Come winter, tropical destinations get most of the press (and crowds). That’s why there’s no better time to pack your rods and head West for a unique, multi-pronged getaway adventure.
There’s no question summer and early fall dominate as the most popular seasons for fly fishing Colorado’s prestigious rivers and trout streams, but late winter into early spring (January through March) can also offer some amazing fishing opportunities for the angling enthusiast. Not only does the winter season free you from the sizable crowds you’ll encounter in the summer, it’s also the perfect time to tap into Colorado’s breathtakingly picturesque winter trout streams, renowned ski resorts and the world-class flavor of the mountain-town scene. From award-winning breweries to classic eats and entertainment, Colorado is the ideal location for your next fly fishing excursion.
In order to get the most out of your trip, it’s important to evaluate what kind of experience you’re after. Do you want small town or big city? Guided or DIY? Are you on a champagne or beer budget? Are you going solo, or will you be bringing your family along? If you want proximity to the nightlife and sports venues of the big city, for example, consider home-basing it out of Denver and fishing rivers and streams nearby (there are plenty of good ones).
An angler on a quiet, deserted creek near Vail. When you travel to Colorado during winter scenes like this are more the rule than exception. (Photo courtesy of Colorado Tourism.)
If you’d rather avoid the hoards of ski traffic and enjoy the quaintness of a mountain town, stepping out the back door of your condo onto the ski hill, you’ll want to consider locales like Breckenridge, Steamboat or Aspen. Each area affords access to renowned trout streams and tailwaters that stay open and active year round, as well as five-star amenities (often with five-star price tags). Start with a list of your wants and needs and go from there. The following tips will help you maximize the trip, leaving a wake of cherished memories for years to come.
KEEP AN EYE ON THE WEATHER
Without question the most important factor concerning winter fly fishing is the weather, so it’s crucial that you stay abreast of current conditions, and extended wind and weather forecasts, with the handy and free ScoutLook Fishing app. December and January can be particularly cold in Colorado, especially in the high country, which means major portions of a particular river can be bogged down (or completely covered over) with ice.
This adventurous angler awaits a strike to his nymph rig, on an ice-rimmed river in northwestern Colorado. (Photo courtesy of Colorado Tourism.)
As I write just after the New Year, we here in Colorado just got over a multi-week stretch in the northwestern part of the state where average temperatures hovered around -20 to -30 degrees. If you do plan on fishing these months, concentrate on tailwaters (warmer water coming off dams) like the Frying Pan near Basalt or the Blue River near Silverthorne coming off Lake Dillon. Such tailwaters are great all year because hatches are ongoing, and water temperatures keep the rivers from freezing over. The Yampa River near Steamboat is equally good.
A Denver-based trip is also a good option because it gives you access to much warmer weather on average, and multiple fishing locations, including multiple stretches of the South Platte. Tad Howard, with Colorado Trout Hunters, guides out of Denver and provides premiere fishing access to dozens of fishing spots across the Front Range all the way up to Silverthorne, which is ideal since it gives you more options depending on weather conditions.
Plan your basecamp well and you’ll have access to some true world-class nightlife, courtesy of ski meccas such as Breckenridge. (Photo courtesy of Colorado Tourism.)
If you plan on fishing the high country, key in on February and March, which are generally excellent fishing. The trout (rainbows and cutthroats) spawn during this timeframe and there are plenty of ideal weather days—overcast and warmer (generally in the mid 30s). The White River out of Meeker is excellent and provides plenty of public access points in and/or near the Flat Tops Wilderness Area and White River National Forest. The Colorado near Hot Sulphur Springs is another trophy-grade fishing experience.
GO GUIDED OR DIY?
If you’re not familiar with the state, my advice is to find a fishing guide with expert knowledge of the area and rely on them, at least for your first go-round. You can find a substantial listing on the Colorado Outfitter Association website that’s specific to region and species, including hunting. In Meeker, Roger Trout runs Smoking River Guides, which provides excellent access to the White River all the way to the Green. With the best name in fly fishing, Trout has guided across the state for over 25 years and has intimate knowledge of insect hatches, weather patterns and river conditions at every time during the year.
“Winter fly fishing is really about staying flexible and giving yourself as many options as possible,” Trout said. “You want to find overcast, warmer days and avoid major ice flows. We’re trying to hit big, deep pools and dredge them deep where the fish tend to school up.”
Add spice to your winter flyfishing trip by making time for some world-class downhill or cross-country skiing. (Photo courtesy of Colorado Tourism.)
If you decide to go the DIY route, the Colorado Parks & Wildlife (CPW) website has several valuable resources, including the Colorado Fishing Atlas, an interactive map with public access points and fishing regulations, which change depending on the stretch of river you’re fishing.
