Spring Angling on Colorado's Roaring Fork River

Spring Angling on Colorado's Roaring Fork River

Rich in history and full of fish, the Roaring Fork River in western Colorado is one of the few remaining free-flowing rivers in the state, and it's Colorado's best freestone stream to boot.

Author Joel Evans plays a rainbow caught on a weighted double nymph setup. Remnants of winter's snow greet the spring angler on the Roaring Fork River in western Colorado. Get there early -- before the summer crowds arrive and the spring runoff begins -- for some of the best fishing of the entire year. (Photo courtesy of Joel Evans)

Free and independent just like the mountain pass where the river begins, the Roaring Fork begins as a snowmelt trickle at the top of Independence Pass in the Colorado Rockies near Aspen. The river gains and flows northwesterly until it joins the Colorado River at Glenwood Springs, some 65 miles later.

More than a century ago, gold-seeking miners came by foot and by horse. Soon to follow the miners by wagon and by railroad were the businessmen, homesteaders and drifters, all searching for wealth, looking to work in the Roaring Fork Valley. Today summer tourists and winter skiers scantly remember those hard beginnings.

Although development in the valley has been fast and hectic ever since the ski area came about after World War II, the Roaring Fork River remains vibrant and the centerpiece of one of Colorado's most prized locations. The quality of the fishery in the Roaring Fork River is evidence that a river can survive, and even flourish, amidst such development.

Evidence of a quality freestone river lies in its strong insect population, the clear water of spring and fall, the scouring but cleansing effect of a spring runoff, the natural bends and deep holes, interspersed with riffles and protected pocket water, cutbanks on the outside of the bends, with cottonwoods and evergreens in the riparian zones, and brush along the banks.

A cycle of drought in the western United States has affected most of Colorado's rivers. Although the average water flow has decreased in the past several years because of reduced snowpack, it seems to not have significantly affected the fishery. Lower flows tend to concentrate the fish in the summer season, giving better access to the trout's hiding place. That, of course, is a two-way street as fishermen have to use lighter lines and be even sneakier when the water is low and clear.

I believe this is just one of nature's ways of strengthening the gene pool of the trout, for only the biggest and best survive the hard times of low flows and increased fishing pressure. And I'm happy to report they are surviving well. Having fished this river for four decades, the fish numbers are there and the catching is excellent. Fish are vibrant in color and even the small ones are plump. You will discover colorful rainbows and browns of mostly 10 to 12 inches that fight with vigor. Cutthroats and brook trout are also around, as well as the mountain whitefish in the lower stretches near Glenwood Springs. Sprinkle in a high number of 15- to 20-inchers and then some old-timers that you can measure by the pound and there is no doubt the Roaring Fork is an outstanding river by anyone's measure.

The Fork, as it is referred to locally, can be divided into thirds. Not in terms of mileage, but rather as to character and its public access.

From its craggy headwaters at over 10,000 feet downstream to Aspen, the Fork crashes through boulder fields and slot canyons as it gains size from numerous feeder creeks and springs. This section is mostly public access within the White River National Forest. Go here for a solitary experience to catch small brook and rainbow trout in very small pocket water.

Near Aspen and downstream to Basalt, the valley floor levels, and the water is somewhat gentler. But realize that level and gentle are relative terms. The river remains a fast-flowing stream, one that is difficult to wade, especially at higher flows. The pocket-water pockets grow in stature and long, deep runs begin to appear, with an occasional deep pool at the bottom end of a riffle or swirled around a large, protective rock. This section is public access down to the Upper Woody Creek bridge, then a mixture of public and private water from the bridge down to Basalt.

At Basalt, the Fork changes character somewhat due to the addition of the Frying Pan River. The Pan, being a tailwater river, adds not only volume, but usually also adds very clear water. Here the valley floor opens, causing the Fork to slow somewhat, having less pocket water and more deep runs and long, wide bends. From Basalt downstream to Glenwood Springs, the farther downstream you go, the slower the river becomes and the less public access there is. However, at Carbondale, the Crystal River, a free-flowing tributary, adds more volume, and the section from Carbondale to Glenwood Springs is an excellent section to float.

