Fly Fishing for Colorado Tailwater Trout
January 19, 2018
It's a great time to enjoy Colorado tailwater trout angling at these top Centennial State locations.
Fly-fishing is a growing sport, and winter fly-fishing is following suit across the Western states.
In the recent past, Colorado fishermen put their fly gear away once hunting season arrived. And if they later headed for fishing destinations, they selected still waters, armed with ice augers and bait rather than waders and fly rods.
Although flowing waters are seldom crowded during cold weather, it isn't unusual to find a few hardy souls seeking action at popular winter angling destinations.
This is a gentleman's sport — no sunrise expedition. Take a leisurely breakfast and arrive on the river around 10 a.m. Fish until around 3 p.m. to take advantage of the warmest part of the day while fish are most active.
Top Colorado winter waters almost exclusively refers to tailwaters where warmer water flows from the bottom of a dam.
Most freestone streams are frozen over with limited open water. Colorado is blessed with a multitude of tailwaters. This encourages both insect and trout activity for significant distances downstream. As a bonus, tailwaters also harbor some of the state's largest trout.
Winter trout demand alteration to summer fishing techniques for success. Cold water reduces trout appetites and simultaneously alters their response to potential food items flowing past.
Trout become reluctant to expend energy "chasing" food with regard to the energy gained by eating tiny tidbits common in tailwaters.
At the same time, winter flows are usually very low and crystal clear, making stealth and precise presentation important. Success demands placing your fly right on the fish's nose, or it will be ignored.
Thankfully, low flows also enhance sight-fishing. Overall, winter fly-fishing offers an opportunity to enjoy uncrowded fishing for trophy trout in a scenic winter wonderland. Following are some top locations where you could catch the trout of a lifetime.
THE FRYING PAN
The Frying Pan is one of America's top trout rivers. Big trout with graduate degrees reside just below Ruedi Reservoir, which dumps directly into the famous "toilet bowl" immediately below the dam.
The Frying Pan's fantastic insect population and mysis shrimp are responsible for the huge fish that live in this 14-mile stretch of Gold Medal trout stream.
Mysis are small, semi-white or clear bits of protein, and trout love them. The midges and mysis are the principal food source here throughout the winter, and they offer the best opportunity to connect with a double-digit weight rainbow.
The "Pan" and its popular neighbor, the Roaring Fork, unite in Basalt before joining the Colorado River farther downstream.
The upper mile and a half is catch- and-release, but there is plenty of excellent public access mingled with well-marked private property farther downstream.
The catch-and-release section holds most of the outsize trout, but plenty of fine fish call the lower river home. Chances are, you will catch more fish there. Winter is the prime time to test this water because the absence of big crowds provides some privacy.
On warm winter days, you may well confront a midge hatch. And February is likely to bring some baetis hatches as well.
Nymphing is the best tactic for attracting one of the hogs, but the necessity for perfect presentation and tiny 7X to 8X leaders make it difficult to land one if you do connect.
The Blue River has a well-known reputation for trout that pile on the pounds from a mysis shrimp diet. The little crustaceans flow out of Dillon Reservoir right into their mouths.
The tailwater section of the Blue flows underneath I-70 at Silverthorne and through a shopping center parking lot there. Fascinated shoppers often watch the action from above, sometimes pinpointing big trout for a sight-fishing angler directly below.
Fishing in this "stadium" environment turns off some fishermen, but this section holds lots of big trout. Browns and brookies reside here with rainbows that average around 16 inches.
Many fish farther down with great success, but ice can become a problem. The lunkers are generally within two miles of the dam.
Typically, tiny midge larvae, shrimp and mayfly nymphs will take the most trout. There are not many hatches along the Blue. Tiny flies and long 6x or 7x leaders are required to fool these highly educated trout.
The Taylor River is the coldest of Colorado's winter tailwaters, but is also home to the largest trout. The state-record rainbow — which topped 40 inches — was recently recorded, and 10- to 20-pound trout are not uncommon.
The river is contained by a narrow canyon where warming sunlight is restricted in winter. This is a public tailwater where lots of outsize trout are caught with regularity. Sighting these fish is exciting, but connecting with one is an incredible experience. Wading is not recommended and is very dangerous in icy conditions.
Bring your best skills here to try for the big ones. Tiny leaders, mysis, tiny midge and mayfly imitations, and perfect presentations are necessary to attract fish in the "hog trough" directly below the dam.
Bringing double-digit weight trout to net with this gear requires skill and even more luck. Trout here see more fishermen than anywhere else in the state, so they are used to anglers. If you place a perfect drift directly in the trout's face, watch for him to signal a take and hang on.
