Welcome to Fish-Full Colorado: A Guide to Fly Fishing in Colorado
Curious about Colorado's world-class fly fishing? Fly Fishing Expert Andy Sparhawk gives you all the tips on where to go and what to do.
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Where does your mind wander when you think of the state of Colorado? Skiing and snowboarding come to mind for many, and rightfully so. The Centennial State is home to fantastic winter sports attracting people worldwide to carve down our slopes.
What about our state-sanctioned fib about having 300 days of sunshine annually? (It's closer to 250, but sshhh!)
Still, others might be quick to point out the other type of recreation Colorado is known for legalizing.
Ah, yes. The type that gets you high?
Bingo! There is no greater high than being surrounded by the Rocky Mountains, the beauty of nature, and feeling the tug of a wild trout at the end of your fly line.
Here in Colorado, the tug is the drug, and with 6,000 miles of rivers and streams and 1,300 lakes, it is no wonder Colorado is known as one of the world's top fly fishing destinations.
What did you think I was talking about?
With so many opportunities to try and catch not only trout but dozens of fish species throughout the state, it would be impossible to include them all right here. Instead, I've compiled a sample of some of Colorado's top rivers and lakes that offer a wealth of opportunities for anglers to experience an epic fly fishing trip. Whether you are on the hunt for a catch of a lifetime, to learn, or simply escape, Colorado has a fishy adventure for you.
Colorado's Top Fly Fishing Rivers
The state's longest river (and sixth-longest in the United States at 1,450 mi) offers some of the most diverse river fishing anywhere in the western United States. From its headwaters in Rocky Mountain National Park, where one can have fun catching cuttys, brown, and brook trout, the river crosses the state. Its sections are identified as the lower, middle, and upper Colorado river until it flows into Utah. Throughout its journey in the state, the Colorado River is a fly fishing paradise offering ample public access points to wade or float to pursue wild trout. Popular places to launch a drift boat for a float trip include the Pumphouse, near Kremmling. Most anglers take out at Radium, but it's possible to float from the upper sections to lower hot spots, like Basalt and Glenwood Springs.
Perhaps the river's close proximity to other fly fishing, as well as to so many of the Centennial State's most popular tourist destinations and ski areas, make the river a top pick for anyone planning a trip to the Colorado high country or Western Slope.
Freshies and Fish Fun: Notable Tributaries of the Colorado River (and the World-Class Ski Resorts Near Each)
- Fraser River (Winter Park)
- Blue River (Breckenridge)
- Eagle River (Vail)
- Roaring Fork River (Aspen)
- Gunnison River (Crested Butte)
- Dolores River (Silverton)
- Arkansas River (Monarch)
- Animas River (Purgatory)
- Yampa River (Steamboat)
- Rio Grande River (Wolf Creek)
- Fryingpan River (Buttermilk)
- Snake River (Keystone)
South Platte River
While the “Raddy” may be the state's longest river, the South Platte River may be one of the state's most popular. The entire stretch is home to many of the most famed fishing destinations in the world. Although the Platte's popularity, and access from the Front Range, make the river congested during prime fishing months, the river still provides anglers with the chance to hook up with a trout of a lifetime if they're willing to put in the work.
Any angler should plan to focus their plans around the South Park region of the South Platte. There, one can find a diverse selection of fishing opportunities. The South Platte winds through lush, grassy meadows and cuts deep through canyons filled with large boulders. The area is home to Charlie Meyers State Wildlife Area, named after the newspaper columnist who highlighted and championed the undercut banks and riffles for an incredible trophy trout destination.
The section of river is more commonly known as the Dream Stream. The Dream Stream is where the South Platte is between Spinney Mountain Reservoir and Eleven Mile Reservoir. These two water bodies offer truly excellent stillwater fishing but add to the mysticism of the Dream Stream each spring and fall. This time of year is when Eleven Mile's largest fish make their annual migration into the river to spawn. It is during this time that anglers have the best chance to catch the trout of a lifetime. During these times, drifting egg patterns or stripping a large, articulated streamer under the banks that the river carves can be very productive.
