October 30, 2020
Fall is the season of the brown trout. For most of the rest of the year, big browns prefer to hide in the depths, under obstructions or undercut banks and they only venture out on dark days or at night. As their spawning season nears, however, they lose some of their aloofness, becoming more active as they move into pre-spawn locations. The largest males stake out the prime spawn sites, aggressively defending their selections and driving out all intruders while awaiting the female’s arrival. This is when trophy browns become most vulnerable to an angler’s efforts.
Colorado’s combination of habitat and fish make it a prime choice in October for those who want to catch a brown trout of a lifetime. Trophy trout aren’t common, but they aren’t rare either. The key to connecting with one is to fish where their numbers are greatest. To find those places, keep in mind two critical characteristics of big browns. First, they’re more likely to reach trophy size in big water, like lakes, where larger amounts and greater variety of forage fuel their growth. Second, they prefer to spawn in stream beds, not lakes. So, in the fall, big browns that live in lakes migrate upstream into the rivers that feed those lakes, joining resident river fish temporarily and bolstering the numbers—not to mention the median size—of the fish in the stream. This is the set of circumstances that make the Dream Stream section of the South Platte River in Colorado one of my favorite spots to target hefty browns.
Superior Stream Section
This 5-mile-long Gold Medal trout fishery is located between Eleven Mile and Spinney Mountain reservoirs. Numerous large fish swim this scenic, ox-bowed meadow stream, and each fall they are joined by monstrous Eleven Mile Reservoir browns and some rainbows. The browns are there to spawn. The rainbows are there to feast on the abundant brown trout eggs.
However, the river yields its blue-ribbon souvenirs unwillingly. A fishery this good gets some pressure, and pressured fish turn selective. Anglers face several challenges in addition to the wariness of the trout, including bright sun, constant wind and occasional dangerous afternoon lightning storms. Limited bank vegetation provides minimal camouflage, and crowded fishing is quite possible.
At the same time, anglers have some advantages aside from the simple fact that there are a lot of big fish in the river. Brown trout that have become more aggressive in the spawn will move to spawning areas that have a relative lack of cover. Especially if the river flow is down in the 100 to 250 cubic-feet-per-second range, you won’t have to guess where many of the trout are holding—you’ll be able to see them.
Dependent upon water flow, the brown trout spawning migration will begin in early to mid-October. Low water or drought conditions can greatly impact the intensity of the spawn. Under those conditions, fish may not move much above Eleven Mile, but under normal flow, they will often migrate all the way upstream to Spinney dam searching for the best uncrowded spawning ground.
Watch for light-colored sections of the river bottom where females have scrubbed bottom rocks and gravel. These are the redds where the females lay their eggs. Favored sites will be found in moderate flows or riffles where the water is both cool and well-oxygenated. Anglers who care about this fishery should never wade through these redds
Picks for Patterns
Daily blue-winged olive and trico hatches offer exciting dry-fly fishing throughout September and into October. Standard nymphing techniques using midge, mayfly or caddis imitations and egg patterns are successful. However, I prefer using streamers during this period, particularly early and late or on dark days. Stripping black leeches or Wooly Buggers can produce angry attacks from browns.
Essentially, when you see fish actively feeding on the surface, try small baetis and tricos. Be prepared with size 20 and 22 olive and smaller trico dry patterns and similarly sized nymph patterns if the fish are not on the surface. Normally the brown trout spawn will be in full action by mid-October. Although I usually fish streamer patterns early and late in the day, I’ll switch to a dry fly/dropper when surface action erupts. Check stream reports for current successful fly patterns.
Long 12-foot, 6X to 7X leaders may be required for dry-fly and nymph fishing. Short 7-foot, 2X to 3X leaders should be used for streamer fishing to avoid aggressive strike breakoffs. Once spawning activity begins, nuclear egg patterns become effective as droppers behind nymph or streamer patterns. Only flies and lures may be used on the Dream Stream, and all fish must be released immediately.
At nearly 9,000 feet of elevation, weather is always an issue. Come prepared for anything—cool, cold, hot or wet. Wind is ever-present. Sunscreen and insect repellent are recommended. Lodging, camping and supplies are available at the nearby Chaparral Park Campground and General Store in Hartsel (719-836-0308; chaparralparkgeneralstore).
If You Go
In the small town of Hartsel northeast of the Dream Stream, you'll find gas, some groceries and fishing supplies. There are two restaurants in Hartsel—the Hopp (pizza) and the Highline Café and Saloon. Aside from lodging at the Chapparal General Store, Woodland Park (45 miles) and Buena Vista (30 miles) have excellent accommodations, shopping and emergency facilities.
I always recommend using a good guide as a way to learn the ropes on new waters, especially if you’ll be fishing for several days. Colorado is blessed with many expert guides, and I recommend the following for a visit to the Dream Stream:
Side Trip: North Delaney Butte Lake
If you enjoy fishing still waters for trout, North Delaney Lake, three hours north of the Dream Stream, might just be the perfect place to stalk a trophy brown. All Delaney fishing is prohibited in the inlet streams and in the North Delaney, from Sept. 15 through Nov. 15, within 100 feet of the dam. There is a two-fish limit. Brown trout 14 to 20 inches long and rainbows, cutthroats and cuttbows 18 to 22 inches long must be returned to the water immediately.
This relatively shallow Gold Medal fishery is about 7 miles west of Walden off Country Road 18. The Delaney system provides Colorado Parks and Wildlife with its total brown trout egg requirement for state stocking each fall. Trophy browns abound, especially along Pelican Point and the northeast and eastern shorelines. Rob Stout from North Park Anglers in Walden (970-723-4215; northparkanglers.com) tells me he also likes both the east and west shorelines near the dam for large trout. Large browns love the taste of big black articulated streamers fished at night. Wading and casting them out then stripping them slowly along the bottom usually does the trick.
Stout also uses a headlamp to sight-fish bruiser browns in shoreline shallows. He says this works well in South Delaney along the south shore and around willows. During daylight, use a float tube to target large fish with dark leech or streamer patterns, or use chironomids under an indicator fished a foot off the bottom. Be sure to visit North Park Anglers in Walden for current flies/lures and information. Groceries, dining and lodging can also be found in town, but check online before you go to ensure these businesses are still open.
A 5- or 6-weight rod with an intermediate line and a 2X or 3X 7-foot-long leader works well for casting streamers. I use a floating line with a much longer leader for leeches or chironomids. Cool to cold nights are normal. Bring sunscreen and insect repellent, as well.