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Colorado Trout Outlook

Colorado Trout Outlook

After years of drought, Colorado anglers enjoyed wetter and better trout fishing last year, and the trout outlook for 2005 appears to be a bright one, as long as the weather cooperates!

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

"One of the beauties of fishing, or of spending time in the natural world, is being surprised when you least expect it," opined outdoor scribe and angler Craig Nova several years ago in the pages of Fly Fisherman magazine.

All things considered, then, Colorado trout anglers are being pleasantly surprised at virtually every turn these days.

Despite persistent drought concerns across the state over the past several years, the smiles seen on the faces of many trout anglers in the past 12 months appears to tell the tale that the trout fishing glass is surprisingly half-full in the Centennial State, not half-empty.

"I'd have to say status quo to improving is where I'd put (the current state of trout fishing in Colorado)," said Robin Knox, the sport fish program manager for the Colorado Division of Wildlife. He rated the state's trout fishing action in 2004 at a solid B+.

"We've been able to maintain our trout production," he said. "Quite a few of our fisheries depend on supplemental stockings and we had good production (in 2004). Our reservoir levels have improved and our stream fisheries have actually benefited somewhat by the lack of strong runoff in the spring.

"I'd say most of our streams are at capacity in terms of trout right now. After four years of minimal runoff, our trout populations are about as good as they can be, given the reduced flows," the biologist added. "Our stream fisheries have been as good in the past two years as they have been in the 25 years that I've been in Colorado."


Take the Arkansas River, for example. This tumbling trout stream running from near Leadville down through the heart of the Rockies toward Salida and on through the Royal Gorge toward Cañon City has actually improved in part because of the recent drought.

"The Arkansas is mainly a brown trout stream," Knox said. "As with (other) typical brown trout streams, they spawn in the fall and as the water cools, the eggs take three to four months to hatch. That means that their small fry are at their swim-up stages in the spring, so if we have a strong runoff, then we'll also have less survival of the young of the year. Plus, warmer water leads to improved insect hatches and increased growth rates for these browns. Add it all up and it's a pretty good recipe for brown trout."

Knox indicates that while the Arkansas River's biomass has improved over the past five years, such a scenario has also played itself out on some of Colorado's other rivers with improved brown trout populations on the Roaring Fork, Cache la Poudre and Colorado rivers.

Colorado DOW public information specialist Tyler Baskfield saw the benefits of reduced runoff first-hand on some of his own trout sojourns during the 2004 season.

"It was good," Baskfield reported. "I didn't get up there (to fish) as much as I'd like to, obviously, since I never do. But I had some good trips and was impressed with what I saw up there. The thing that stood out to me the most was the lengthened fly-fishing season since the runoff wasn't as strong. In May and June, the rivers weren't all blown out and guys were actually able to do some good fishing. Plus, there are better hatches when there is not as much water and we definitely had lots of fish, so that was a good combination."

But that was last year. Inquiring minds want to know the answer to this year's $64,000 dollar fishing question: What does the year 2005 have in store for Colorado trout anglers?

The answer? Some pretty good fishing -- as long as the weather holds.

"I would say that the overall state of the fishery is good to excellent," Knox said. "We had reasonable moisture last year, especially in the eastern half of the state, so stream flows held up pretty well. On the western side, things are not as good water wise, but the fishing has been absolutely excellent."

If the winter of 2004/05 has delivered average or better snowfall rates in the state's high country, then the trout outlook should be a rosy one this year. Here's a region-by-region look at what Colorado's anglers can expect when they wade into trout country this year:


There's little doubt that in most years, this part of the state receives a lion's share of fishing attention from anglers hoping to find a willing trout eager to inhale their dry fly or to attack their Mepps spinner.

And for good reason too, I might add. After all, central Colorado boasts some of the state's best trout water, none perhaps more famous than the world-renowned Fryingpan River.

Year in and year out, the Pan seldom disappoints those who ply its rich waters tumbling from the high country of the Hunter Fryingpan Wilderness on down through the dam of Ruedi Reservoir and the steep red-rocked canyon country toward the river's confluence with the Roaring Fork River at Basalt.