As you can imagine, this finite stretch of water is particularly popular during the spring spawn of cutthroat and rainbow trout and the fall time when massive brown trout and kokanee salmon—a landlocked relative of the Pacific sockeye salmon—move into the river. Fly fishers should prepare to take turns and be respectful of each other, and remember that the Dream Stream has its fair share of resident trout that could produce a personal best year-round. Summer yields a Trico hatch. Clouds of these tiny black mayflies (sp: Tricorythodes) appear along the banks of the Dream starting in July and can offer some of the best fishing of the year.
Despite its fame and popularity, there are just too many places to fish and experiences to have not to include the South Platte River on a list of top Colorado fly fishing rivers.
Stillwater Fly Fishing in Colorado
Colorado offers ample opportunities to wade or float rivers and creeks, but don't discount the many stillwater opportunities that offer trophy Colorado trout fishing. In fact, during the spring run-off, when most of the rivers mentioned above are running high and muddy, many fly fishermen and women opt to bust out their float tubes or boats to chase trout cruising the shallow impoundments.
Spinney Mountain Reservoir
Spring fishing on the Platte is already well underway in South Park when the word gets out that Spinney Mountain Reservoir is planning to open. The reservoir, home to healthy and larger trout and Northern Pike, closes during the winter months. The opening day announcement pulls seasoned anglers off rivers for an opportunity to meet some of these monsters in the shallows. Resident fish have not seen pressure from fishermen since late September making opening day at Spinney an event. The line of headlights queued outside of the check station can be visible for what seems like miles as crowds wait for the gates to open on what they hope will be an unforgettable day of ice-off and another solid season at Spinney.
Legendary Colorado Flies to have in your Fly Box
- Pat's Rubber Legs
- Mayer's Mini Leech
- JuJu Bee and JuJu Baetis
- Black Beauty
- Top Secret Midge
Ice-off gets a lot of attention, but the reservoir fishes well throughout the spring into the fall with abundant bug life to sustain these fast-growing trout. Have your box full of freshwater shrimp (scuds), midge (chironomids), mayflies (callibaetis), and leeches—not to mention large streamers. A word of warning: there is no place for 5X leaders here. The fish are so strong and know how to snap you off in the submerged weeds. I'd suggest stocking up on 3X leader and tippet at a minimum. Oh, and bring bug spray!
Gold Medal Lakes in Colorado
There are other great trout reservoirs in the area, but only Spinney is a Gold Medal water. The designation means Spinney is public fishing water that produces a minimum of 12 fish of 14in or more and 60lbs per acre. In layman's terms, they are the state's finest fisheries. Only North Delaney and Steamboat Lake, near Steamboat Springs, share this distinction for stillwater destinations. Fly fishers employ similar techniques and fly patterns at these lakes that they do in South Park. Similarly, if you visit North Delaney Lake or Steamboat Reservoir – bring bug spray with your fly fishing gear!
More Top Colorado Stillwater Destinations
- Blue Mesa Reservoir
- Lake Granby
- Dillon Reservoir
- Ruedi Reservoirs
- Antero Reservoir
- Taryall Reservoir
- Chatfield Reservoir
Colorado High Alpine Fly Fishing
If spring run-off is your cue to hit up Colorado reservoirs and lakes for top stillwater action, summer is the time to head to the backcountry. High alpine lakes don't thaw until late June, depending on their elevation. Like Spinney Mountain Reservoir, the big fish in these lakes have not seen a fly in months, depending on how remote you're willing to hike. Some may not have seen an artificial fly at all!
Starting in late June and July, these mountain lakes abound with eager cutthroat trout, which grow to astounding sizes despite the short summer season. Fly fishers often plan to explore the high country over multiple days, opting to camp near their lake destination to maximize their time on these remote waters. Their efforts are rewarded with lots of fish.
While at altitude, anglers should be aware of drastic weather changes that can crop up at a moment's notice. Be prepared to deal with violent storms that may include rain, hail, and snow, taking care to avoid exposed ridges and other high points with lightning in the area. Check out this article, An Expert Guide to Backpacking First Aid Kits by David Diet, to prepare when camping near or above the treeline.
