While some Colorado trout streams are muddied or locked into the hold of later winter, others are producing lots of feisty spring trout during April and May.
A great many streams will be socked in with enough snow that you’d have to snowshoe or ski into just to get to the fish.
But layered into niches are always waters that are approaching perfection for feeding trout and the Colorado fishermen who are out right now pursuing them.
Of course this is never an exact science from year to year, as populations of trout and prey fluctuate. And more importantly, the weather patterns shift the fishing schedule for a stream by weeks if not months from one year to another.
But always there is good fishing someplace.
Trout being the coldwater creatures that they are, they remain very active and in feeding moods even when the water is icy in spring. The feeding activity of the fish becomes very dependent on the hatch. So, on a warming April or May day when the bugs come out, so also do the feeding trout.
One of the places anglers often check out for spring fishing flows out of the mountains and into good fishing spots near Basalt — where the Frying Pan River and the Roaring Fork merge.
March and April are big months for stone fly patterns, blue-winged olives and caddis, advised Deborah Weinreis, with Frying Pan Anglers in Basalt.
The size 6 stoneflies work well just out the front door of the fly shop on the Frying Pan. Natural looking color patterns are the most used — black, olive, red and brown.
Later in the season, as air and water warms, there will be good fishing with pale morning dun patterns, green drakes and caddis. This usually begins in June and runs through August.
Changes are sudden. Like the rest of the Colorado Rockies, when the frigid spring day turns sunny, then the insect activity comes to life. Dry fly fishing the hatches commences.
“They are browns and rainbows,” said Weinreis. “The size can be small — 10 and 12 inches. But then there are bigger fish, too.”
As the season progresses, anglers start using more terrestrials. Hoppers and Flying Crickets produce spectacularly on some days.
Weinreis said the size of the fish and the flies they take goes up over on the Roaring Fork River.
“There is an average of over 12 inches,” she noted. “There are a lot of big fish in there. You are surprised to see some of the big guys pulled out of there — 30-inchers.”
This is Colorado in spring, so if the snows thaw and the rivers churn brown, then there is always upstream where water gushes from Ruedi Dam.
“We fish at 7,800 feet where the water pours out of the dam,” said Weinreis. “The water at the dam stays the same temperature all year. The only thing that stops us is when it gets too much snow and you can’t get to the river. But you will see people up there trying to figure out how to get in there.”
This tailwater fishing below Ruedi and other Colorado reservoirs is usually the standby all over Colorado when water gets high in spring. Tailwaters run pristine.
Shrimp patterns here and elsewhere can be good. Little mysis shrimp abound. Trout feed on this high protein food and grow large very quickly in the water temperatures that stay in an ideal range for coldwater fish.
There is plenty of access on the Roaring Fork and Frying Pan, with much of it being right near major roads. To the north in another part of Colorado anglers find good fishing this time of year near Steamboat Springs where the Yampa River flows right through town. It’s close enough to the Denver metropolitan area to be accessible on a one-day fishing trip, but far away enough and unknown enough to get away form the usual urban crowds, said Wes Fout, manager and fishing guide with Steamboat Flyfisher.
The main river runs almost within casting distance of the fly shop.
“It is pretty underutilized,” said Fout. “About seven miles of public water through town.”
The Elk River also flows nearby and has relatively little fishing pressure compared to some other parts of Colorado, Fout advised.
“The Elk River is phenomenal,” he said. “The Elk and the Yampa are our main river systems and they are both underutilized. You beat the crowds by driving the extra 45 minutes here (from Denver). Fish are bigger up here compared to lots of Colorado. And there are not quite as many people.”
Insect hatches begin picking up in the Yampa in March and April. Two primary hatches are blue-winged olive mayflies, and dark-color stoneflies.
Just a bit later in May it gets into full gear with good hatches of Pale Morning Dun; drakes in green, brown and slate; yellow and golden stoneflies; and caddis in cream, tan, olive and black.
If the runoff poses a problem there are also tailwaters here. The flows out of Stagecoach Dam on the Yampa have good rainbow trout and brown trout. Some of the rainbows go to 23 inches.
