Flying The Eagle River
October 04, 2010
Rugged beauty. Excellent access. Abundant brown and rainbow trout. It's time to brush up on summer fly-fishing on one of Colorado's great freestone rivers. (July 2007)
The Green Stimulator is an excellent fly for the Eagle.
Photo by Roger Wheaton.
One of Colorado's premier untamed freestone rivers, the Eagle, is born in the high mountain peaks near Tennessee Pass just north of Leadville. A myriad of crystal-clear snowmelt rivulets trickle down from Colorado's Sawatch and Gore Mountain ranges, eventually combining to form this beautiful mid-size river, a "smaller version of the Roaring Fork."
In fact, the Eagle got its name from the resident Ute Indians who said these feeder streams were as numerous as the feathers of an eagle's tail.
The Eagle also drains the slopes of some 19th-century zinc, gold, silver, and lead mines responsible for much of Colorado's historic past. Metallic tailings from one of those mines poisoned the Eagle's prime trout waters in the last century, killing the trout and decimating the river's biomass.
In 1985, Colorado initiated legal action against the Gulf+Western Company to force cleanup of the tailings from their Gilman Mine site near Minturn. In 1990, a chemical treatment plant was built to treat the polluting mine-seepage waters, putting the Eagle on the road to recovery.
Today, the river provides quality fishing for fine brown and rainbow trout that average 12 to 15 unusually powerful inches. More than a few stretch to 20 inches or longer.
Browns, along with some cutthroat and brookies, dominate the river above Wolcott. Below there, rainbows become more prominent.
THE RIVER'S ANATOMY
Some 70 miles downstream from its alpine origin, the Eagle joins the Colorado River after passing through the beautiful, wealthy Vail Valley. This picturesque river flows through a diverse environment of ranchlands, multi-million dollar mansions, expensive resort communities, scrub oak, massive cottonwoods, and sagebrush hills that contrast with stark canyon walls and distant green alpine slopes.
As summer passes into fall, multi-colored dying leaves paint the various softwoods in a spectacular salute to nature's beauty.
The headwaters above Minturn contain nice pocket water and beaver ponds that hold smaller 10- to 12-inch brown, brook, and rainbow trout, as well as a few natives.
Pollution caused the greatest damage to the Eagle in the water from Gilman down to the Gore Creek confluence. Today, this part of the river has recovered dramatically and holds mostly medium-size browns. These 8- to 14-inchers seem less affected by the pollution than the other trout species. The upper section is characterized by beautiful runs, sparkling riffles, and rambunctious pocket water.
The middle section, from the confluence down to the town of Eagle, increases in size significantly from the flow out of Gore Creek. Brown trout continue to dominate, but rainbows become more prominent in this section. Deep holes characterize the upper part of this section down to the town of Avon, where the river begins to widen.
Afternoon rainstorms may muddy the river below the confluences with Alkali and Milk creeks, making the Eagle unfishable for a period of time. If you find murky water, you can move upstream above these creeks, and the river will be clear.
The lower river, from Eagle to the Colorado River confluence at Dotsero, deepens and the river bottom becomes silted as well. Willows and undergrowth along the bank also hinder fishing. This section is difficult to wade. It's best fished by floating as long as flows allow, and that's usually well into July. This stretch of deeper, lazier water holds larger fish than the upstream sections.
Always a rough-and-tumble river marked by frequent passive runs and holes, spring runoff turns the Eagle into a discolored torrent from early May into late June or early July. It's floatable during this high-water period, but summer's lower waters almost demand wade-fishing, except for the lower section. The river is popular with recreational rafters during the runoff, but post-runoff low water gradually stymies the "rubber hatch" that afflicts many other rivers.
Some Class IV rapids along the Eagle make float-fishing a hazardous undertaking. I highly recommend float-fishermen utilize local guides for float trips.
Despite the volume of highway traffic alongside the river, the Eagle is seldom severely crowded. Perhaps the nearby Blue and Colorado rivers are more attractive than this recently restored fishery. Regardless, crowded fishing conditions are unusual on the Eagle.
The Eagle is a quality year-round fishery, but July, August and September are the prime dry-fly fishing months. Like most Western rivers, the Eagle River flows through both public and private property. Fortunately, many public sections provide quality fishing. Be very careful to avoid trespassing on private property.
Strong currents and slippery rocks make wading this 45- to 50-foot-wide river a treacherous task. Studded waders and a wading staff are highly recommended for safety's sake.
The best way to find good access is to check with local fly shops. Folks there can also help you stay current on regulations and fishing conditions. A local guide will also accelerate the learning curve for fishing the river and learning the "secret spots."
The headwaters, from Tennessee Pass down to the junction with Gore Creek, flow mainly through private and White River National Forest property. Public access is available near Redcliff on down to Minturn. Below the Gore Creek junction, the river generally parallels Interstate 70 and Colorado U.S. 6, where numerous access points are interspersed among private properties.
Some key access points include the following: From Eagle to Gypsum, several access points offer excellent fishing. Below Gypsum, much of the Eagle flows through Bureau of Land Management property, which is open to fishing.
The Avon Bridge, known as "Bob the Bridge" offers access to some great water below the bridge. Several parcels of public access exist between Minturn and Eagle. Approximately one mile of public water is located above the confluence with Gore Creek, and a large section within Minturn is open to the public. Excellent fishing actually can be found in the center of most of the small tow
ns along the Eagle River.