Reading on Colorado Wilderness Fishing Trip
- A Fly Fishing Guide to Colorado's Indian Peaks Wilderness | Steven B. Schweitzer & Michael Kruise | PIXACHROME Publishing
- Central Colorado Alpine Lakes | Tom Parkes
- Colorado Lake Hikes | Dave Muller | The Colorado Mountain Club Press
- The Complete Angling Guide For The Durango Area (Colorado and New Mexico) | Michael Shook
- Fly Fishing the Gunnison River, Black Canyon Section: An Excerpt from Fly Fishing Colorado | Jackson Streit
- The Complete Fly Fishing Guide to the San Juan River | Michael D. Shook
- The Essential Guide to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park | John Jenkins
Hiking to pristine lakes to cast bushy, dry flies to unpressured trout is a genuine Colorado bucket list experience. Much like many things in life, the journey might be the best part as you will often find wildflowers, fauna, and incredible views along your route. While it is vital to prepare accordingly for the backcountry demands, the fishing itself is simplified. A lightweight rod and a box of dry flies are all you need for the high country.
Colorado Fly Fishing Guides
The best way to take advantage of these fishing opportunities, especially for beginner anglers, is to schedule a guided fly fishing trip. The region is flush with very experienced Colorado fishing guides. Half-day and full-day rates can be spent on float trips or wade trips. Public water requires a state fishing license, but many private waters do not. A guided fishing trip offers a first-class Colorado experience.
Fly Fishing Close to Denver
Colorado fly fishing isn't limited to locations like Lake George, Crested Butte, or Glenwood—you don't have to drive hours to find excellent fly fishing. Colorado offers memorable and productive fly fishing within an hour and a half of Denver, if not closer. Notably, the South Platte, running from Waterton Canyon through Downtown Denver Confluence Park (Denver South Platte) offers a unique multi-species, urban fly fishing experience, which has been improved immensely through habitat improvement initiatives. They're great fishing opportunities for kids, novices, or experienced anglers, alike.
Hot Tip: CDW Fishing Atlas and Match the Hatch App
The Colorado Division of Wildlife has developed two smartphone applications to help anglers take advantage of all that Colorado fishing has to offer. Looking for a place to go fishing in Colorado? The Colorado Fishing Atlas is jam-packed with detailed maps of fishing locations both in and outside of Colorado parks. Each link provides lists of fish present in the area and particular rules and restrictions to follow. The Match the Hatch app provides fly anglers with accurate hatch information to help plan your trip. The best part is that each of the applications is FREE!
Additionally, there are numerous smaller rivers and ponds within a short drive of the metro area that offers anglers a couple of hours of fishing for a weekend or lunchtime getaway. Small rivers like Clear Creek, starting near the town of Golden or Bear Creek near the famed outdoor concert venue, Red Rocks Amphitheatre, hold numerous, albeit smaller, wild rainbows and browns that aren't shy about taking a variety of dry flies or subsurface nymphs. Clear Creek is popular for whitewater rafting, but most fishing is by foot. Near Evergreen and Morrison, Bear Creek is a small body of water and often gets too warm during the summer to successfully fish. Anglers should give the fish a break when the water temperature rises over 67°F. The city of Boulder offers a variety of fish species, from wild trout in the tailwater below the Gross Reservoir dam to bluegill in local ponds.
Traveling North to Fort Collins, about an hour from Denver, includes the Cache La Poudre River and the North Platte River.
These destinations and other spots like Waterton Canyon and the town of Deckers along the South Platte all offer weekend warriors plenty of fly fishing fun within a two-hour drive of the Mile High City.
Colorado is home to world-class fly fishing of almost any persuasion. The state's promise of trout-filled fishing opportunities is but one of the fantastic experiences on offer. From skiing to golf to our diverse cultural activities, the Colorado Lifestyle is hard to beat, especially if you're the type that loves waving a fly rod to a pod of rainbows in the sunshine practically all of the time.
If you have any questions about finding the right gear for your next fly fishing adventure in Colorado, please feel free to reach out to me or one of my fellow Fly Fishing Experts here on Curated for free advice and recommendations.