Piedra River Complex
The Piedra River Complex
By Paul B Downing
The Piedra serves as a watershed for the San Juan mountains in Archuleta, Hinsdale, and Mineral counties in Colorado. Located in the Southwestern portion of the state, the Piedra takes it start at the confluence of East, West, and Middle Piedra. You could say it starts higher up in the Forks but for our purposes it starts here and we start to talk fishing. The confluence is located at N37.43883, W107.18059 and it ends a the Navajo Reservoir at N37.05603, W107.41127, a distance of some 40 miles. The MAP Icon at the top of the article is the Piedra and Williams Creek confluence.
The Mountains Above Williams Creek
Along the way we encounter a variety of interesting places as described in the article covering the Lower, Middle, and Upper Piedra River. A lot of the upper area above the Forks is a special management area which means a limitation on development and activities of that nature thus keeping it pristine not unlike a Wilderness designation. As you work down the river, there are a number of trails for hiking which can also be used for fishing access.
There are several points to reach the Piedra but a good deal of it is away from roads and occasionally in box canyons. The good news is lots of good size rainbows and brown and in the upper reaches, brookies and cutts
Friends told me about this area in glowing terms. I had never visited it until two years ago. Now that I have, I can tell you that it is a great place to wet a line.
Lower River 37.228406 107.347908
Driving east from Durango or west from Pagosa Springs on Hwy 160 you will reach the lower Piedra. Look for the Lower Piedra Campground sign. Follow this dirt road north a half mile or so to the river. The lower part of this
section of the river has nice runs and some undercut banks. I have found lots of willing modest size browns here. They respond well to attractor flies with a bead head nymph dropper. As you work your way upstream into the campground, the water changes to become mostly pocket water. Here the browns are somewhat bigger and are supplemented with the occasional rainbow. Just when you think you have found trout fishing heaven above the campground, you run into private land. Time to regroup and head for the middle section.
Middle River 37.353481 107.324006
Go back to Hwy 160 and turn left. Almost immediately you will cross the Piedra. Just on the other side of the bridge there is a dirt road off to your left (north) called First Fork Road (FR 622). Follow this road north. It climbs above the river which forms a deep canyon named First Box Canyon. The road is narrow but easy to drive. The steep drop-off on the left side of the road may put some people off but with care you can make it with a passenger car. At the end of the road there is a bridge over the river. Park in the open area before the road crosses the bridge.
The stretch below the bridge fishes very well.
the near side (east) walk downstream as far as you want and fish back up. The
first part of the walk is in open land. Shortly, trees close in and the path is
narrow and rough. I am lazy so I stop at the trees. Strong runs and large
boulders here provide wonderful holding water for trout. They do, however,
create complex currents that are a challenge to fish properly. Start with the
water on the edge and work your way out toward the middle of the stream. In
most years I find the current a bit too strong to wade very far out but younger
legs may do better. The multiple currents around the boulders make
presentations tricky. I cast up and across with an upstream reach cast, then do
an additional upstream mend to get just a few feet of drag free drift over a
likely spot. I miss a few takes on the slack line this creates but that is
better than not getting any attention with a dragging fly.The photo is just below the first fork bridge.
one spot, first cover the area near shore. Then wade out into the current as
far as you are comfortable to work pockets further away from shore. Wade back
toward shore then upstream and cover the next bit of water the same way.
Working your way upstream in this manner should yield several nice browns and
rainbows. Once I reach the open flat below the bridge, I stop working this side
because I find the current above the bridge is too strong to wade safely.
Bridge Crossing view
bank and cross the bridge then head downstream. I start about as far down as I
was on the other side. Work your way upstream as you did on the other side. As
you walked downstream you crossed a small side stream, First Fork. When you get
back up to it, pay special attention to the deeper hole just below it. I have
done very well there. This deeper water is best fished with a nymph rig. After
working this hole, shift your attention to a big boulder in the middle of the
river. There is a good pocket below it and another just in front of it. Getting
a good drift will take a reach and mend. Last time I was there a 15 inch
rainbow took my dry just in front of the boulder.
Again I stop at the bridge. There is a trail
on the west side of the river which heads upstream toward Second Box Canyon. I
have never gone up that trail as I have been alone and going onto wild country
alone is not a good idea. Take a friend. I have heard that the fishing is good
and the fish are larger.
