Centennial State Trout Outlook

Here's your first look at all of Colorado's hottest places to fish in 2006. (March 2006)

Scented plastics are bait. Those four simple words carry the banner of a philosophical change in Colorado that dominated discussions by trout anglers and fishery managers alike in 2005. Now amended with that philosophy, the Centennial State's trout fishing regulations have deemed that soft-plastic imitation eggs -- and other manmade items like them that exude scent -- are not artificials. They are baits and cannot be used on any of the state's waters in which only flies or lures are allowed.

Other than that decision, trout anglers will notice few changes as they enter the 2006 trout-fishing season.

How soon Colorado anglers can take to the streams and lakes depends on our winter snowpack. Robin Knox, with the Colorado Department of Wildlife, reports that water supplies in 2005 were in good condition. Reservoir levels were as high as they had been in three or four years.

"Lakes and reservoirs in the mountains are the No. 1 preferred fishing locations for about 65 percent of our anglers," says Knox. "The second most popular for fishing is streams; about 35 percent of the anglers prefer that as their first choice." Colorado has 6,000 miles of streams and more than 2,000 lakes and reservoirs. Gold Medal streams provide outstanding angler opportunities for large trout.

Let's take a look at the three major river basins -- South Platte, Arkansas, and the Colorado -- to see how the fishing will be this coming season.

SOUTH PLATTE RIVER BASIN

Major streams within the South Platte basin include the South Fork, Middle Fork and North Fork of the South Platte River. Additional popular trout-fishing streams include Clear Creek, Boulder Creek, St. Vrain Creek, and the Big Thompson River -- which is a favorite of residents and non-residents alike. Stocked rainbow trout and a natural brown trout population provide good fishing from May through September. Salmon eggs, various lures and worms work best during the spring run-off; flies are best during late July, August and September.

Ken Kehmeier, DOW biologist for the Poudre River, expects good fishing there this year. "We had a great water year in 2005. Brown trout recruitment in the Poudre River was good, and survival of older fish has been tremendous.

The river begins its race for the flatlands from the Continental Divide in Rocky Mountain National Park. During the course of its rush to join the South Platte River near Greeley, it provides more than 60 miles of public fishing. There are good populations of brown trout, as well as some mountain whitefish and a limited rainbow fishery.

"There is wild trout water on it, no Gold Medal water," Kehmeier said. Gold Medal waters must meet a standard of biomass and numbers of large fish, while wild-trout water hosts populations of wild-hatched fish. "We manage 10 miles of the river as wild trout, but since 1994 it has been 60 miles of wild-trout fishery," continued Kehmeier.

"Most people fish the special regulations area, about a two-mile stretch that has nice access and good habitat. Good fishing locations are near the hatchery, Pingree Park Bridge, and Gateway Park. There are a few dry-fly anglers, but it is a fairly high-gradient stream. Many anglers use nymphs for a lot of pocketwater type of fishing."

Extensive in-stream habitat improvement projects have taken place on the South Platte River. A six-mile stretch of Gold Medal water between the Elevenmile and Spinney Mountain reservoirs is commonly labeled "the Dream Stream" by trout anglers. "There is good holding habitat for the trout, a lot of area for anglers to spread out, and accessibility is pretty good," says Greg Gerlich, senior aquatic biologist for the northeast region. "There are about three different locations where anglers can park and walk right down into the river."

Stream modifications include narrowing the stream, creating deeper pools on outside bends, stabilizing point bars and banks, and placing structures across streams to create pools behind them and get the streams to start doing what they were designed to do.

"In the early '90s, that segment below Spinney Mountain Reservoir started to be impacted with whirling disease, very much so through the late '90s," said Gerlich. "We essentially lost all rainbow recruitment. Through an aggressive stocking program, we brought in larger rainbows and also tried to beef up the numbers going into Elevenmile Reservoir. We managed to bring back the good component of rainbow and cutbow fisheries that are in there." A cutbow is a hybrid created from cutthroat and rainbow trout. The resilient brown trout has not suffered.

