A Tale Of 3 Tailwaters

A Tale Of 3 Tailwaters

Ready to catch big trout? Here are tips for hooking up with big 'bows at Colorado's top tailwaters on the Blue, Taylor and Yampa rivers. (February 2007)

Fishing the Taylor River in early spring, you'll deal with weather, but fewer anglers. Ray Rickard holds a 10-pounder that guide Rod Cesario helped him catch.
Photo courtesy of Dragonfly Anglers.

Like a predator, I surveyed the riffle, looking for him as the sun's rays warmed my face. Moments earlier, I could see clearly the 'bow's florescent pink stripe as he drifted between two boulders. Now his spots disguised him against the river's rocky bottom. But it wasn't long before his appetite got the best of him, and he drifted again, revealing his lair.


With a No. 22 Barr's emerger flashback dropped behind a No. 20 brassie, I slowly eased into position and presented a well-placed rollcast with my 5-weight Sage.

After throwing a mend to create a drag-free drift, I watched as my strike indicator floated beside the torpedo-shaped trout waiting just below. With a slight jerk of the indicator, I lifted the rod to set the hook.


The fish erupted with a boil, and the scream of the reel told the rest of the story as my bulky prize thrashed upstream. A few minutes later, I was admiring a colorful 22-inch rainbow.


That catch set the pace for another memorable early-spring trip on one of Colorado's premier tailwaters.

Mention early-spring fly-fishing to many dedicated anglers, and visions of colorful, plump rainbows gliding into a waiting net fills their minds, and for good reason. This season just might be the best time of year to tame a trout with a thick 20-inch frame.

If you're interested, there's perhaps no better place to hunt for these early-season hogs than on one of three legendary Colorado tailwaters.

Unlike most Western freestone fisheries, tailwaters offer visiting anglers a chance to consistently catch fish measured in pounds, not inches. Tailwaters create an optimal environment that's conducive to growing large fish.

There are several factors that enable this. One is the never-ending supply of protein-rich scuds, mysis shrimp and other food pumped in from the reservoir above. Add to this the invertebrate biodiversity the river already provides, and the residents put on the pounds as they feed on this year-round smorgasbord.

Another factor is the more consistent water temperatures that deep reservoirs provide. These bottom-release dams pump into the river water with a narrower range of temperatures, creating a more stable environment for growing trout.

However, there's a drawback to the tailwaters: crowds and easy access that often comes with them. With well-maintained roads to the dams, the best fishing is usually only a hop, skip and a jump from the nearest parking lot or pull-off. Also, during the peak summer fishing season, it's not uncommon to see scores of trout enthusiasts drifting flies through every boulder pool or casting spinners in every riffle run.

In fact, during the summer months, if you're not there with the rising sun to stake your claim on the best run, you might find yourself fishing for scraps. And needless to say, it doesn't take long for those tailwater residents to become smart and spooky.

So if you want to fool some big hungry trout and want a stretch of river to yourself, what do you do? Fish in the early spring before the fair-weathered crowds of summer come out of hibernation!

Late February into early May is prime time to dust the cobwebs out of your waders and chase some of Colorado's thick and sassy tailwater trout. You will have company, especially on weekends, so look for elbowroom on mid-week excursions.

These tippet-snapping trout have seen few flies during the winter. But they are still well-educated fish. Diligence is required.

Don't just jump in when you arrive. Study the water with a good pair of polarized glasses and look for any activity. It's not uncommon to see several 18- to 20-inchers in the runs.

Spotting them before they spook is key. Once you find one, stalk him like a hunter. Get into position and present the perfect drag-free drift.

Early spring in the Rockies means cold snaps, cold fingers and iced-up rod guides, but it also means willing takes, bowed rods and stretched tippets. The waters are beginning to warm, and the trout are getting feisty as they start shaking off the slow-metabolism days of winter. As it warms, so do the takes, and you can fight numerous 20-inchers in one day.

These big boys start feeding more, and kick into spawning mode. As these lovesick fish push upstream, they feed aggressively. This change of season is the best time to be streamside. In fact, hooking into some of these hogs means you're liable to see your backing before you see the fish.

Colorado offers numerous tailwaters to test your early-season skills. But for some of the best action, it's hard to beat the Blue River below Dillon Reservoir, the Taylor River below Taylor Reservoir, and the Yampa River below Stagecoach Reservoir and Lake Catamount. These catch-and-release hotspots offer opportunities to hook a trout pushing the tape to 22-plus inches.

BLUE RIVER

The first in this threesome is the fabled Blue River. Although its waters start atop the snowcapped Continental Divide and offer numerous public sections of freestone river to drift a fly through, it's the tailwater below Dillon Reservoir that seems to draw most of the angler attention in the spring.

Rightly so! It's a great stretch of Gold Medal Water if you want the opportunity to hook a trout that tips the scales upwards of 8 pounds.

"Spring is an excellent time to head to the Blue," said Zeke Hersh of Blue River Anglers. "The fish are starting to get active, and the midge hatches start coming off."

Although spring fishing usually means peace and quiet, that's not the case here. The cold, clear water pumped from Dillon Reservoir carves its way through the quaint mountain town of Silverthorne. Slamming car doors, ringing cash registers and bustling shoppers provide the backdrop to the tailrace trout here. In fact, this may be the only tailwater in Colorado where you can fool a 20-inch 'bow, get cheers from the onlookers for a great catch, and buy a steaming cup of java to shake off the chills of those cool early spring days -- all without even moving your vehicle.

