork is just past Masonic Park: a put-in for boats called Lower Coller. This is also a state designated Wildlife Area, so it’s likely you will catch a glimpse of a trophy elk or deer as they sip from the mighty Rio.
This adventure takes you through all the good stuff! After putting in at Lower Coller (public access) you will immediately find yourself floating onto private land belonging to the Mason’s – view their “Masonic lodges” all along the Rio for about a mile. Strangely, this is the only spot on the Rio Grande where it is legal to keep a rainbow trout - you conspiracy buffs can do the research to figure out why! All I know is that you can keep four trout, rainbow or brown, in accordance with state regulations, from here to the Hwy 149 bridge. The river is wide through this stretch, and the fishing is good right after run-off for stripping streamers. This is also one of the last floatable sections when the water gets low toward the end of the summer. The float meanders through a few quaint neighborhoods of fishing cabins but mostly enjoys the quiet solitude of cottonwoods, aspens, spruce and pine trees dominating the mountain side. The Rio Grande Scenic Railroad runs along the river and the kids will enjoy waving to folks on board. Further downstream you will float through Elk Creek Ranch (also private), before reaching town. Recognize it for the big grassy hay meadows that roll down the hillside to the river.
The hamlet of South Fork six miles down from the put-in is a oasis on the east side of the Continental Divide. Should you need a latte from the Feelin Good Cafe or a beer at the Shaft Bar this town will accommodate! As you float under the Hwy 149 bridge, you are officially in Gold Medal Waters. (See current fishing regulations for Gold Medal Waters, typically two browns over 16 inches and all rainbows returned to the river). Floating through downtown takes you past the beautiful Rio Grande Club and Golf Course, with some of Rio Grande County’s most luxurious stay-and-play amenities. It’s in these waters that the BIG trout hang out – enjoying deep rock pools and slow-moving water. I know guys that get off work and float just from Hwy 149 bridge to the Lower Alpine take-out in the evening to cast a fly at these hogs. Big drys or drifting with nymphs -- either way its great fishing every time. The float ends at Franke Excavation/CR 19 with a small take-out located on the north side.
Directions to put-in: Travel six miles west of the town of South Fork toward Creede. Turn at the Lower Coller State Wildlife Area sign on the south side of Hwy 149.
Directions to take-out: Travel three miles east of South Fork on Hwy 160 toward Del Norte. Turn left on County Road 19 across from Ute Bluff Lodge.
I would also like to add that boats have always been able to put-in/take-out at the Hwy 149 bridge access, but signs have recently been put up for no trespassing, no parking ect. And the nearest parking is a long ways away. The access is still available, but because of the parking situation you can basically only get dropped off there.
Although the put-ins and take outs are public property, much of the river along the way is private. Please be respectful so all can enjoy the beauty of the river.
For Another Day on the River
Lower Alpine to Hanna Lane Bridge: “The Hanna Lane float is not for the faint of heart. While one of the best sections of the Gold Medal Waters, it is also one of the longest… With huge cottonwoods, hay pastures and foothills of sage in the distance, its a sight to behold, this piece of the Rio…The biggest brown I’ve ever seen caught on the Rio was in this stretch.”
Creede to Wagon Wheel Gap: “This float is a local favorite at the beginning of summer… Bellows Creek comes into the river and throwing drys up under the willows in the dapple is the best way to nab a fish through here…”
Wagon Wheel Gap to Palisade: “The float starts out at Wagon Wheel Gap with towering cliffs rising 11,000 feet into the air…and the train bridge you can see down river from the put-in is a tricky booger to navigate…this next section of river is the rock garden, a bony technical stretch to fish because of rapids and the rower stressing on how to ping pong down through it. (hint: stay river right!)…”
Palisade to Coller State Wildlife Area: “…a shorter float with lots of potential (especially in the evening, it seems) to catch a fish in the high summer… Towering pine trees dominate this stretch and the river widens considerably…and the take-out is an easy one…”