Habitat improvement has coaxed cutbows to make spawning runs upriver from Elevenmile Reservoir. "Twelve- to 18-inch cutbows used to run up the river in a spawning run. Whether or not they were very successful at spawning -- probably not -- they were thinking they were going to do that. They would return back down to the reservoir, because there wasn't much good holding habitat for them up there, but now there is. We are seeing an increase of biomass, particularly in that segment."

Below Elevenmile Reservoir is Elevenmile Canyon. The canyon is about eight miles long and is accessible out of the town of Lake George, Colo. On the upper segment of the canyon, about three miles, only flies and artificial lures are allowed. Most of the rest of the lower canyon operates under standard regulations. Colorado DOW supplements the rainbow trout populations with stockings in late spring and early summer.

Elevenmile Reservoir has larger than average rainbows, cutthroats and browns. Some of the biggest kokanee salmon in the state are caught out of Elevenmile. Spinney Mountain Reservoir is touted as the place to consistently catch 16-inch-plus rainbows, browns and Snake River cutthroats. The best fishing is right after April ice-out. Anglers can fish from belly boats or the shore.

Upstream from Hartsel, Colo., habitat improvement work was completed on the South Fork. "What we see in there is a good standing population of brown trout as well as more holding cover, more increased numbers of rainbow trout," said Gerlich. Standard fishing regulations apply for this section, not limited to artificial flies and lures.

In addition to the trout in the South Platte and its forks, Colorado anglers will find the biggest rainbows in the larger reservoirs, starting as early as March in the lower elevations and going into April and May.

Chatfield Reservoir, on the south end of Denver, offers fishing for large rainbow trout. Moving upstream to the next reservoir is Strontia Springs. The segment below it, commonly known as Waterton Canyon, offers

activity on bigger rainbow and cutbow trout.

A wide variety of dry flies and nymph tactics are used. Many anglers use a trailer fly, such as a caddis or nymph behind a dry fly. Other anglers use spinning-rod tackle. "We have some folks who use smaller tube jigs," said Gerlich. "Anglers should refer to the new 2006 fishing regulations booklet pertaining to the sections of streams they will be fishing. Most of them are signed well, but it's good to check whether you're in a fly- and lure-only segment."

ARKANSAS RIVER BASIN

The Arkansas River offers nearly 80 miles of public access, from Hayden Flats near Leadville to Canon City, and boasts high catches of browns and rainbows to 20 inches. Browns dominate the fishery, but large rainbows are common.

Snowmelt run-off begins about the first of May on the Arkansas River and surrounding streams, says Doug Krieger, Colorado DOW biologist for southeast Colorado. Run-off continues through June. Wading and fly-fishing become possible around mid- July.

"In the peak of the run-off, the fish are just hanging out," said Krieger. "You can find locations where you can do a little worm dunking, but rivers like the Arkansas are fairly ferocious. You have to be darn careful. One slip while wading, and you will be downstream real fast. Very few people fish the Arkansas during the run-off. Once it gets below 1,000 (cubic feet per second), then it becomes fishable around the edges."

The Arkansas has more of a natural run-off; other rivers are more controlled. The Arkansas is almost all wild brown trout with an occasional rainbow. The Colorado DOW stocks some small rainbows to keep the rainbow population up.

"One of the big deals on the Arkansas is what they call the Mother's Day caddis hatch, and usually that starts probably before Mother's Day, typically by the third week in April."

Some of the better feeder streams leading into the Arkansas are Clear Creek, Texas Creek and the South Fork of the Arkansas. Clear Creek Reservoir produces excellent year-round catches of nice-sized brown, rainbow and cutthroat trout.

"Most people fish the Arkansas with both flies and lures," said Krieger. "Panther Martin is always a real good spinner to have. As far as fly-fishing, it depends on what's hatching at the time. In the springtime, very early, that's going to be probably small mayflies, then moving to stoneflies and then caddis, getting closer into the run-off period."

The Rio Grande is a lot like the Arkansas, in that brown trout dominate its waters, and the season is about the same. Usually by mid-May snowmelt races downhill, causing conditions too high and muddy for fishing. However, run-off tapers more quickly on the Rio Grande than the Arkansas. The end of May or sometime near the first of June marks its return to fishability.