“It is really hard to say on runoff,” said Fout. “Some years it is in April, and some years in June.”
Very early in the season, from March onward there are big trout being caught.
“You start to see some bigger fish being careless,” said Fout.
There is good dry fly fishing, but some of the best fishing for really big trout is done with streamers and nymphs.
“There are a larger fish here that don’t have to come to the surface,” said Fout.
This time of year the anglers pursuing trophies will use nymphs and streamers — spring stoneflies and and especially sculpin imitations. And Pale Evening Duns come on as it warms.
As the season progresses it will shift somewhat with PMDs still being good, but with caddis taking a prominent role, also.
When the high waters come, the trout lurk in sheltered spots right next to shore and become far harder to catch. The tailwaters are the exception, of course.
Jerry Neal, with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, recommends fishing the runoff areas either prior to the rising water, or later in the season when the waters calm.
“Really, in Colorado, fishing rivers in spring needs to take place before runoff,” noted Neal. “Once the rivers get blown out from snowmelt, the fishing pretty much shuts down until early summer. During runoff, fish will move next to the bank where they can conserve energy and continue to feed in the high flows.”
Those who do fish swollen streams usually concentrate near banks.
“Fish will target large streamer and nymph patterns during runoff,” said Neal, “but you have to use extreme caution navigating around the high water. I always leave my waders at home and don’t even attempt to enter the river once runoff is under way.”
There is a technique that some anglers will use in the murkier water. Casting long distances isn’t needed or even desirable. The big streamer or wet fly or nymph is roll cast or even just dabbled out like one would use a cane pole and allowed to swing downstream. Sometimes it is weighted quite a lot to sink it down if the current is strong.
It’s not the most romantic type of fly-fishing, but sometimes it’s the only thing that has a chance of working.
For the more pristine experience, anglers key in on the tailwaters at various times during spring.
“Water temps remain fairly constant year-round,” said Neal. “Additionally, fish usually grow large in these spillways below dams, as the water coming out of the bottom of a reservoir is dense with nutrients. Most tailwaters also have catch-and-release and flies-and-lures-only restrictions, which also allow fish the opportunity to get fat and sassy.”
The downside for some fishermen is that these areas tend to be some of the hardest fished waters in Colorado. Sloppy presentations are futile. Some anglers won’t catch much. Others relish the challenge.
“These waters see a lot of fishing pressure,” said Neal. “As such, fishing tailwaters can be extremely technical, in fact the trout are better than most fishermen at identifying fly patterns. Small flies, light tippets and a stealthy approach are usually required to fish these waters successfully.”
Neal keeps track of some of the best of these tailwater fisheries by using fishing reports and test nettings done by biologists.
His top recommendations this spring include Blue River below Lake Dillon, Big Thompson below Lake Estes, Taylor River below Taylor Park Reservoir and the Arkansas River below Pueblo, which Neal said is a sleeper fishery that has improved greatly in the past several years. It is producing excellent fish. The Arkansas has a famous caddis hatch that is fun to fish.
Some tailwaters have the capability of growing big trout quickly, especially those that are home to mysis shrimp. Trout feed on them. Three interesting tailwaters for this are the Frying Pan, Blue and Taylor rivers. All three have lots of these shrimp and fast growing trout.
For those who do wish to match wits with some of the most sophisticated trout in the Rockies, April is a good month for it in the tailwaters of the South Platte below Cheesman. The blue-winged olive hatches are coming off at this time and that continues into June. And then in early summer it is the Pale Morning Duns and the Mayfly Genus Tricorythodes (Tricos) that take center stage.
Browns, rainbows and cutbows inhabit the South Platte. Most are wild fish, but some, such as the cutbows, are stocked. With the good food supply in the river, even the stocked fish take on wild characteristics after they have survived in the river for a while.
The water from the dam is blended from top, middle and bottom of the reservoir, which results in optimum conditions for trout over long time periods.The result is some impressive fish. But the South Platte trout are also some of the hardest fish to catch in Colorado.
Now that we’ve covered a few of the great options awaiting anglers in the Centennial State, it’s time to grab your fishing gear and hit one of these locations or another hotspot near you.