In the late 1990s, the Colorado Division of Wildlife discovered that the Blue no longer met the state's Gold Medal standards. Drought, whirling disease and reduction in the river's biomass were thought to be the culprits. The Blue River Restoration Project went to work to improve river habit below Dillon Reservoir.

The result was new holding pools, riffles and boulder gardens for river residents. The CDOW also jumped in and began an aggressive restocking program, planting more than 2,500 10- to 14-inch rainbows below the reservoir over the past few years.

"Now, there are excellent numbers of 16- to 18-inch 'bows, browns and cutts," said Hersh. "And there is always a chance you'll hook into a 26-inch pig."

You'll find the best public access from the Forest Service Office in Silverthorne to the dam. That's a stretch of about a mile and a half.

"During the spring, look for hungry trout in the deeper pools and runs. But don't overlook the faster riffles if the weather has been warm," said Hersh.

When late March and early April roll around, the large rainbows and cutthroats start moving up to spawn, so look for them in riffles and the heads of deeper runs.

This tailwater is only 60 miles west of the Denver Metro area, off Highway 70. So it gets its share of rod-toting visitors. Educated trout require perfect presentations, so slow methodical fishing is a must.

TAYLOR RIVER

If you want to hook a true monster, plan to head to the nearly half-mile stretch of water below Taylor Reservoir. This tailwater is located northeast of the town of Gunnison, off Highway 135.

Access is short, but it's long on fish. In fact, some say that there's nowhere in the lower 48 where you can stand in one place and spot more 5-pound browns and 'bows.

State reports on released fish support this. Paul Legge's 30-inch Snake River Cutthroat takes top honors, as well as Tony Felicilda's head-turning rainbow that stretched the tape to a whopping 40 1/4 inches. In fact, no other tailwater in Colorado has produced more record-book trout than this "hog trough."

Cameron Scott, a guide with Dragonfly Anglers, said the fish start getting active as the water starts to warm and the bugs start coming off in March and April.

It's important to watch the flows, however. Trout do get caught when the flows are less than ideal, but it's best to head up when the flows are 200 cubic feet per second or higher. The fish tend to be more active at that time.

When you get there, don't get in the water and start fishing. This section of the river has dropoffs, deep holes and short sections of public access. Wading is discouraged. In fact, there are "Voluntary no wading zone" signs posted along its banks.

But don't let that keep you home. Since the river is relatively narrow, its huge residents are easily accessible from shore.

Although many contend there aren't as many oversized, football-shaped monsters lurking in the cold clear water, Scott said there are still excellent numbers of 18- to 22-inch trout, as well as some weighing in excess of 10 to 12 pounds. I don't know about you, but a 12-pounder on the end of my rod would sure put a smile on my face.

In most places, spring fishing usually means putting the heavy fleece away for the season -- but not so here. The cold air sweeping down from the Collegiate Peaks range to the east makes this one of the coldest places in Colorado. Add the typically windy spring weather, and it can be bone-chilling.

Also, these big fish are powerful, and long, extended runs through boulder pools are the norm. Running with one of the hooked pewter slabs is a must if you don't want them to break you off. And by all means, don't leave your net in the truck.

YAMPA RIVER

If you're looking for an early-spring bend in your fly rod, just south of the northwestern Colorado town of Steamboat Springs are two must-see tailwaters. Rainbows and browns dominate here. And according to John Duty of Bucking Rainbow Outfitters, "Early spring is perhaps one of the best times to hit these tailwaters."

The trout here average 16 to 19 inches, with a good number of them reaching 21 inches, he said. And every spring, some dedicated anglers are able to get several 6- to 9-pound pigs to the net.

The first of these two tailwaters is located below Stagecoach Reservoir. This catch-and-release watershed, the only one that offers public access, is barely more than a half-mile, but it's filled with riffles, runs and boulder pools to drift a fly through. Although access is skinny, the fat and sassy trout that live there are not.

According to the latest CDOW surveys, there are some 2,000 trout per mile, with a weight of about 600 pounds per acre. That translates to about a 2-pound average. Those are solid numbers and they should only get better in the future, according to Billy Atkinson, CDOW aquatic biologist.

Atkinson said that after years of low water, trout populations aren't where we really want them to be. However, over the past few years, numbers have steadily increased.

"I expect that to continue in the future, especially since we've been getting good snowpack for several winters," said the biologist.

It's not only the size and numbers that make it an excellent fishery, but it's also the vigorous fight the river's spirited rainbows put up when hooked. These are wild trout, so an 18-incher is going to strip some drag. Pound for pound, wild trout fight harder than their cousins from the hatchery.

The second tailwater along the Yampa is below Lake Catamount. It's strictly private, so you pay for access here. If you're willing to part with a few greenbacks at a local fly shop, you'll probably be rewarded with drag-ripping runs. Only a few anglers visit these waters, and 20-inch trout seem to be in endless supply. Angling is often nothing short of trout-fishing nirvana.

FOR YOUR INFORMATION

Trout on public water do get picky. Be sure and stop at the local fly shops to pick up a few can't-miss patterns and updated information.

For the Blue River, check out Blue River Anglers at 1-888-453-9171 or visit BlueRiverAnglers.com.

Fishing the Taylor? The guys at Dragon Fly Anglers, 1-800-491-3079 or DragonflyAnglers.com, will help you out. For the Yampa, Bucking Rainbow Outfitters, 1-888-810-8747 or BuckingRainbow.com, will know the current fishing reports and trends.

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