Especially during high water, the Eagle is a treacherous river to wade. Large, extremely slick rocks and heavy currents demand great care from the wade-fisherman, even during normal summer flows. At a minimum, felt-soled chest waders should be worn, and studded waders are better. I always use a wading staff, and the Eagle is a prime candidate for such use.
Deep holes and wonderful runs are interspersed with rapids demanding a wide variety of tackle. I prefer a 9-foot, 5-weight rod for subsurface fishing and a 4-weight for surface fishing. A floating line is adequate for virtually all fishing along the Eagle. I use a 7.5-foot leader with a tan, combed-out indicator, or a large dry fly for nymphing and a 10- to 12-foot leader for dry-fly fishing.
Match your tippet to the size fly you are using. Deeper holes along the Eagle will require weighted flies or some weight to get deep enough.
High-country weather can fluctuate rapidly. Layered clothing is highly recommended, even in summer. Early-morning chills can quickly turn into midday scorching heat from the brilliant high-altitude sun. Be prepared for afternoon thundershowers, which can quickly chill an unprepared angler. Sunscreen and appropriate headgear is important, too.
A quick look at the Eagle River Hatch Chart shows the river's biomass is typical of most Colorado streams. During the winter months, midges dominate the trout diet.
Warming spring waters excite the Baetis into action. Major caddis hatches soon command the hungry trout's attention, as do the spring stonefly hatches.
While caddis and stoneflies remain a staple for the trout, by July and the end of runoff, mayflies spring to life. As with most trout habitat, terrestrials make up a significant part of the trout diet from August through September. Many experts on the Eagle recommend fly selections that contain green, such as peacock herl.
Eagle River trout are seldom as selective as fish in other waters, unless a hatch focuses them on a specific insect. Most summer hatches are not heavy, but rather sporadic.
However, that's not the case for some of the blizzard-like caddis hatches. As high water recedes in late June or into July, fish may become more hatch-focused. Generally focus on size, silhouette, and presentation as opposed to becoming match-oriented.
The Eagle is a "high energy" river, with a lot of rocks and boulders. Fish usually have to make a rapid "take or refuse" decision. More often than not, a properly sized fly with the correct silhouette, accurate delivery, and drag-free float will elicit a strike.
When there is neither an obvious hatch nor visible trout activity, a good dry-fly searching pattern in a No. 14 to 16 with a caddis-emerger dropper in the same sizes is a good combination to start the day. In deeper holes, a large, weighted stonefly pattern No. 6 to 8 combined with a smaller mayfly nymph should get some action.
When fish activity becomes apparent, evaluate what fly and life stage the trout are focused on and make adjustments.
Marty Bartholomew, a Colorado fishing expert, has written that one of his frustrations on the Eagle involves determining whether the fish are feeding on caddis or pale morning duns when both insects are hatching simultaneously. Frustrating, perhaps -- but how can you really be frustrated when trout are actively feeding all around you?
Caddis will hatch throughout the summer. The Western sedge, predominant in July, is relatively insignificant in its adult form. But the bright green larvae are important food for Eagle River trout. No. 14 to 16 caddis larvae patterns with a lot of green will be successful.
The small olive and spotted sedge hatch all summer long. No. 18 to 20 olive patterns and No. 14 to 16 tan patterns will match these insects.
Though caddis may show up throughout the day, the usual prime time for caddis is the final two hours of daylight.
Red quills and pale morning duns (or PMDs) combine with the massive green drakes as the major mayfly hatches on the Eagle. From Wolcott downstream, tricos are an important mayfly from mid- to late July as well.
PMDs become available to the trout throughout July and into August. They usually hatch around mid-day with a late afternoon-evening spinner fall. Pale cream No. 14 to 18 patterns match the PMDs.
Red quills overlap the PMDs, beginning to hatch in July and continue to show up through August. Although the PMD patterns may work for the red quill as well, a little darker red quill pattern in No. 14 to 16 may be a better bet. The big drakes begin to hatch in mid-June on the lower river.
The hatch moves upstream, nearly to the headwaters on occasion. No. 10 to 12 Green Drake dry and emerger patterns, particularly the Quigley style or hair-wing flies work well on the Eagle. Typical trico patterns in No. 20 to 24 work when the tricos are hatching. Look for smooth runs, gentle takes, and use perfect presentation to fool the fish.
Golden stoneflies, yellow stones, and some salmon flies will hatch throughout the summer months.
These large flies offer trout a major mouthful and can bring large fish to the surface. Stoneflies hatch along the bank, so cast your large No. 6 to 10 stonefly patterns close to shore and be prepared for a powerful strike.
Ants, beetles and hoppers are trout favorites worldwide. Again, terrestrials become available near the shoreline where they may fall or be blown into the water. Hoppers in particular can elicit bone-jarring strikes from large fish.
CATCHING THE TROUT
July through September is the prime fishing season on the Eagle. Trout are looking up at the numerous insect hatches that the summer season brings. For that reason, most successful fishermen will use a dry-dropper or dry-dry combination. A medium-sized attractor with some green and a Copper John or seasonal emerger pattern dropped about 18 inches is a good combination to search with.
If a hatch is apparent, then an adult dry with a nymph or emerger dropper is the obvious choice.
Earlier in the summer, a caddis or stonefly dry works well as the dry. But later on, I prefer to use a hopper or beetle as the dry fly. Stimulators work well, as do Green Drakes when the drakes are hatching. If caddis are hatching, don't be anxious to leave the water before dark, since caddis action can be hot just before last light.
Handle fish with care and consider catch-and-release to help conserve our trout reserves.