Look for good brown and rainbow trout fishing from Rio Grande Reservoir downstream to Del Norte. Fly-fishing is best in June through July, when stonefly and mayfly hatches dominate fish's diets. The Gold Medal section from South Fork to Del Norte provides trophy brown trout.

Instead of trying to find some place to fish streams during the run-off, some anglers simply target reservoirs. "About the time the rivers get a little muddy, there are definitely reservoirs to go to," said Krieger. "Most of our higher reservoirs are opening up by the middle of May, first of June."

Some of the more popular reservoirs on the Arkansas are Clear Creek, near Buena Vista; Twin Lakes and Turquoise Lake, both near Leadville; and other reservoirs, such as Brush Hollow. "That's a good spring destination that opens fairly early, in March," continued Krieger. "We stock Brush Hollow with rainbow trout. It also has warmwater fish species and is located near Canon City."

Turquoise Lake, on the base of the Continental Divide, is one of Colorado's most scenic reservoirs, offering rainbow, brown, cutthroat and lake trout fishing. The lake is four miles west of Leadville.

One of the best places to try in May or June is Rampart Reservoir outside of Colorado Springs. It rates a try as soon as the ice goes off, because it has carryover trout from the previous year and provides great fishing fairly close to home.

Another group of scenic waters just out of Colorado Springs on the north slope of Pikes Peak are Crystal Creek Reservoir, and North and South Catamounts. The lakes suffered from drought for a number of years, but now the reservoirs have come back very well. "I think this year, anglers will be seeing these reservoirs fairly full again and we will be getting back to full stocking," said Krieger. "There is a small charge to get to the reservoirs, but it is very scenic; great waters to take the family. They ice-out about the middle of May."

COLORADO RIVER BASIN

Blue Mesa Reservoir, near Gunnison, is the largest coldwater reservoir in Colorado. Rainbow trout and kokanee salmon are stocked; lake trout, which reproduce naturally, grow to trophy size here. The best time to fish for lake trout is immediately after ice-out.

The Gunnison River provides some of the best trophy brown and rainbow trout fishing. Numerous fish over 16 inches can be caught, particularly in the middle stretch between Crystal Creek and the confluence with the North Fork, but only foot access is allowed in this section. The Gunnison River flows into Blue Mesa.

"Generally in the spring when the ice goes out, the fish bite pretty good, usually until mid-July when the surface waters warm up and the fish tend to go down deeper," said Mike Japhet, fishery biologist with the CDOW. "Fishing on the surface with bait, flies or lures will often produce results. The later into the summer you go, the more terrestrial insects and flying insects there are. Then switch to dry flies and fish the surface. Early in the season, you want to be down under the water with a flashy lure, like a gold Mepps, Panther Martin, or be fishing with bait."

Another popular reservoir is Vallecito, 30 miles southeast of Durango. As with Blue Mesa, Vallecito contains rainbow trout and kokanee salmon, plus trophy-sized northern pike. Ice-out normally occurs in late April.

"Troll slowly with a series of silver flashing spoons tied in a row, small hook baited with a piece of night crawler, trolled say 23 feet deep for kokanee, an open-water fish," advises Japhet. Finding the right depth is usually the key to catching fish.

Three key streams in this area are the Roaring Fork, Piedra River and the Animas River. "Roaring Fork River near Aspen has good rainbow and brown trout populations and is designated a Gold Medal water."

The state's newest Gold Medal water is the Animas River, boasting many brown and rainbow trout in 14- to 18-inch range. The Animas is best fished after snowmelt, from mid-April to June. Black Canyon, on the Gunnison River below Blue Mesa Reservoir, is a hike-in only trip.

Piedra River, by Pagosa Spring

s, is another walk-in river. About one to two miles to reach, the river offers very good fishing for rainbow and brown trout, especially late in the summer after the peak of the runoff.

"Most Colorado streams are not stocked because there is natural reproduction," explained Japhet. "There are a few exceptions in heavily populated areas. In recent years, because of the drought, we had to restock some streams. But wilderness and backcountry streams, those without a road to them, we do not stock annually."

FOR YOUR INFORMATION

Colorado anglers can see the 2006 fishing regulations booklet at license dealers statewide or online on the Department of Wildlife's Web page: http://wildlife.state.co.us/.

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