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White River Trout

White River Trout

Four species of trout in a freestone river that flows through a mountain setting -- for Colorado flyfishermen, it doesn't get any better than this.

Angler Alan Nielsen probes the White River for browns and rainbows.
Photo courtesy of Alan Nielsen

Energized by the bright morning sun, I slid out of my sleeping bag and noticed a herd of some 100 elk feeding on a slope across the White River from my camp. Although elk are common in this isolated northwest Colorado region, such a large herd is unusual. As they continued to move and feed, I realized that the unusual is quite common up here in this beautiful, isolated section of the Rockies, and quickly went about setting up my fly rod for a great day on the river.

The White River, a freestone river nurtured by the snowpack nestled in the heights of the Flattops Wilderness, is off the beaten path of traditional Colorado fly-fishing destinations and yet it offers top-quality fishing for brown, rainbow, brook and cutthroat trout averaging 12 to 14 inches with occasional lunkers surpassing the 5-pound mark, and mountain whitefish up to 3 pounds are abundant as well. The upper river within the national forest boundary is home to the brook and cutthroats while the browns and rainbows tend to reside farther downstream in the main river.

The North Fork surges out of renowned Trapper's Lake, traveling some 50 miles downstream to the mountain town of Meeker, the only significant community in this area. On its journey down the mountain, the North Fork joins the South Fork near Buford, forming the main stem, which meets the Green River some 150 miles downstream in Utah.

The river's character changes from small pocket water, high gradient flow to larger, meandering ranchland flow after it exits the national forest. After the junction of the North and South Forks, the White grows considerably in size. Characterized by riffles, deep runs and beautiful pools, the lower river tends to produce larger fish than the cascading upper forks within the White River National Forest. Trout fishing below Meeker deteriorates quickly as the river slows, loses its clarity and warms rapidly.

While the average fish is around 12 to 14 inches, much larger fish are commonly taken. In 1995, a 10-pound brown was caught in Meeker City Park. Fish up to 6 pounds have been taken from easements upstream of Meeker. There are recent reports of several 26- to 28-inch rainbow and cutthroat trout. The White is presently whirling disease free, and anglers are urged to do their part to maintain this status by cleaning their equipment (especially waders) thoroughly before entering the river. Wade fishing is the rule as the White is not large enough to support float fishing.


I favor a 9-foot, 5-weight rod with floating line for the main stem of the river. An 8-foot, 3- or 4-weight is adequate for either fork. Some of the heavier water in the main stem will require weighted flies and additional weight to get nymphs down in some of the deeper holes. I usually start with a 9-foot leader and 5X tippet for dry flies and seldom have to downsize. A 4X tippet is adequate for all but the smallest nymphs.


Chest waders are desirable as some water is quite deep. Unless you plan to fish the winter season, lightweight waders are quite adequate. Hip waders will suffice and during the summer, I often wade wet with shorts and sandals.

The North Fork can be fished well with caddis patterns. I like to use size 14-16 olive or brown Elk Hair Caddis with a Sparkle Pupa dropper, although just about any caddis pattern will be successful. Soft hackles, Hare's Ears and stonefly nymphs are other successful nymph patterns.

Private property dominates the lower section of the South Fork, while the Flattops Wilderness holds the upper section captive. A fine walking trail follows the fork upstream from the South Fork Campground some 15 miles. The South Fork offers wonderful small stream fishing for beautiful cutthroats, brookies, rainbows and browns up to 14 inches and larger.

Attractor flies combined with caddis patterns in sizes 14-18 are successful here. Elk Hair Caddis, Humpies, Royal Wulff and Adams, supplemented with terrestrials and smaller nymph droppers, will get all the action you want on these willing fish. Stimulator and grasshopper patterns produce later in the summer.

The main river begins to awaken in April with midge action, and by mid-April BWOs bring fish rushing to the surface. The big smorgasbord arrives in May with the incredible annual caddis hatch beginning downstream in Meeker. The caddis hatch moves upstream until runoff blows the river out. Fishing the hatch is similar to other waters. I fish caddis nymphs or soft hackles with a stonefly dropper in the morning until the hatch begins, usually around noon. Just about any dry caddis pattern in sizes 14-18 will attract fish when the fish begin to feed on the surface. Caddis patterns continue to work well throughout the summer during the evening hatches.

Some Pale Morning Dun, Red Quill and Green Drake hatches occur through July and August, and by late August Stimulators and 'hopper patterns will become important terrestrial fly patterns. Marty Bartholomew highly recommends a little black beetle with orange markings on its back on into September as well.

Fall provides the best brown trout fishing of the year. The river is full of large browns feeding heavily during their spawning run. Winter fishing is productive, with plenty of open water available on the lower river. As expected, winter fish will congregate in the deeper holes and be lethargic. Throughout the cold months of winter and early spring, bead head nymphs are the predominant lure for White River trout. Fish size 14-20 Hare's Ears, Princes and Pheasant Tails bouncing along the bottom.


The Meeker Chamber of Commerce is a valuable source of information for visitors. Visit the Web site at or call them at 970-878-5510. For fishing information and fly-fishing supplies, contact Stan Wyatt of Wyatt's Sporting Goods in Meeker at 970-878-4428.

Be sure to check fishing regulations, which currently include a two-trout bag and possession limit from the headwaters downstream to the Highway 13 bridge below Meeker. At the Sleepy Cat Basement, Wakara and Nelson-Prather leases and the Meeker Pasture State Wildlife Area east of Meeker, fishing is limited to flies and lures, and all trout must be released immediately. -- Roger Wheaton



Public access to the main stem of the White is somewhat limited, but fishing pressure is generally light, leaving lots of open water at access points. Prime fishing exists in Meeker's city park. Following County Road 8 about one mile east of Colorado 13, you will see some green cabins. The road side of the river is open to the public for some two miles upstream to the Nelson-Prather easement. Be sure to stay on the road side of the river to avoid private property.

About 4.5 miles upriver is the Wakara Ranch easement access. The Sleepy Cat access is about 14.5 miles upstream from the road junction. Lake Avery access is some 20 miles to an unmarked gravel road on the left. At Buford, take County Road 17 one mile south to the access road to the Bellaire Unit on the South Fork of the White River. Some 24 miles upriver on County Road 8 is an intersection with County 14. Turn right on 14 and drive about a mile to the county campground. Public fishing exists downstream through the county picnic area.

Farther upstream, you will find three additional access points within the White River National Forest below Trapper's Lake.


Should you tire of wading the heavier waters of the White, there are myriad small tributaries with excellent fishing as well as topnotch lake fishing nearby. Trapper's Lake sits at the edge of the Flattops Wilderness and serves as a great cutthroat fishery. Local resorts and outfitters provide access to Colorado's unmatched backcountry fishing experience amidst the Flattops' wildlife-rich, pristine wilderness.

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