Fish numbers generally decrease as you progress downstream but, correspondingly, fish size generally increases. In the upper section near Aspen, 30- to 50-fish days are common, with most being less than 12 inches. In the lower section, floating through private water, most anglers will catch fewer fish in a day, but you can be sure to engage a few that will test your ability to land them without breaking off.

Rainbows and browns are evenly mixed throughout the river, but the higher elevation stretches with colder and faster water have a bias to rainbows while the lower stretches have a bias to browns. Near Glenwood Springs, a large population of whitefish, a plain but worthy opponent, can provide just as much action as trout. A tug on the business end of the line always makes for a guess as to which one -- trout or whitefish -- has inhaled the fly and is now showboating just out of sight beneath the current.

Having fished it often and at all times of the year, there is no bad time to fish the Fork. Pre-runoff is an excellent season -- few fishermen, hungry trout after a winter of want, and low, clear water make spring a great time of year to be on the river. About the only time to skip the Fork is during runoff. Sure you can catch fish in the mud if you work at it, but why bother? Head over to the nearby Frying Pan instead.

Summer gets busier with visitors, but there is plenty of river access to share. Oh, what a beautiful place to be! Summer in the Roaring Fork Valley sings a sweet song. Summer brings the opportunity to poke a dry fly into every pocket and riffle. If no feeding fish are evident, casting upstream with a nymph and weight into the longer, deeper pools usually brings a fish.

ROARING FORK HISTORY

The story of the Roaring Fork Valley and its most prominent town, Aspen, matches the story of much of the Rocky Mountain West. In the second half of the 19th century, gold and silver fortune seekers fueled America's westward expansion. In the late 1870s, miners pushing west out of Denver established mining tent camps throughout central Colorado mountains. Camps became settlements and settlements became towns as merchants and then the railroads followed the miners. Leadville, Cripple Creek and Creede became cities with populations in the thousands virtually overnight.

Aspen was first established in 1879 when miners came west over Independence Pass. Dropping into the headwaters of the Roaring Fork, they followed the river down to the bottom of the valley and established a mining camp. The first winter was severe, with over 50 feet of snow recorded. It is a wonder a town ever got started at all.

Aspen flourished as a mining town, with two railroads. A few miners made great fortunes; most, however, lived simple, difficult and often short lives. Large Victorian homes were built next to one-room log cabins. Brick and stone buildings were erected downtown. Schools and churches were added. The mines erected trams and great stamp mills. But it was short-lived.

In 1893, federal legislation repealed the Sherman Act, which supported silver prices. An economic panic ensued, marking the beginning of the end for mining communities. Most of those Colorado towns never recovered, becoming ghost towns.

A few, such as Aspen, hung on with a small population. After World War II, things changed. Americans discovered snow-skiing, and high mountain valley towns found new prosperity from winter ski tourism.

-- Joel Evans

 

Anytime through October, cannot a mistake be made. Aspen and cottonwood trees lining the river bottom turn a brilliant yellow, the oak brush and serviceberry add a soft red contrast, while clear blue skies with moderately warm days make for a day in Colorado's mountain heaven. Summer crowds have dissipated and the trout have gained their summer weight, making for a challenging, low water, easy wading, sometimes sight-fishing experience to challenge a fish one-on-one.

Even winter can be very good in the lower stretches between Glenwood Springs and Basalt. Although winter river fishing can be challenging, most of the challenge is in getting over the common belief that fishing is just a fair-weather sport. But I say, any day I can go fishing is a "fair" day.

