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Winter On The Fork

Winter On The Fork

Enjoy spectacular beauty and spine-tingling Gold Medal fishing for rainbows, browns and mountain whitefish on Colorado's "Thunder River."

Deep powder covers the Roaring Fork Valley in winter. When you're not skiing, it's time to fish! Photo by Glenn Bamburg

By Glenn Bamburg

Rising in the rugged Sawatch Range of central Colorado, the Roaring Fork River rambles 70 miles northwest through the trendy resort community of Aspen to enter the Colorado River at Glenwood Springs. During the 1800s, Northern Ute Indians referred to the Roaring Fork as "Thunder River," describing the stream's tumultuous nature at runoff. A freestone its entire length, the river offers world-class fishing for rainbows, browns and mountain whitefish.

Browns and 'bows average 14 to 16 inches, with numerous specimens longer than 20 inches. A few 24- to 26-inchers prowl the river.

Whitefish grow to 20 inches in the nutrient-rich stream, including the Centennial State record, a 5-pound, 2-ounce whitefish.

Anglers must use artificial flies and release all trout from McFarlane Creek downstream to upper Woody Creek Bridge. From there to the Colorado River, artificial flies and lures are permitted with a bag limit of two trout, 16 inches or longer. No restrictions apply to whitefish. A 12-mile section from Carbondale to the Colorado River is Gold Medal Water.

In January, the Roaring Fork Valley is blanketed by deep powder. Frigid temperatures and severe icing plague most area waters, but the lower Fork remains accessible throughout much of the snowy season. Tailwater releases from Ruedi Reservoir normally keep the Fryingpan open as well as the Roaring Fork from Basalt to the Colorado River.

"Our winter fishing is some of the best found anywhere in Colorado," indicated Will Sands of Taylor Creek Fly Shop in Basalt. "We were at 100 percent snowpack last season, so this is the best water the Roaring Fork Valley has seen in four or five years. Winter fishing should be exceptional!


"Floating ice is a problem during early morning," he noted, "but once ice clears by midday, fishing can be outstanding until 4 o'clock. We don't do much fishing upstream of Basalt because the canyon sections don't receive much sunlight and are iced-up and unfishable."

The Roaring Fork's "thunder" gets quiet through in winter. Normal flows measure 400 to 500 cubic feet per second, depending on releases. Calmer water attracts scores of anglers, but caution is advised. Deceptively strong currents, slippery rocks and anchor ice can result in bone-chilling mishaps.

"It's a big, slick river," reminded Sands, "and at times, anchor ice can make it more dangerous. Always use common sense and wade with friends. It's usually not necessary to wade deep or even get in water to catch fish."

Highway 82 provides numerous access points, including Burry Access, Westbank Bridge, Sunlight Bridge, Airport Access, Glenwood Park and the stream's confluence with the Colorado River. Several pullouts from Two Rivers Road in Basalt offer entry to prime flows.


The biggest problem faced by visitors to Glenwood Springs might be which activities to enjoy after catching a limit of fish on the river.


The Glenwood Springs Community Center offers a variety of indoor fun, including a climbing wall that caters to climbers of all abilities, a full-size gymnasium with six hoops and other activities, fitness center, an NHL size skating rink and a computer lab. Frontier History Museum is also a good way to learn more about the town, springs and surrounding area.


Aspen lies a short 40 miles distant with ski slopes to fit any level of skill along with other snow-fun activities. There are shops galore lining downtown streets with restaurants offering food choices from pizza to international gourmet dining. Restored to its silver era glory, the Wheeler Opera House presents concerts that sweep visitors into an historic time vacuum. -- Glenn Bamburg


"Winter trout are more lethargic," informed Sands. "They look for the deepest, warmest water. A number of public access points between Basalt and Glenwood Springs have deep runs and pools holding tremendous quantities of fish. Local fly shops are willing to point you in the right direction to the better wintering areas."

Oftentimes, trout and whitefish flock to the same deep-water habitat. However, they seldom intermix even in confined quarters, preferring to maintain slightly separate territories and feeding lanes.

"You typically find whitefish concentrated in deeper runs at the center of pools right on bottom," observed Sands. "Consequently, you'll find trout around the edges of and towards the heads and tails of pools. If a hole is stacked up with whitefish, you'll catch trout around the edges and in front and back of whitefish."

Other hangouts are eddies, pockets, troughs, dropoffs or similar streambed depressions. Manmade structures such as bridge abutments offer deeper, calmer pockets below them.

Staying mobile is essential. "It depends on the size and depth of the water, but we move and we move frequently," stressed Sands. "We never stand in an area for over an hour if we haven't caught fish. After 20 to 30 minutes, it's usually time to pick up and move on."

Although winter hatches decrease, edible life forms remain plentiful. Midges are the primary food source with immature mayflies, caddisflies and stoneflies supplementing the diet. Most insects are at the mid-point of yearly life cycles, so toss downsized fly patterns.

