If you're not here to ski, look for slow water in the Yampa tailwater for active winter trout to nearly 30 inches.
Some people want to slide down the slopes. Others would rather be catching trout in the lower elevations. Steamboat Springs has something for everyone.
Photo by Glenn and Maxine Bamburg.
If your winter plans include a trip to Steamboat Springs for a few days of skiing action, bring your fishing poles as well as ski poles. This alpine mecca offers some of the world's finest powder for downhill skiing, snowboarding and other seasonal activities. But it also gives anglers an opportunity to fish one of Colorado's premier rainbow trout streams -- the Yampa River.
Cascading out of the rugged Flat Tops Wilderness Area, the Yampa winds northward through Stagecoach Reservoir into Steamboat Springs before turning west to merge with the Green River near the Utah state line.
Ski-season anglers can always find plenty of open water in the tailwater section below Stagecoach Reservoir and often along the river in Steamboat's historic downtown district.
Thrilling rainbow action also awaits ice-fishermen aboard Stagecoach Reservoir. As a bonus, hard-toppers enjoy the prospect of pulling a new Centennial State-record northern pike from the lake's icy depths.
Here are a few tips and techniques to keep your fishing reels steamin' in the winter at the 'Boat!
John Duty, owner of Bucking Rainbow Outfitters in Steamboat, said that the Yampa tailwater is a phenomenal fishery year 'round.
"Trout numbers are mostly higher than all designated Gold Medal Waters in Colorado," he said.
Many think the 0.6 mile of public water just below Stagecoach Reservoir is Gold Medal quality as well. But its length is too short to meet the DOW's requirement for a Gold Medal river.
"But it definitely fishes better than many Gold Medal streams in our state," said Duty. "They really stacked up in winter, especially in February and March when all the big fish start moving up to spawn."
Anglers must use artificial flies and lures from Stagecoach Dam downstream for 0.6 of a mile. All trout must be released immediately. This stretch also flows entirely within Stagecoach State Park. All park regulations apply to fishermen as well.
In the roiling tailwater, anglers catch browns, brookies, cutthroats, cuttbows and whitefish. But rainbows are the game fish most commonly caught.
Average size runs 14 to 17 inches. Duty said that anglers have caught trout up to 29 inches.
In winter, elk migrate through the area, so the access road is closed to motorized vehicles. But it's maintained so that workers can service the bottom of the dam. Anglers can snowshoe, cross-country ski or mountain bike the 1 1/2 miles to the tailwater from the park's main entrance on Colorado Route 14 -- or snowmobile the final 3 1/2 miles of C.R. 18 through Pleasant Valley to the east entrance and walk a short distance down to the stream.
Tim Kirkpatrick, the co-owner of Steamboat Flyfisher, said that the tailwater runs crystal-clear all winter long.
Water flows out of the reservoir at about 95 to 120 cubic feet per second. Its temperature hovers around 40 degrees. Ice is seldom a problem.
Be aware that after a big storm, snowdrifts can make it a little more tricky to get from the plowed access road down to the tailwater -- even though in most places, it's less than 50 feet away.
Kirkpatrick said that the highest concentrations of trout will be hanging out in deeper pockets, pools and runs.
"They like to feed in channels between the rocks and along the edges of current seams. I'm always looking for the slowest water in the river, where fish expend the least amount of calories to keep them in the current. That's where you'll find the biggest trout."
The most productive angling begins about midmorning and lasts until 3 p.m. Peak activity varies slightly throughout the snowy season, so check with local fly shops for the latest weather conditions and fishing reports.
Insect hatches diminish in frigid currents, but edible life forms remain plentiful. Midges are the major source of winter nourishment, but the larvae of mayflies, stoneflies and caddis get dislodged constantly from rocky shelters and drift downriver to ravenous trout.
"Your fly box should be loaded with lots of midge patterns," Kirkpatrick said. "I'm partial to No. 18 to 24 tungsten Zebra Midges, Black Beauties and WD40s."
Later into March, he recommended No. 16 to 18 Glo-Bugs, No. 12 to 13 Red San Juan Worms and No. 14 to 16 Flashback Scuds.
Other reliable patterns include a No. 18 to 22 RS-2, No. 18 to 24 Hurricane Midge, No. 18 to 24 Black Biot Midge, No. 16 to 22 Brassie, No. 16 to 20 Copper John, No. 16 to 20 Buckskin, No. 16 to 20 Miracle Nymph, No. 16 to 20 Pheasant Tail Nymph and No. 14 to 18 Prince Nymph.
Kirkpatrick usually fishes two flies underneath a strike indicator. Try any combination of those little midges, but use something a little bigger and brighter as your top fly.
The guide goes with a 9-foot, 6X fluorocarbon leader down to the top pattern, then 18 inches of 6X fluorocarbon tippet to the dropper. It's virtually transparent in the water.
Keep in mind that winter trout are more apt to stay closer to home. To grab choice food items, they'll dart six inches here and six inches there, but are not about to burn excess energy in the icy currents.
Kirkpatrick said it's imperative to place just the right amount of split shot 8 to 10 inches above the top fly to reach the depth of feeding fish.
Tailwater residents are not too spooky, but anglers should still approach them cautiously -- and from downstream whenever possible.
The quality of your cast is crucial.
The first, second or third presentation must be right on target. Otherwise, if you make too many casting errors, fish will become suspicious of your flies and scoot out of the way.
Duty said that in January, anglers are mostly sight-fishing. "So watch the fish to see what's happening," he
said. "Either they're eating nymphs down on the bottom or coming up to mid-depths and taking midge emergers."
Typically, he said, you'll be standing slightly below and to the side of the trout, casting far enough upstream at a 45-degree angle for the current to bring your flies right down to the fish in their strike zone.