The Yampa River has a variety of waters, but the best winter fisheries are the Stagecoach Reservoir tailwater and the moderate flow segment that runs through downtown Steamboat Springs.
There is also a lot of private water along the Yampa. The catch-and-release tailwater has the best winter fishing for both big browns and rainbows. I believe you will catch more fish here and along the Yampa than in other tailwaters in Colorado.
The section that flows through town, where there are cutts and brookies, also is catch-and-release. Compared to the tailwater, fish sizes in town are a little larger, but numbers decrease somewhat.
Both segments hold some big trout. There are also access points to other excellent cold-weather fishing on the Yampa. The fish may be smaller, but they are usually willing to eat. Winter hatches make dry fly days relatively common.
Catch rates are pretty high on the Yampa because these trout are always hungry. Typically, midges and mayfly nymphs will be most successful. Baetis hatches can occur as early as March in the Yampa.
THE SOUTH PLATTE
Spring, summer and fall find fly-fishermen flocking to Colorado's South Platte River — considered by most to be one of the premium fly-fishing sites in the world.
The most hallowed South Platte destination, especially for winter fishing, is the Cheesman Dam tailwater above Deckers off highway 67. Big rainbows and browns with doctoral degrees embrace this Gold Medal section of the Platte, hiding amongst the huge boulder strewn currents below the dam.
These are the most difficult trout to entice anywhere, demanding the tiniest of flies attached to the finest of tippets perfectly delivered on the money to generate even a limited interest in your fly.
If you can catch trout here, you will have success anywhere you fish. The Gill Trail from the parking lot covering the 3.5 miles to the dam along a somewhat treacherous trail leads you to fly-fishing paradise.
Another productive stretch of the Platte is the three-mile Gold Medal catch-and-release section below Spinney Mountain Reservoir. Browns and rainbows reach immense sizes, with an average size around 15 to 17 inches.
Commonly referred to as the "Dream Stream," this segment of the river is heavily plied during the warm months and also during the winter. It can get very cold here as winds drive the chill factor down.
Although the number of outsize trout here is often multiplied by spawning trout out of Eleven Mile Reservoir moving up in spring and fall there are plenty of big fish that maintain a permanent address here.
Peach-colored eggs attract the big browns that follow spawning rainbows up out of 11 Mile in February and March. Typical tiny tailwater flies are standard, too.
There are other sections of the Platte that may be less crowded while also offering excellent winter fishing. The river running alongside 67 below Deckers has great water, with some large fish also.
The tailwater below 11 Mile Reservoir is a superb stretch with a large trout population. This section gathers a lot of sunlight and has protection from the wind that harasses the Dream Stream above. The river is south of Lake George on Colorado Route 96.
I believe using a guide for your first trip is essential. The money well spent in so doing will show you the how, what, where and why to be successful on your own in the future. Just as important is being comfortable in the environment.
Colorado mountain weather can be bitterly cold, cool or even warm. Sometimes a light jacket is quite adequate, while a little later a heavy jacket with down vest is much better.
Don't skimp on clothing, regardless of the forecast and present condition. Prepare for slick icy footing and snowstorms in the high country.
Don't forget fishing gloves and hand warmers. Avoid wading, if possible, as a dunk in icy water can become a survival situation. I always carry a supply of emergency food, fire starters and spare clothing.
Somebody always knows where I am going and when I expect to return. Cell phones are mostly useless in the high country.
Check the forecast to schedule your fishing trip on warmer days with low wind potential. Warmer, sunny days may produce great midge hatches.
If you have come for the hogs, bring a soft action 5- or 6-weight 9-foot rod with matching line. Nine- or 12-foot fluorocarbon leaders tapered to 5X to 7X will do the job in most places. A 3- or 4-weight rod is better if you don't plan to fish the tailwater. Try to avoid removing your catch from water, which multiplies stress on the fish. And cold temps can damage a wet fish very quickly.
Winter fish seek out the warmest water that provides security and easy access to food. They will usually hold in deep holes out of the current, but may transit to lies in shallower water below riffles or rapids to feed. If you find suspended fish, they are probably in a feeding mood. Where you find one fish, there are likely more in the same hold.
Sun-warmed water will attract trout if it also provides protection. Midge hatches may occur in warmer water as well. It is a fact that bad weather can lead to great fishing. Cloudy, rainy or snowy days seem to inspire trout to eat.
Winter trout feed mostly on midges or baetis nymphs, so an assortment of tiny midge larva, pupae, or adult and standard mayfly nymphs and mysis shrimp supplemented with some small eggs, SJ Worms and small streamers will cover your needs.
Weighted flies and additional weight may be necessary to get your flies deep enough. Trout strikes are very light and subtle, and indicators often won't indicate a take. Watch the fish to indicate when it has taken the fly.