Healthy rivers, increased stocking and the new Hofer-strain rainbow are good news to Centennial State trout anglers. (March 2009)
For weeks, the sun-soaked days of mid-March had been tempting me. Thoughts of the ice on mountain lakes cracking open and colossal trout gliding along shorelines haunted my dreams.
I couldn't take it anymore! I tossed my gear into the truck and headed for the hills in search of open water.
Winding into the Rockies, I found snow piled all over the hillsides. Snow blanketed the rocky shoreline as well, but the lake was half open, and some of its gigantic residents were making themselves very visible.
A firm hookset sent the large rainbow into an underwater frenzy. Line peeled from my reel as the 22-inch monster struggled for freedom. After releasing the fish, I cleaned the ice from my eyelets, took a satisfying breath and got ready to do it again.
With angler satisfaction rates soaring near 80 percent and thousands of miles of fishable water, plus a hearty trout population, it's no wonder Greg Gerlick, Colorado Division of Wildlife's fisheries chief, is predicting a favorable trout forecast in 2009.
"Trends across the country show a decline in the angling population, but Colorado has remained stable," he told Rocky Mountain Game & Fish.
"For the past five years, we've been averaging between 600,00 and 700,000 licensed anglers."
Recent surveys indicate that nearly 80 percent of those licensed anglers prefer trout as their species of choice.
"Most Colorado anglers are generalists," Gerlick said. "They prefer to fish in areas where there's a blanket four-fish limit on trout, and we have plenty of those. Most don't seem to care what species of trout is tugging on their line, as long as they can put a few eaters on the stringer."
Now let's get down to the specific regions -- and inside their boundaries the fishable waters -- where you can expect success in 2009.
You can't travel through the southwest without tempting a few browns on the famous Rio Grande. Its trout-infested waters provide heart-stopping angling action, and there's no shortage of public access.
Tom Knopick of Duranglers Fly Shop said that the Rio offers fantastic fishing upstream and down.
"It's a thriving brown-trout fishery, with a few rainbows sprinkled in," he said. "An average-sized fish will typically stretch the tape to the 14-inch mark, and there's the possibility to nab some real giants."
Knopick said that the Gold Medal section, on the lower part of the river between the towns of South Fork and Del Norte, is a productive fishery that receives a lot of attention. But anglers shouldn't overlook the upper river near the town of Creede.
John Alves, a CDOW aquatic biologist in the region, shed more light on the present conditions and future of this fabulous trout fishery. (Continued)
He said that in the mid-1990s, whirling disease really took its toll on the river and knocked rainbow numbers way down. Currently the state is crossing Colorado River rainbows with the Hofer strain, which is disease-resistant. The CDOW hopes to restore rainbow populations not only in the southwest, but also across the state.
"However," Alves said, "we have a thriving population of browns. On the lower river, surveys are showing 185 fish over 14 inches per linear mile."
Browns currently make up 95 percent of the Rio's trout population. "But this past year, we stocked 37,000 Hofer-strain rainbows in the Gold Medal section and we have high hopes that the future will show 100 pounds of rainbow trout per acre."
Tumbling down out of the awe-inspiring San Juans is the Conejos River. This gem of the southwest has been a steady fishery for years, and current studies by the CDOW point to an even brighter future.
In 2008, the Colorado Division of Wildlife doubled the number of fingerling browns stocked in Wolford Reservoir.
Recent surveys showed 734 fish per linear mile, with 211 of those fish measuring more than 14 inches. Most are wild browns, but a few rainbows also lurk in the Conejos.
Alves pointed out that given the river's biomass of 82 pounds per acre, anglers should have no shortage of hookups with quality fish.
"The four-mile section of fly-only water between Saddle Creek and South Fork should be excellent this year," he said. "We also made some stream improvements just down from Platoro Reservoir and changed the regulations to flies and lures only."
Alves expects these changes to improve fishing on the upper section of the Conejos this year.