SOME SMART SIDE TRIPS
Winter fishing can change drastically with the weather, so it’s an excellent idea to “double book” your activities. One of the best ways to do this is to set up your basecamp near a ski town, which will generally give you access to local breweries, coffee shops, skiing or snowboarding, and tons of shopping. If you’re taking the family or a spouse along and they aren’t going to fish, this also provides them with plenty to do while you’re on the water. If shopping is on the menu, Silverthorne has a smorgasbord of outlet stores and the Blue River literally runs through town. Breckenridge and Keystone ski resorts are literally minutes away, as is Copper Mountain, Vail and Loveland Ski Area.
Also nearby, Steamboat Springs is one of the top resorts in Colorado and offers excellent access to the Yampa River. Near the Frying Pan, Aspen is perhaps the best chance you’ll have of rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous, with world-renowned amenities (and world-renowned prices). If the weather doesn’t pan out, hit the slopes and enjoy some of the best skiing or snowboarding in North America. Other activities include snowmobiling, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and ice fishing.
One of the true pleasures of winter flyfishing? Hiking through fresh, trackless snow to a river stretch that has seen little or no pressure in weeks. (Photo courtesy of Colorado Tourism.)
If you want the slightly more budget-friendly experience with access to the Frying Pan, check out Glenwood Springs. Not only is there the famous Hot Springs pool, there’s also the Glenwood Caverns tram, which will take you to the top of the mountain and provides an amazing view from the restaurant above. The Glenwood Canyon Brewpub is located across the river from the Hot Springs and features handcrafted Gold Medal beer selections and mouthwatering burgers (the Brewpub has won 17 times at the Great American Beer Festival and World Beer Cup).
METHODS TO THE WINTER MADNESS
With cooler water temperatures, more sedentary fish and less insect hatches, your fishing methods also have to adjust. Most of what you’ll be doing is nymphing with small midges, either with a one- or two-fly setup. The smaller the flies the better. Tailwaters can differ somewhat, but most nearby towns will have a fly shop that can fill you in if you don’t go the guided route. Frying Pan Anglers, for example, is located in Basalt and provides information on flies, river flow and weather conditions, as well as an up-to-date fishing report. Most nearby towns will have something similar. You can also check out Orvis.com for excellent suggestions on midges for winter fly fishing.
Colorado in winter offers a multitude of top-shelf sights and experiences, as this stunning mountain vista near Telluride proves. (Photo courtesy of Colorado Tourism.)
DRESS FOR WINTER SUCCESS
As David Parri, a 35-year veteran fly fishing guide and owner of a guiding service in Hot Sulphur Springs, said, winter is no time to find out your waders are leaky. Pack your gear wisely.
“Winter is absolutely not the time to show up with old, leaky waders. I always encourage folks to make sure their gear is up to snuff, because if not you can get hypothermia and get in serious trouble,” Parri said. “That said, winter is my favorite time to fish, and I put most of my hours in February and March. There’s a lot less people on the water and the fishing can be really quite good.”
If you’d rather travel light, consider the guided route because many outfitters will provide everything from your rod and reel to flies and waders. If you prefer your own arsenal of gear, give it a good once-over before heading West.
It won’t take many fish like this to make your western winter flyfishing trip a resounding success. What are you waiting for? (This photo, and image at top, courtesy of Tad Howard.)
Parri also relies on midges for winter fishing and even has one of his own fly creations, the “Magic Midge,” featured through Orvis. For a wintry outing on the river he recommends a pair of long underwear and warm wool socks over jeans topped with breathable waders, and he does most of his fishing on the Colorado near the shore. He recommends putting on all your clothing fresh and dry when you get to the water.
“I’m certainly not going in waist deep at that point,” Parri said. “I wade in a bit and walk the shoreline, mixing in some sight fishing and hitting big pools. Ideally I’m looking for that moody, overcast and possibly snowy day. That’s when most of the action seems to be good.”
HUNTING FOR A COOL SIDE TRIP?
Looking to experience even more spice on your western winter adventure? You might want to consider adding some hunting to the mix. From the Eastern Plains to the Rocky Mountains, Colorado offers everything from DIY public-land predator hunting to premiere guided hunts. There are literally thousands upon thousands of acres of BLM and public access land, holding everything from bobcats and rabbits to coyotes and mountain lions and more.
Speaking of mountain lions, the area around Meeker and Craig is a boomtown for cat hunting. Quentin Smith, who owns and operates QRS Outdoor Specialties, said there are an unbelievable number of cats in the area. Not every outfitter does, but Smith offers a 100-percent guarantee you’ll get on a cat. It’s not cheap, as most hunts run you around $5,000 to $6,000 for an outfitted hunt, but if you’ve got the cash it’s well worth it for a “bucket-list” hunt. And the adventure generally affords you plenty of time to hit a winter trout stream with your favorite fly rod.