"If a trout refuses your nymph patterns and is really keyed in on midge emergers, sometimes it's better to move upstream and swing an emerger pattern right before it reaches the fish," Duty said. "If you're on target, and the fly emerges in front of his face, he'll grab it."
Bouncing weighted nymphs along the relatively shallow bottom is not too difficult.
However, the key to fishing midge emergers is getting split shot light enough for mid-depth feeding levels.
In addition to the stretch right below the dam, there's also a good mile of river to fish in Service Creek SWA a few miles downstream. It's a totally different kind of fishery, with deeper pools and not so much sight-fishing.
"Trout numbers aren't that high down there, but there's less fishing pressure," said Duty. "I think it's a fun stretch to fish in the wintertime."
Artificial flies and lures are mandatory on Service Creek SWA, but bag and possession limit for trout is two fish. Anglers may keep an unlimited number of whitefish anywhere along the river.
When fishing the tailwater in winter, be prepared for any kind of weather. Always pack extra clothing, an emergency kit, a nutritious lunch, high-energy snacks, hot drinks and plenty of water.
Steve Henderson, co-owner of Steamboat Flyfisher, said that in town, the Yampa generally freezes up about Christmastime.
"But on some of our milder years, it might be mid-January or later before the river ices over completely. It's something we just can't predict.
"A lot depends on weather conditions and the daily highs and lows," he noted. "If it warms up to 30 or 40 degrees during the day and gets down only into the 20s at night for four or five days in a row, the river can open up in a hurry for some great mid-winter fishing. But don't count on that happening every year."
In town, the Yampa is also fed by a couple of hot springs flowing into the river near the 13th Street Bridge and Rabbit Ears Motel. These moderated stretches are always a little less iced, so both sections are often fishable during much of the snowy season.
Henderson said that anglers can score a grand slam of trout through downtown Steamboat with a good opportunity of catching at least one rainbow, brown, brookie and cutthroat during a single day. Pike and whitefish also patrol this stretch of the river. However, rainbows are the prevalent species.
"The average size of trout is about 14 inches," Henderson said. "But if somebody said they caught a 26-incher, I'd certainly believe them. There are some monster rainbows and browns cruising that piece of water."
Trout feast primarily on midges, but consume all edible life forms.
Productive fly patterns include No. 14 to 18 red or chartreuse Copper Johns, No. 18 to 22 WD40s, No. 16 to 20 Red Annelids, No. 18 to 22 Blood Midges, No. 16 to 22 Brassies, No. 16 to 20 Pheasant Tails and No. 14 to 18 Prince Nymphs.
"Look for slower, deeper water, especially during the winter months," said Henderson.
"Summertime anglers like to fish the riffle or head of the pool where faster water goes into deeper water. You may pick up a trout or two in winter that way, but most fish are going to be holding in the heart of the hole."
They're right on the bottom, so toss a nymph rig with a strike indicator and plenty of lead.
"If there's a good midge hatch," he said, "you're likely to find more fish at the tail end of the hole, where that deep-water pool begins to shallow out."
If you aren't catching any fish in the deeper holes, take a couple of steps downstream and fish the slower tailouts with midge imitations.
Also, Henderson advised, throw fly patterns around every rock you encounter along the streambed.
Public access is plentiful in town, extending 4.8 miles downstream from Walton Creek to James Brown Bridge.
Anglers must use only artificial flies and lures, and must immediately return all trout to the water.
If you're an ice-rodder, Stagecoach Reservoir offers plenty of hardwater action. The 770-acre fishery contains a flourishing trout population, while trophy northern pike prowl its frigid waters.
"Our trout population looks solid for the 2009 ice-fishing season," said Craig Preston, park manager of Stagecoach State Park.
The DOW stocks catchable rainbows as late as December to help mitigate pike predation. These stockers are 12 to 14 inches long and typically grow 2 or 3 inches a year, so they'll get larger and more elusive before the pike's metabolism really kicks in during spring and summer.
"Last year, the DOW planted 33,000 rainbows," Preston said, "and 20,000 the year prior to that."
Right now, most trout are averaging 15 to 16 inches, including several 18- to 20-inch holdovers from earlier stockings, he said. "Every once in a while, we'll get a 6- to 8-pounder coming out of the reservoir."
The daily bag limit is four trout, with a possession limit of eight fish. Anglers may keep all northern pike.
For all vehicles entering the park, a $6 daily park pass or a $60 yearly pass is required.
Winter hotspots include the coves and inlets. The Marina area, Little Morrison Cove, Pike Cove, Yampa River inlet and Keystone Cove are popular with ice-fishermen, but Preston said that you can catch trout anywhere around the lake's perimeter.
During the early season, fish seem to congregate in shallow areas and move into the coves. As the season draws on, trout move a little deeper.
Anglers will want to fish the mouth of coves, he said, getting out into the 15- to 25-foot depths of water.
Hot winter bites include brightly colored or fluorescent micro-tube jigs, Ice Lazers, Tear Drops, Moon Glitters, Ice Critters, Rat Finkees, Marabou Jigs or similar 1/8- to 1/32-ounce lures tipped with wax worms, mealworms, salmon eggs, night crawlers or Berkley PowerBait.
Larger, more voracious feeders attack 1/2- to 1/16-ou
nce Kastmasters, Jiglos, Swedish Pimples, Krocodiles, Jigging Rapalas, Z-Rays, Glacier Spoons and other actively jigged lures tipped with bait. An ultra-light 2 1/2- to 4-foot ice rod equipped with a wire strike indicator, smoothly operating spinning reel and 4-pound-test line puts you on top of the action.
Have a Happy New Year! I hope to see you Steamin' Steamboat over the holidays!