Another southwestern hotspot is Road Canyon Reservoir. Nestled in the confines of the Rio Grande National Forest, this small lake packs a powerful punch. It has the uncanny ability to produce trophy-sized rainbows, many of which stretch over the 20-inch mark. Yes, the southwest is undoubtedly an angling paradise!
Destinations like the Big Thompson, Cache la Poudre, Spinney Mountain, Eleven Mile, Antero, and the Arkansas flash in the minds of anglers like the lights of the Vegas Strip. And why shouldn't they? All of these trout rich waters provide world-class angling opportunities.
Ken Kehmeir, an aquatic biologist for the CDOW, said that the Big Thompson continues to be a very productive wild rainbow fishery.
"On the Thompson, your average rainbow will run between 11 and 13 inches," said Kehmeir, "and there are plenty of them."
The 10-mile catch-and-release section is a great place to start prospecting for fish, but don't be afraid to investigate other areas of the Big T.
Though it was plagued by whirling disease in recent years, the Cache la Poudre River will once again be a phenomenal fishery in 2009.
Rainbows once made up between 60 and 70 percent of the Poudre's trout population. But that number has now plummeted below 10 percent. The good news is that the browns have filled this niche nicely, and Kehmeir reports near-r
ecord biomass readings on the Poudre.
"The browns are the big story on the Poudre," he said, "and as on the Thompson, anglers should see a healthy mix of 12- to 13-inchers, with the possibility of some larger fish as well."
Jin Choi of St. Peters Fly Shop said that there are plenty of 22-inch pigs in the river, just waiting to inhale a fly imposter.
Moving south down the Front Range, you'll encounter too much of a good thing. Throngs of quality fisheries often leave anglers scratching their heads, trying to decide where to go. Truthfully, you can't go wrong.
The legendary Dream Stream of the South Platte between the Spinney Mountain and Eleven Mile reservoirs continues to spit out monster fish. Kehmeir said that it shows no signs of slowing down.
"We have rebuilt many stream sections along the South Platte to increase habitat. We're really seeing some positive results. More fish per linear mile and more trophies seem to be the norm on the South Platte."
The CDOW also is trying to improve fishing throughout the Cheesman Canyon, which felt some negative affects after the Hayman Fire.
"After this fire, tons of sediment piled up in the river," said the biologist. "But we've been working closely with the Denver Water Board, and they have been gracious enough to increase flows on the river to push that sediment out."
In this region of the state, another top destination is the Arkansas, rich with brown trout. Each year, I spend countless days drifting flies and ripping Rapalas through this fabulous fishery. I can say without a doubt that it's one of the premier destinations in the country for brown trout.
CDOW biologist Doug Krieger said that public access and fish density make "the Ark" an angler's heaven.
"Recent surveys show 3,000 fish per mile on the upper river above the town of Salida," he said, "and 4,500 fish per mile on the lower river, which are some of the highest numbers in the state.
"We're actually hoping that anglers fishing on the lower river will start keeping some browns," Krieger added. "The population is starting to exceed the food source."
Anglers looking to tussle with bigger browns should check out the section of river just outside of CaÃ±on City. The CDOW, along with the city of CaÃ±on and Trout Unlimited, is launching a major project to improve this section of the river.
This area has always been known for producing larger browns, and with new habitat improvements, this section could really take off.
Other attractive features along the Front Range are the numerous lakes and reservoirs sprinkled throughout the landscape. A few favorites include Spinney Mountain, Eleven Mile and Antero.
According to information from the CDOW, Spinney and Eleven Mile should live up to their legendary reputation again in 2009. But Antero Reservoir was crippled badly by winterkill.
Jeff Dysart of Roaring Fork Anglers summed up the fishing possibilities in the region when he said, "You could spend a lifetime fishing here and still not get to every body of water."
To kick things off, he recommends heading to Glenwood Springs, Colorado's trout fishing hub, and drifting a few flies on the Roaring Fork River.