Winter flows are clear and at their lowest point, which concentrates the fish in the deeper runs, and your offering is easily put in front of fish and seen by them. Basically you can skip most of the shallow runs and holes. They just aren't there in the winter as they would be in the summer. Reading the water is more important than what lure or fly you use or what pound-test line you attach it with. So what if there is snow on the bank or ice along the edges? If the water is open and flowing in the middle, then there is opportunity to be had -- the fish continue to feed. Using neoprene waders and by dressing in layers, one can be comfortable fishing and wading all winter long.

Because of highly oxygenated, clean water, with a strong current, the Roaring Fork has a diverse and heavy population of insects. You will find most everything -- mayflies, caddis, stoneflies and midges. Terrestrials and streamers are also effective in certain situations. Streamers imitating sculpins as well as baitfish streamer patterns are deadly when float fishing the lower river. Attractor patterns work well in the less-pressured times of the year and sections of the river. During the height of summer pressure, local fly shops have unique and usually smaller patterns that you'll need to fool the fish that see a parade of flies.

Caddis flies are the most numerous. The early spring hatches become overwhelming, with days that you have to be careful breathing lest you inhale a few bugs. Blue-winged olives come early in spring, dissipate during the summer, and return in numbers again in the fall. Dry, nymph, emerger and wet fly techniques are all effective -- just pay attention to what is happening on or in the water and be flexible and changing with the progression of the hatch during the day. Pale morning duns create some delicate dry-fly fishing in the summer, but the biggest bang is the green drake hatch. Drakes are big bugs, strikes are explosive when the fish are on them, and there is no better time to consistently bring up the bigger fish to a dry.

Fishing a stonefly dry can be effective at times, but more fish are caught on a stonefly nymph pattern, either as a dropper under a big dry, or on a double nymph setup fished deep with weight. When nymph fishing, strike indicators may be necessary in the deepest of holes where you cannot see bottom. I prefer to use two very small indicators rather than one large one. With two, you can mend the floating line without moving the sunken fly. But in anything shallower, leave off the strike indicator and watch for the fish. You will see them flash. Develop a soft-slip strike technique that simply tightens the slack line and sets the hook.

The Roaring Fork is a special river to me, for it is my mother river -- the beginnings of my fishing experiences. My father, E.T. Evans, bought riverfront land in the early 1950s, which he still owns today. It is here I learned about trout. Thanks Dad.

The Fork never disappoints me: Classic mountain water with runs and pockets and pools; seasonal variations with year-round fishing; abundant insect life; and challenging wading. Clear, cold, free and independent, just like the mountains that feed her and typical of the attitude of the trout that inhabit its waters, the Roaring Fork rocks.

FOR YOUR INFORMATION

Although Aspen has a reputation as an expensive ski resort, trout anglers can find some good values there and throughout the Roaring Fork Valley. There are many choices and price ranges for food and lodging in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale, Basalt and Aspen. Summer lodging is reasonably priced, there are plenty of family-style places to eat, and a fishing license doesn't cost more here than anywhere else.

Due to the abundance of quality rivers in the area, sporting goods and fly-fishing shops and other services are in every town, offering tackle, guided trips or just good advice:

• Glenwood Springs Chamber Resort Association --
www.glenscape.com; 970-945-6589

• Carbondale Chamber of Commerce --
www.carbondale.com; 970-963-1890

• Basalt Chamber of Commerce --
www.basaltchamber.com; 970-927-4031

• Aspen Chamber Resort Association --
www.aspenchamber.org; 970-925-1940

• Roaring Fork Anglers, Glenwood Springs --
www.alpineangling.com; 970-945-0180

• Roaring Fork Outfitters, Glenwood Springs -- 970-945-5800

• Alpine Angling, Carbondale --
www.alpineangling.com; 970-963-9245

• Frying Pan Anglers, Basalt --
www.fryingpananglers.com; 970-927-3441

• Taylor Creek, Basalt --
www.taylorcreek.com; 970-927-4374

• Oxbow Outfitting, Aspen -- 970-925-1505

• Pomeroy Sports, Aspen --
www.pomeroysports.com; 970-925-7875

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