Colorado remains near the top of the Western fishing summit, due in part to the trout stocking boost that Mother Nature gets from the Division of Wildlife's fish hatcheries.

This year's stocking boost will again be sizable, according to Robin Knox, the sport fish program manager for the agency.

"Our target production for 2005 is 3.5 million catchable (rainbow) trout, or a trout that averages 10 inches in length," Knox said. "Then we (will) stock 16 million sub-catchable trout and 65 million warmwater fish species.

"There should be no shortage of fish in Colorado (this) year."

-- Lynn Burkhead


This year should be no different, according to Knox, who rates the Pan as perhaps the state's best overall trout stream these days.

"I'm pretty sure it is the Fryingpan River," said Knox, while noting that he expects good fishing on the stream in 2005 despite intense angling pressure. "It's still an A+ stream. It's a tailwater fishery and it probably has the greatest biomass per acre of water for any stream in the state."

Of course, the Fryingpan, with its legendary Mysis shrimp-fed rainbow trout pigs, is hardly the only place to fish in central Colorado. Knox expects some of the region's other top trout streams to excel in 2005 as well. Those waters include the Blue River near Silverthorne, which the biologist ranks as Colorado's fifth best overall trout stream at the moment, and the Roaring Fork River from Aspen to Glenwood Springs, which he calls the state's sixth best overall trout stream.

"The Blue River would be a good number five," Knox said. "It also is a tailwater fishery with excellent public access. The trout population seems to be doing well and is improving. The Blue is just a very, very pleasant river to fish. Between Silverthorne and Green Mountain Reservoir, we probably have as much public access along the Blue River as we do along some other rivers. There's a lot of national forest land and a number of campgrounds. Plus there's the opportunity to catch kokanee salmon in the fall as an added bonus. I'd give it a B+, mainly because it doesn't have quite the density or biomass of fish as the (rivers) on the A list do."

As already mentioned, the Roaring Fork River also makes Knox's short list of top trout streams in Colorado for 2005.

"I'd give it a B+," Knox said. "It's a gold medal water and it's also improved a little bit with the lack of big runoff. That has allowed the trout population to expand."

Historically, Knox says, the stretch from Carbondale down to Glenwood Springs ranks as perhaps some of the Roaring Fork's best overall water, especially for those who are able to float the river. From all appearances, little should change the river's solid gold reputation this year.

Of course, the central region is also home to the state's namesake water, the mighty Colorado River, whose middle portion is "certainly improving" according to Knox. Toss in the region's other fine trout streams like the Eagle River, the Fraser River and the Williams Fork River, and it's easy to see why anglers love this part of the state. Again, if a winter of good snows has fallen on the high country by the time you read this, then there should be little reason not to expect a year of solid fishing on central Colorado's ample trout streams.


All in all, trout anglers should be able to expect pretty good trout fishing across this region right out the backdoors of Denver and Colorado Springs.

As previously mentioned, the Arkansas River is one of those streams that are doing quite well at the moment. In fact, when you combine the solid fishing on the stream with its close proximity to the Interstate 25 corridor and Pueblo, the Arkansas becomes a good candidate for a non-resident visiting the state on business to pack a four-piece fly rod and fly vest, rent a car, grab a guidebook, and hop down the interstate for a fine day of fishing.

The Arkansas, says Baskfield, isn't the only Front Range trout stream that visiting anglers can target. "You don't have to fish in Colorado for 20 years to know where the good spots are," Baskfield said. "There are so many good books out there, not to mention sites on the Web, including the DOW site. A guy coming out here on a business trip for a weekend can do his research and be successful rather than just showing up blind (and hoping to catch fish)."

One such Front Range trout fishery that should not be overlooked is the Big Thompson River, a wonderful aquatic resource that Knox ranks as the state's third best trout stream.

"Its waters flow out of Rocky Mountain National Park and it has one of the best wild rainbow trout populations near the population centers along the Front Range," Knox said of the small-to-medium sized freestone river that flows through Estes Park toward Loveland. "I'd give it an A."