Piedra and Williams Creek
To reach the upper Piedra and Williams Creek, head back to highway 145 then head east toward Pagosa Springs. As you enter the west end of town there will be several stop lights. Turn left at an intersection labeled Piedra Road. This road, paved initially then dirt, takes you on a beautiful drive back to the scenic mountain vistas of the San Juan National Forrest, some of the most spectacular mountain views in Colorado. Winding back and forth and bearing left at any fork, you will eventually reach a bridge over the Piedra. There is a dry camp ground just over the bridge. You can fish upstream from the camp ground in some beautiful pool and riffle water. However, this area is heavily fished and I have had limited success here. You can also follow a trail on the west side of the bridge downstream into Second Box Canyon. A short walk will bring you to a gentle slope that gives you access to a short section of river below the bridge. This section is seldom fished. I am told that where the Williams Fork enters the Piedra, about a mile hike down the trail, there is good fishing in both rivers although I have not ventured down there yet, again because I was alone.
the road northwest toward Williams Reservoir and keeping to the left at a fork
in the road, you clear a rise and head down into the Williams Creek valley and
another excellent fishing opportunity. The road will cross the bridge over
Williams Creek. You will find a campground just beyond the bridge. You have
just entered heaven for a small stream fisher like me. Park in the area before
the bridge and walk downstream as far as you like. Williams Creek offers all
types of water and all sorts of brown trout. Runs drop into deep holes with
complex currents that can be a challenge to fish but the rewards are great. Hit
it right and you will attract an amazing number of 10 to 12 inch fish on a dry
and dropper. There are even some 14 to 16 inchers. Then there are days that it
is hard to attract anything except the local bushes. The further downstream
from the road you get, the better the fishing.
around the campground is fished fairly hard in the summer. However, after Labor
Day, the campground is closed, crowds go home and the browns work their way up
river from the Piedra. Fishing improves substantially, both in numbers and
size. Park at the campground entrance, cross the cattle guard and fish
upstream. I have caught some very nice browns here in the fall. The same
attractor fly and dropper that worked in the lower river will usually work here
on the road west toward the Reservoir, you will find a number of places where
you can park and hike down into the valley. Some of these more hidden areas
offer great fishing. You could spend a week just fishing this part of the
signs, right at the Y, to get to Williams Creek Reservoir. If you thought the
views were spectacular before, you will love this lake. Cimarrona Peak towers
over the lake with the Continental Divide serving as a backdrop. I have seen
the lake covered with rising fish. Rainbows and Kokanee are the major
attraction here. The lake is best fished with a belly boat or a boat and motor.
There are three campgrounds in this area and a convenience store at the lake.
toward the Piedra, the Middle Fork of the Piedra can be accessed on another
road. As you headed from the upper Piedra bridge toward Williams Creek you saw
a Y in the road at the top of the hill. Instead of bearing left, bear right
toward Piedra Falls. If you are coming back from the Williams Creek, turn left.
This road will cross the Middle Fork of the Piedra then continue on to a trail
head that leads to the Falls. The river below the parking lot offers runs into
deep pools. I have only fished here once with limited success but others have
reported that they do very well here. If nothing else, the scenery is well
worth the trip. There is one wet river crossing that could be a problem for low
Fork at the bridge has very nice looking water but I have yet to find a fish in
it. With so much great water so close, it does not seem to me to be worth
All in all,
the Piedra and Williams Creek offer a
lot of wonderful l fishing. Pagosa Springs is the closest town. It has many
motels, good restaurants, and a wonderful natural hot springs. The San Juan
River runs through town and the fishing through town is excellent and
encouraged. The State and the Town manage this water in an effort to provide
the highest quality experience possible. I have caught numerous 14 inch plus
rainbows and browns just upstream of the eastern most bridge.
is a great spot for a vacation.
There are approximately 15 miles of easily accessible stream with more if you are willing to hike a bit. Overall, the river runs about 40 miles from the confluence to the Navajo Reservoir. For the stout of heart and limb there is a lot of water to look at.
Spring (March and April) are cool with a chance of snow. Summer is pleasant with highs in the 70s and 80s. Fall begins in September and may last well into October depending on the year. Winter limits access substantially.
Gear and Techniques:
A 3 to 5 wt fly rod will work well. Use 5x tippet. Dry and dropper are generally the ticket although stripping a streamer may work well in fall. Spin fishers will find success with a small spinner like a Rooster Tail.
There is no closed season on trout in these streams but winter and spring runoff will limit fishing. The run off can leave the river very dirty. It starts to clear in late July and August which means the fall is really the best of the year.
All three sections mentioned in the article are accessible by good dirt roads. The sections below Hwy 160 going towards the Reservoir are either Indian Lands or privately owned and not open to the public.