Taylor River 'Bows

Taylor River 'Bows

The Taylor River's monster rainbows are among the largest in America, and they may also be the most educated. Huge fish abound, but catching them is another story.

By Roger Wheaton

Born in the snow pack on 14,000-foot-high peaks surrounding Taylor Park, the Taylor River is nurtured by myriad crystalline streams that drain those lofty slopes. At the entrance to Taylor canyon, a 206-foot high dam captures the upper river to form Taylor Reservoir. While the reservoir and its trout, trophy-sized mackinaw and northern pike garner some angler interest, the real action begins below the dam.

The river flows through the canyon some 20 miles to a junction with the East River to form the world famous Gunnison River.

The catch-and-release section of the Taylor begins just past the base of the dam. This .4-mile section is filled with super-sized trout, and as noted outdoors journalist Ed Marsh says, these fish were "born with master's degrees and quickly go on to earn their PhDs." He is not exaggerating.

The Taylor tailwater is one of the most technical trout fishing destinations in the world. The rest of the lower river alternates between private and public access water and is characterized by high-gradient, deep holes and heavy flows. A beautiful but hazardous ribbon of crystal-clear pocket water, the Taylor is noted for excellent fishing for trout that average 10 to 14 inches.

The huge trout in the fly- and lure-only tailwater section are a by-product of mysis shrimp in Taylor Reservoir. The shrimp were introduced to increase the growth rate of reservoir trout; however, the light-sensitive mysis immediately fled to the depths of the reservoir to avoid the bright Colorado sunshine. The deep-dwelling shrimp multiplied rapidly, and vast numbers of them were being swept out of the dam's bottom-release tube into the river below. Passage through the tumultuous release tube left the high nutrient value shrimp dead or stunned, thus easy prey for trout. All of a sudden, fishermen were catching brilliantly colored, football-shaped rainbows that looked like they were using steroids.

The past three Colorado state record catch-and-release rainbows came from the Taylor tailwater. This past spring, an incredible 40 1/4-inch in fish with a 29-inch girth established a new standard, which has fallen twice since May 2002. Local experts believe there are even larger fish in the short, closed section immediately below the dam release. Successful fishermen here can reasonably expect to catch 4- to 8-pound brown and rainbow trout, and the possibility of attracting a 20-pound rainbow is within reason. Ten- to 15-pound fish are not abnormal.

Todd Andersen busted this brilliant Taylor River rainbow with a No. 16 mysis shrimp pattern. Photo courtesy of Todd Andersen

Local guides and river experts agree that tiny, size 18 to 22 nymphs are the most successful flies year-round here, and - surprise! - a mysis shrimp pattern is the overall favorite. However, Jeff Poole of Dragonfly Anglers in Crested Butte says that low water flows tend to reduce the availability of the shrimp, limiting the pattern's effectiveness.

Other top recommendations include the Pheasant Tail, Gold-Ribbed Hare's Ear, red midge patterns, Red Brassie and Red Copper John. Tra Lowell from High Mountain Drifters recommends a bead head Pheasant Tail, but Poole thinks the bead head may dissuade super-selective fish. John Covelli of Willowfly Anglers adds the Barr's Emerger and Disco Midge as favorite nymphs.

Although there are bug hatches throughout summer, local guides say the green drake hatch in late July is the only time the really large fish come to the surface to feed. Pale morning dun, blue-winged olive and Baetis hatches may provide occasional surface activity. Red Quills are taken throughout summer. Covelli and Poole agree that these lesser hatches may take some of the big browns, but few, if any, really large rainbows will hit anything other than Green Drakes on the surface. Poole recommends fishing with nymphs only changing to a dry fly when rising fish are evident.

Taylor River expert Todd Andersen has caught several trout exceeding 14 pounds from this tailwater. He caught a 20-pound, 8-ounce rainbow on his own mysis shrimp pattern and another of his large trophy rainbows was taken on a dry Green Drake. Todd also recommends No. 18 Epoxy Baetis, No. 20 Olive Sparkle RS2 and Palomino Midge in red or black to attract large rainbows. He ties his shrimp patterns in sizes 16 and 18.

The ideal rod is a 9-foot, 5- or 6-weight that can quickly subdue large fish. Long, strong runs are the rule here and the strongest leader material possible should be matched to a floating line and high-quality reel with a good reliable drag.

A 9-foot leader tapered to 5x is the favorite leader to start with. Most prefer not to use a fluorocarbon tippet, if possible. Andersen, on the other hand, prefers leaders up to 14 feet long and a fluorocarbon tippet. Ultimately, most find they have to go down to a 6x tippet, especially if the water flow is lower than normal. Under heavy water conditions, some success can be had with a 4x leader. The key is to use the heaviest tippet possible because these fish will try to tangle leaders around rocks to get free.

Split shot on leaders will alert these educated fish. Be sure to place weights at least 18 inches above a fly. While most guides discourage using indicators for these skittish fish, Andersen uses a black indicator or one with the sides and bottom blackened with a permanent marker.


Guests at Harmel's Ranch Resort, 800-235-3402, www.harmels.com, stay in rustic, private cabins 13 miles downstream from the dam. The resort sits astride the river and offers a good family atmosphere.


Several motels are in Gunnison: Gunnison Chamber of Commerce, 970-641-1501. In Almont, Three Rivers Resort, 888-761-3474, www.3riversresort.com, has cabins, RV and tent sites, and a restaurant.


Seven national forest campgrounds dot the lower Taylor; another is just above the dam. Primitive camping is allowed in Taylor Park and the upper Taylor. -- Roger Wheaton


Any first-time Taylor angler is well-advised to employ a guide. Sight fishing is demanded and a guide will be able to put one on fish consistently here. Extreme patience and perseverance are admirable traits among the Taylor crowd.

Speaking of which, crowded fishing is the rule, especially during summer. As a matter of etiquette, wading is discouraged in this section.

Andersen says large fish can be found anywhere throughout the section, but in front of rocks seems to be a favorite location. He tends to favor the downstream section, often because the upper section is more crowded. Once a fish is located, one can usually move in fairly close; these fish are accustomed to seeing anglers. High-quality polarized glasses are invaluable. Avoid rapid movements and don't "line" the fish. The fly must be placed as close to the nose of the fish as possible, and getting the fly down to exactly the right depth is mandatory.

Andersen says fish must strike reactively to the fly. If given too much time to study the fly, these selective fish will refuse the offering. He recommends changing patterns frequently if the fish refuse to take good presentations.

Perfect casts and drifts may well be rewarded with a subtle take. Be prepared to react to the fish's slightest movement or opening of its mouth. As you set the hook, be prepared for a quick, powerful run through the rocks. Chances are you will have to follow at a run to avoid losing fish.

February through April is the guide's favorite time to fish this water. Late August through September is also a popular time. The least favorite time is June through July because of heavy crowds. December and January usually are too cold as wind-driven temperatures can dip well below zero.

From Denver, take Highway 285 west across South Park and into Salida. Turn west on Highway 50 over Monarch Pass to Gunnison. Follow Colorado 135 north out of Gunnison to Almont. The dam lies 19.5 miles from Almont up Route 742. The Taylor is 206 miles from Denver.

Several are fly shops provide equipment, guides and detailed information: High Mountain Drifters in Gunnison, 800-793-4243, www.highmtndrifter.com; Dragonfly Anglers in Crested Butte, 800-491-3079, http://www.dragonflyanglers.com; and Willowfly Anglers in Almont, 888-761-3474.

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