Mention South Park and all eyes turn toward the famed South Platte River and the 2,000-acre Spinney Mountain Reservoir lying some 80 miles southwest of Denver.

"The number four trout fishery (in the state) would be the South Platte, about 15 miles above and below Spinney reservoir, including the reservoir itself," Knox said. "That whole complex is in excellent shape and we've altered our stocking program to get around the northern pike (in the reservoir), so that whole system is just excellent right now. I'd probably give it an A- just because it does get a lot of fishing pressure and it doesn't have quite as good a habitat as some of the other streams do."

Knox goes a step higher on the grade scale for Spinney Mountain Reservoir.

"I think without a doubt, that's probably the best fishing lake in the state in terms of going for quality fish," Knox said. "I'd give it an A+ and there is no reason to believe that will change anytime soon."

At Spinney, as with several other Colorado reservoirs that support trout and northern pike at the same time, biologists are stocking larger rainbow trout than normal to give the rainbows a head start on avoiding the big mouths of hungry pike. Instead of the customary 10-inch catchable trout stocked in most waters, Spinney gets 14-inch rainbows, a strategy that is apparently working well.

"I don't know (what the average sized trout is), but an awful lot of fish that are caught are greater than 20 inches," Knox said.


While southern Colorado has been affected a bit more by drought than other portions of the state, there's still plenty of reason to be optimistic here.

For starters, the region boasts of several good trout streams, including the Conejos River, the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River and the Rio Grande. Knox indicates that the Animas River near Durango remains a Gold Medal stream worthy of attention.

Knox says the best river in this region is the Gunnison, which the biologist calls Colorado's second best trout river overall.

"I'd give it an A-," Knox said. "It's also a tailwater fishery but it doesn't get that much fishing pressure since it can be a little bit harder to access. The Gunnison consistently produces a (good) mix of browns and rainbows and the Black Canyon is still a really pristine place to fish."

Close to the Gunnison River, of course, is Blue Mesa Reservoir, which the biologist gives a B+. While the sprawling water body has suffered from drought-induced water fluctuations in recent years, the lake remains among the state's best kokanee salmon resources as well as the top spot to do battle with a 30-pound or better lake trout.


The northern part of the state doesn't garner as much attention from anglers and the outdoor press as other regions. That doesn't bother Baskfield, who expects another solid year of fishing in his beloved North Park region. It excels, he says, because of a lack of fishing pressure.


Will Colorado anglers see a fishing license rate increase this year?

As of press time, Robin Knox, the sport fish program manager for the Colorado Division of Wildlife, said that such a move was possible.

"Gaining future access (for anglers) is one of our management goals, but we need more money to do that," Knox said. "There may be a license fee increase coming up in 2005 along with a habitat stamp, which will hopefully help address those issues."

-- Lynn Burkhead


"I tend to like smaller water with less of a profile than some of the more famous streams," Baskfield said. "I like going to places where there is still room to roam. I don't like going to a place where there are a lot of guide boats or a rent-a-rock experience."

While trout in this region can be somewhat smaller than those found in other parts of Colorado, solitude, fabulous scenery and a quality experience are ample drawing cards to streams like the White and Yampa rivers in northwestern Colorado, and the Michigan and North Platte rivers in North Park.

"I like the North Park area because some of its waters are underutilized and don't get written up in the hook-and-bullet magazines," Baskfield said. "But there is some great fishing there."

Steamboat Lake also offers some great fishing, according to Knox; the biologist ranks this coldwater fishery as Colorado's second best stillwater resource.

"I'd give it an A-," Knox said. "It's not very heavily used, it's extremely scenic and it has excellent trout fishing. It may not be quite as productive as Spinney, but there are still a lot of 16-inch trout in that lake."

In fact, all across Colorado, there are plenty of good-sized, hungry trout, recent drought problems notwithstanding. And with a little luck -- and some more water from melting snow -- 2005 should bring plenty more surprising smiles to trout anglers all across the Centennial State.

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