January 04, 2016
Many years, the wintertime snows enveloping the Colorado high country has found the family Suburban packed down with the usual array of parkas, sweaters and mittens.
And – much to my wife's chagrin, I think – a fly rod tube containing a graphite trout stick, a fly reel or two, a box of wintertime flies and my Simms waders and wading boots.
Why? Because as much as I love to ski, I also love to fly fish for rainbow trout and their brown trout cousins – even in the dead of wintertime.
And believe it or not, the fishing is surprisingly good when the snow flies at a several locations around the Centennial State.
With that in mind, here's a sample of the action that Ski Country enthusiasts can find across the state if they're willing to take a day off from the slopes:
Aspen & Snowmass / Frying Pan River
To try and point out a Colorado epicenter of both skiing and fly fishing would be about as dangerous – for me anyway – as trying to descend down a double black diamond chute on an icy morning.
But as I found out a few years back, the slopes at Aspen and Snowmass - and the nearby Frying Pan River tailwater (not to mention the freestone Roaring Fork River) would be a pretty good candidate.
Why? In addition to the legendary slopes that get buried in champagne powder, the Pan offers anglers a chance to hook some true-blue piscatorial pigs.
In fact, the Frying Pan’s famous trout can tip the scales in the double-digits thanks to the ample supply of protein-rich Mysis shrimp spilling through the bowels of Reudi Dam and into the 40-degree river.
Want my advice? Leave the glitz and glimmer of Aspen behind with a fly box full of midges and Mysis shrimp imitations – you will not be disappointed.
Crested Butte / Taylor River
It’s a tough decision for a ski/trout bum when you arrive in the town of Gunnison, one of my favorite places on earth.
In one of the prettiest parts of Ski Country, a part of the world where a ski bum can either head on up the road to Crested Butte…or can make a detour for the Taylor Reservoir and the Mysis shrimp tailwater paradise that lies below it, the Taylor River.
Like the Frying Pan, the Taylor River’s trout are legendary for their size, thanks again, to a steady diet of freshwater shrimp cocktail.
Anglers who venture from the slopes at the nearby Butte with a supply of shrimp patterns in their fly box can expect to see a good number of solid rainbows – including some double-digit lunkers big enough to make an angler famous on the cover of a fly fishing magazine!
Purgatory / Animas River
After the news headlines last August trumpeted the spilling of more than three million gallons of toxic mining waste into the Animas River near Durango, I'd have to admit that I'm a bit hesitant to include this river in the mix.
Especially after all of the media reports about the incident showed photos of orange water filled – made that way from toxic sludge and waste spilled in the Gold King Mine disaster – flowing through this stunningly beautiful southwestern Colorado town.
But despite the spill, many reports seem to indicate that the river seems to be fishing similar to its old self this fall and early winter, meaning that along with spending a few days shredding the slopes at the Purgatory Ski Area this winter, a visit to the Animas River should also be on one's agenda.
Even as winter sets up shop in the region and appears ready to stay for a while.
"It’s cold," writes Andy McKinley of Durangler Flies and Supplies in his online Animas Lunch Report blog a few days ago in mid-December.
"Snow is dropping and wind is blowing," he added. "The weather outside is frightful…or at least mildly unpleasant.
"We get it, fishing may be one of the last things on your mind. (Skiing may be first). With dropping temps, make sure to layer up and have a good jacket to keep you warm on the water or when digging your vehicle out of a foot of snow."
Obviously, that means that the early season skiing conditions are good at Purgatory.
But it also means that Animas trout are looking up at midges according to McKinley. Because of that, he suggests a dry-dropper-midge set-up for anglers trading in a day of slope side action for a visit to the river.
Interested in visiting the Animas? Then see McKinley's list of suggested wintertime flies.
Monarch Ski Area / Arkansas River
One of the most difficult drives for me to make in the entire state of Colorado is west out of Canon City to Salida along Route 50.
Why? Well, it’s hard to concentrate on the highway surface while paralleling one of the state’s most beautiful stretches of trout water.
Most Colorado anglers know all about the Arkansas River during the legendary Mother’s Day caddis hatch in the warmer months of spring.
But winter isn’t too bad either according to Bill Edrington, for many years the shop proprietor of Royal Gorge Anglers in Canon City (the shop is now owned and operated by Bill's son, Taylor).
That’s especially true when the first few BWO hatches begin to appear in late February and March, at times when a rare mix of a 50 degree air temperature, low cloud cover and light snow occurs.
"That sounds strange, but you can have that in the Southern Rockies at (that) time of the year," Edrington has told me.
"The air at the surface is warm, but above you, the air can be so cold that you can still get light snow. Those heavy, wet (early) spring conditions where you have a high moisture content in the air, that’s what they (BWOs) love.
"I love the snow because it traps them (BWOs) in the water in the surface film. The fish go completely crazy when those bugs get trapped in the surface film and can’t get away. Usually, I get one day like that a year."
And on that one day of the year, you won't be sorry at all for ditching the slopes at nearby Monarch Ski area - and the unparalleled view of snow covered "Fourteener Peaks" along the Continental Divide at Monarch Pass either - when the wintertime fun is traded for a day of fly fishing on the amazing Arkansas River.
Summit County/ Blue River
Summit County certainly makes a bid for being the capitol of Colorado’s Ski Country USA with its quartet of ski resorts – Arapahoe Basin, Breckenridge, Copper Mountain and Keystone to be exact.
But the area is also home to one of the state’s top wintertime tailwater angling opportunities, the Blue River spilling below Lake Dillon.
While the Mysis shrimp rich trout stream can run low and clear, making for spooky fish, the payoff is piggish rainbows up to 10-pounds slurping a freshwater shrimp cocktail in downtown Silverthorne as the semi-trucks thunder overhead on I-70.
While the window of fishing opportunity is admittedly small – primarily during the warmest part of mid-day hours during the so-called "Banker's Hours" stretch of daylight – a visit to the Blue can result in some great fly fishing memories and photographs capturing a day of superb wintertime angling.
As long as you can get the rumbling sound out of your head of semi-trucks noisily pounding the Interstate 70 pavement a few feet away as the serpentine highway descends to the west of Eisenhower Tunnel.
And while a foot of fresh wintertime powder covers the nearby slopes of the Colorado high country.
But the height of ski season or not, it's worth the effort to visit the Blue - and the other Colorado trout streams mentioned in this piece - since some great fishing action awaits.
As long as your wife will let you pack the fly rod into the back of the Suburban, that is.