Skip to main content

Spinning And Flying On The Rio Grande

Spinning And Flying On The Rio Grande

This big river leaves its mark on the landscape of southern Colorado and on those who wade its water for trout. (April 2008)

The Rio Grande from Rio Grande Reservoir downstream to South Fork is loaded with wild trout, and its scenery is unparalleled.
Photo by Mark D. Williams.

Sons and daughters never know how much fishing with a parent means to that parent. They never fully understand until they become parents, too.

How do you tell your son how much it means that he knows the difference between a Panther Martin and a Rooster Tail? How significant it is that a daughter takes her own trout off the line?


There are only so many reasons we fish, and one of most important is legacy. The Rio Grande is a facilitator for this tradition, and what a great river it is!

Randy Denham has been fishing the Rio Grande for more than 45 years and is well aware of everything the river offers him and his family.

"I don't think Sam has any idea how much our fishing trips mean to me," said Denham.


Sam is his 16-year-old son, who loves nothing better than to cast all day long with his father on the Rio Grande and then go back to their cabin at Masonic Park to talk about who caught more and who caught the biggest fish.

I've known Randy for more than a decade now. We rib each other about most things, but especially our styles of fishing the Rio Grande. He's a spin-fisherman, and I'm a fly-rodder.

April to June on the Rio Grande is tough for fly fishing -- spotty at best, too danged high at worst.

Spin-fishing is the ideal way to match the spring's high-water brawn. The fish are active and feeding after the long, cold winter. The Rio Grande is one of the first major rivers in the state to become fishable after runoff. By early to mid-June, the banks are clearing.

One of the best spots is the stretch from Rio Grande Reservoir downstream to South Fork. It's loaded with an amazing amount of wild trout and unparalleled scenery.

Fly-fishing is often an art, but I've seen it done badly enough that it's less like art and more like finger painting. If you've ever watched someone spin-fish well, it too can be an art. At the risk of hearing about this forever, Denham is one of those guys. I've fly-fished beside him on this river while he flipped lures, and the guy is amazing.

That's all I'm going to admit -- I don't want to hear about how he caught more than I did that day.

Way back in 1962, when Denham was a 6-year-old and his family had just bought a cabin in Masonic Park, local angler Joe Kenyon taught him and his father how to trout-fish. Like many beginners, Denham started with a little discount-store closed-face outfit. He also had countless hours of instruction on the river and learned to read the mysterious waters.

These days, Don Denham and his grown-up son Randy fish together from time to time. But if you're a father or a son, you know it's difficult to recapture the days of youth when fishing with family.

"That guy is a legend around those parts," said Randy of his father. "He can still fish with the best of them."

Denham's grandfather fished the Rio Grande as so many of our grandfathers did -- with worms and salmon eggs. The man camped out for hours at huge pools.

Randy prefers lures. He has tried all kinds on the Rio Grande, but nowadays he's narrowed down his selection to a Panther Martin No. 9 with black body, yellow dots and gold or silver spoon. Second choice is a Panther Martin No. 9 with red body, red dots and silver spoon.

Killer consistency, said Randy.

The mighty Rio Grande flows through some of the prettiest scenery in Colorado. The section from South Fork up to the Rio Grande Reservoir is the most scenic section of the river. The water is as clear as the air, the mountains are majestic and the trout plentiful.

It's a freestone stream with numerous tributaries in a wilderness setting. This is beautiful and rugged country where the nation's second-longest river begins its southward trek. The river swells with tributary after tributary, surrounded by interconnecting trails and alpine lakes. Deep runs, big pools, riffles -- all kinds of water flow through narrow canyons and broad valleys.

It's some of the most primeval scenery left in the Lower 48. One of the great things about this section of the Rio Grande is that despite its remoteness and despite its lack of angling pressure, the river is easily accessed by road and trail.

Private water is marked and visible, and you'll be pleased by the dozens of miles of public water and roadside access from Highway 149.

Some of the more obvious public areas include Highway Springs Campground, Coller State Wildlife Area, Marshall Park, Palisades, Marshall Park and Fisherman's Access.

Twenty-three miles of Gold Medal Water restricts anglers to flies and lures only. But read the regulations and signs because it seems like each year, new restrictions are in place, especially regarding possession, slot limits and catch-and-release.

Both as a youngster and as a teen, Denham fished from dawn until dark. He remembers wading upstream for miles, when virtually none of the river was private. He could catch 50 fish in a few hours and was so absorbed that he wouldn't realize until too late that his family would be worried about him.

The Rio Grande swells with tributary after tributary, surrounded by interconnecting trails and alpine lakes. Deep runs, big pools, riffles -- all kinds of water flow through narrow canyons and broad valleys.

He recollects a few bear encounters over the decades. Once on the railroad tracks he met a bear coming right toward him. No way up or down, so he dropped his full creel and backed off until the bear got satiated on trout and then rambled away.

On their way to Hunter Lake years later, Randy and his son Sam ran into a mother bear with two cubs. Young Sam had no clue of the danger involved.

"That was one nervous hour as Sam and I waited for the bears to leave the trail," said Randy. Lega


Ten years later, 16-year-old Sam and a friend went fishing upstream on the Rio Grande and were supposed to get back to the cabin before dark. They weren't. Denham was out on the river looking for them with a flashlight, worried to death.

A 9 p.m., Denham was panicking. After a frantic search, he walked in the cabin and found the two. The boys had had a great day of fishing -- so good that they fished until well after dark.

Eventually, you have to let your sons and daughters face the dark and bears all on their own.

"Sam can wade all day long, better than me now," said Randy Denham. "And while I hesitate to admit it, he's getting closer to outfishing me."

Denham smiles widely. "But not just yet."

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

Recent Videos

Game & Fish Magazine Covers Print and Tablet Versions

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Digital Now Included!


Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services


Buy Digital Single Issues

Magazine App Logo

Don't miss an issue.
Buy single digital issue for your phone or tablet.

Buy Single Digital Issue on the Game & Fish App

Other Magazines

See All Other Magazines

Special Interest Magazines

See All Special Interest Magazines

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Game & Fish stories delivered right to your inbox every week.

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All Game & Fish subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Enjoying What You're Reading?

Get a Full Year
of Guns & Ammo
& Digital Access.

Offer only for new subscribers.

Subscribe Now