"We fish smaller flies and more midges patterns through the winter months," revealed Sands, "drifting a slightly larger nymph, like a No. 14-16 Prince Nymph

or Copper John and trailing a No. 18-20 midge."

Midge patterns include Red Midge Larvae, Disco Midges, AK's Midge Larvae, Brassies and Black Beauties. Additional nymphs are Pheasant Tails, RS-2s, Sparkle Caddis Pupae, Buckskins and Hare's Ears.

Most anglers use standard two-fly rigs with flies 14 to 18 inches apart, split shot 12 inches above the top fly and a strike indicator set at 1 1/2 times the water depth. A 9-foot, 5X or 6X leader is satisfactory, but with a dropper, the leader measures about 10 1/2 feet. Anything longer and you start to lose control of your nymphs.

A medium-fast action 9-foot, 5-weight rod is suitable. This length rod permits better line control and keeps flies in the strike zone a few crucial inches at the end of each presentation. The rod also has enough backbone to land quarry within reasonable time, which is critical to fish survival.


By the time Roaring Fork flows into the Colorado River at Glenwood Springs, it has journeyed some 70 miles from its gentle beginnings near Aspen. During spring runoff, the turbulent waters gather small boulders and fallen tree trunks as it charges along its pathway, sending forth a thunderous sound -- the Utes called it "Thunder River" -- to announce its arrival into the valley.


Years before white man's footsteps fell in this region, the Utes made their way into the area as springtime snowmelt began, seeking hunting grounds and the soothing properties of the natural hot springs, which they called "Yampah," or "Big Medicine." A hogan was built over the south end of the springs where the restorative and healing qualities of the springs provided relief for winter aches and miraculous cures to various other maladies.


In 1878, James Landis came from Leadville in search of hay, and the friendly Utes shared the hot springs' pleasures with him. That same year the Indians were forced onto reservations in nearby Utah, clearing the way for white settlers. The next spring, Landis returned to file squatter's rights to a parcel of land where he built a small cabin. In time, the springs area and a small tract surrounding it was purchased by Walter B. Devereux, a mining engineer who constructed a rock wall to separate the river from the springs in 1888. He then encircled the springs with masonry to complete a world-class spa and hotel called the Natatorium.


People still flock to the world's largest hot springs pool in Glenwood, soaking in year-round enjoyment in the medicinal waters which have enticed visitors from all over the world, including notable figures such as Teddy Roosevelt, Doc Holiday and Buffalo Bill. Less worthy of notice, but equally valuable in Colorado's history were the miners who came out of the higher regions to bathe and do laundry in the heated waters. -- Glenn Bamburg


The trout's willingness to move dwindles in icy currents. Fish seldom venture far from deep-water lies to intercept food. Daily intake also tapers off due to lower body metabolism. Conversely, whitefish activity accelerates, making them prime targets for winter anglers.

"Finding deeper pools where fish are congregated and using enough weight to get flies down to them are keys to success," advised Sands. "Both trout and whitefish hold right along the bottom, so your flies must also bounce right along the bottom. If you're not breaking off a few flies and losing setups; you probably won't catch nearly as many fish."

You'll have to thread the needle, bumping flies off their noses. When fish are that deep, your approach isn't too critical but don't trudge into the water. The Fork is an edge-fishing river, with most trout holding within a dozen feet of the bank. Use relatively short, tight-line presentations, wading as little as possible.

You still need to dead-drift flies in winter. This method consistently hooks more trout than swinging or moving flies unnaturally in the current. In tight water, high-sticking is more effective, keeping excess line off the water. But in larger pools, you may cast out farther than high-sticking allows, so mend line accordingly.

Cast far enough upstream to drift flies through the deepest water. When fish are holding right on bottom, strikes generally occur as nymphs reach their lowest point near the middle or lower end of the drift.

"Anytime you have significant amounts of split shot, you can't cast in a traditional manner because you can't maintain a casting loop," warned Sands. "Nice, big, smooth roll casts are the most appropriate means of delivering weighted leaders. Roll casts are accurate and minimize tangling. If you cast traditionally, you'll spend more time cutting rigs apart and redoing leaders than fishing.

"If you're getting nice, drag-free presentations," he continued, "let your flies drift downstream until they drag. The longer flies are in the water, the more opportunity they have to get eaten. At the end of each drift, the line and leader are in perfect position to roll cast again. When your line tightens and loads the rod, roll the flies back upstream at the desired target."

In winter, the Roaring Fork Valley is subject to extreme weather. Dress in layers of fleece or other moisture-wicking materials. As temperatures fluctuate, shed or add layers. Warm hats and gloves are essential, while insulated waders protect against icy currents.

For additional information, contact Taylor Creek Fly Shop at (970) 927-4374.

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