"The Fork just has so many fish!" he said. "Plenty of 14- to 17-inchers, and you always have the possibility of hooking a real monster."
Another river that can be accessed within minutes of Glenwood is the scenic Colorado River.
CDOW biologist John Ewert shed some light on the impressive numbers that the river has been putting out. He said the Kemp Breeze State Wildlife Area is a large, public stretch that boasts a super population of trout.
Electro-shocking surveys showed 7,000 fish per mile that measured between 6 and 24 inches. Of those, about 90 percent were browns.
Of course, no article on Colorado fisheries would be complete if the legendary Fryingpan River were not added to spice up in the mix. In 2009, the story on "the Pan" will once again be enormous fish -- and big crowds. Dysart advised that if anglers want to avoid the elbow-to-elbow conditions that are often the norm in the half-mile stretch below Ruedi Dam, they should move downriver.
"Yes," he said, "that half-mile section is renowned for its ability to spit out monsters. But some lurk in the lower river as well, and there are plenty of fish in the 13- to 14-inch range to keep anglers busy."
Another attractive feature in the northwest is its numbers of fishable lakes and reservoirs.
The Grand Mesa alone harbors more than 300 pristine alpine beauties that rarely get any attention.
More popular spots like Wolford Reservoir and Trappers Lake keep living up to their reputations as trout-producing machines. Ewert said that Wolford is still a developing reservoir with tons of potential.
"It's an awesome brown-trout fishery that's starting to put out some real big fish," he said. "This reservoir is loaded with crayfish, and the browns put on a lot of growth in a hurry."
In 2008, the CDOW doubled the number of fingerling browns stocked in Wolford. "We're expecting great things in the future," said Ewert.
While Wolford is a young, developing reservoir, Trappers Lake in the Flat Tops Wilderness has wild cutthroats whose genes date back to the last ice age.
Boyd Wright, a CDOW biologist in the region, said that Trappers and the many lakes above it give anglers the chance to match wits with some wild cutthroat and brook trout.
"Most of the cutts are going to be 15 inches or bigger," he said, "and we would like anglers to keep any brook trout they catch."
Wright also asks that fisherman traveling from Trappers Lake, which is positive whirling disease, disinfect their waders and float tubes before fishing in the upper lakes like Little Trappers, Jewel and Wall.
The mammoth mackinaws at Blue Mesa make the west-central an awfully tough place for anglers to ignore. The last behemoth tipped the scales at 50.35 pounds and stands as the state record.
Over the years, according to biologist Dan Brauch, this record is likely to fall many times over.
"We're seeing a strong expansion of lakers," he said. "We have some monster fish in the reservoir, and they just seem to get bigger."
h added that in 2009, the Big Blue will again be a worthy destination for kokanee salmon, browns and rainbows.
Another angling haven can be found 43 miles northeast of Blue Mesa. Here, every acre of the tailrace section of the Taylor River is showing 60 fish of more than 14 inches. Each year, anglers from across the country flock to the banks of the Taylor to battle its football-shaped rainbows and sizable browns.
The Taylor has great public access, and 35 percent of the fish in its tailrace section are rainbows. Brauch said on that section, the biomass is 210 pounds of fish per acre.
While fishing the Taylor River, make sure and pencil in some time on Taylor Reservoir. Loads of mackinaws inhabit this lake, as do some monster trout. Just after ice-off in early spring, anglers can experience daily feeding frenzies.
Another draw to the region is the magnificent Gunnison River. Slicing through some of the most gorgeous scenery in the state, the Gunnison is notorious for its thriving trout populations and its trophy-quality fish.
Like many rivers across the state, the Gunny has been hit hard by whirling disease. The latest numbers from the CDOW show that browns make up 86 percent of the river's population, with the remaining 12 percent being rainbows.
The good news is that not many rivers can compete with the Gunnison's 5,000 fish per mile.