For anglers willing to play the midwinter game of tiny trout flies and light tippets on the Yampa, Blue, Frying Pan and Taylor rivers, the epic fly-fishing for pig-sized rainbow trout can be nothing short of a miracle.
By Lynn Burkhead
The New Year has dawned, and for many anglers, any thoughts of fly-fishing for Colorado's boisterous trout seem to be light years away with Old Man Winter firmly in control.
But as some Centennial State anglers know, just because the snow is flying and there's little mercury showing on the thermometer, that doesn't mean the state's rainbow trout have quit eating, nor have they gone into hibernation for a long winter's nap.
In fact, on four of the state's prime tailwater trout streams - the Frying Pan, the Taylor, the Blue, and the Yampa - midwinter offers some of the hottest trout fishing of the year. Thanks to the presence of mysis shrimp and midges on these hallowed but nearly congealed waters, winter angling can be surprisingly good.
Be assured that midwinter trout fishing in Colorado can be a test of the will, thanks to frigid water and air temperatures, not to mention icy roads and foot-paths to trout streams. But for those willing to bundle up in layers of polypropylene, wool and fleece, and for those who are willing to adjust their angling tactics for the season at hand, the best advice I can give is this: Keep the digital camera handy!
When most people think of Summit County's high country during the dead of winter, their thoughts often turn to the nearby ski slopes of Arapahoe Basin, Breckenridge, Copper Mountain and Keystone.
But for those whose thoughts often turn to rainbow trout, don't overlook the sliver of water gurgling under I-70 as it ushers thousands of skiers into Summit County's winter playground. The Blue River tailwater, flowing through Silverthorne, provides wintertime trout fishing that can be every bit as epic as the nearby skiing.
According to Mitch Vogt, manager and guide for Trapper Rudd's Cutthroat Anglers fly shop in Silverthorne, the Blue River shares one key commonality with its other Colorado tailwater cousins.
"The Taylor, the Frying Pan and the Blue are very similar in that they are mysis shrimp fisheries," Vogt said. "The water flows out from the dam and brings mysis shrimp into the river systems, which keeps the fish happy and full. The big rainbows sit in there and munch on these mysis shrimp and get full of protein, which causes some of them to grow to be very large."
But just because the Blue River's 'bows are eating plenty of shrimp cocktail, that doesn't mean the fishing is easy. "The Blue is right here in town, and some people think that just because it's right here and accessible, they'll have good luck," Vogt said. "The Blue is a very technical fishery with small mysis shrimp. Most of the time, you're sight-fishing for these larger fish in the various pools. (The conditions are challenging), especially in the wintertime when it stays very low and clear."
Photo by Tosh Brown
Skiers on the nearby slopes live for those epic Colorado powder days in which the snow is measured in feet, not inches. Believe it or not, some of the best fly-fishing on the Blue also occurs when the weatherman is working overtime.
"Some of the best fishing can occur in the worst weather conditions," Vogt said. "Even when it is dumping snow or rain, it can be some of the best times to fish the water."
Vogt urges anglers heading for the midwinter Blue to pack the tailwater one-two punch of a 5- or 6-weight fly rod that has enough backbone to land one of the river's big 'bows. "The rainbows are so big that you want to be able to land them without having to play them a long time," he said.
At the same time, keep in mind that 7- to 9-foot fluorocarbon leaders with delicate 6x, 7x and even 8x tippets are necessary to fool the Blue's highly educated rainbows. "Using rods that aren't super stiff is one key," Vogt said. "You want something to be able to pull and put pressure on them, but also something that is also going to save those light tippets. Landing them can be a little bit easier with a softer tip. You can play them out with it. There's no way you can horse an 8- to 10-pound rainbow in if he doesn't want to come in."
As for flies, Vogt suggests any kind of mysis shrimp pattern, including the locally tied Randy's Mysis pattern in Nos. 18-20. Other top winter patterns for the Blue River include Candy Canes, Miracle Nymphs, WD-40s, Black Beauties, Real Midges, Brooks Sprouts, and Parachute Adams flies in Nos. 20 and 22.
Where should these flies be used on the Blue? Right in the middle of Silverthorne near the noisy I-70 travel corridor.
"Everything in town is public," Vogt said. "From the Town Hall Bridge up to the dam, it all fishes pretty well through the wintertime and stays pretty open. There is public water farther downstream, but in the wintertime it can be pretty well frozen."
FRYING PAN RIVER
The beloved Frying Pan River near Basalt certainly doesn't need any introduction. The beautiful tailwater flowing through red-rock canyon country not far from Aspen-area ski slopes is home to some of the continent's best trout fishing - and biggest angling crowds.
While still not deserted, winter angling does offer some solace for anglers hoping to sample the Pan's epic trout fishing, according to Art Rowell, manager of Frying Pan Anglers fly shop in Basalt. "The trick in the winter is finding a sunny spot on the river, and that changes as the day goes on," Rowell said. "In December with its very short days, there are only a few spots on the river that get any sunshine at all, and then only for one or two hours maximum. That's the secret to getting the midges hatching. We fish dry flies all winter long, but just (be sure) to follow the sun."
On the other hand, the fly shop manager also points out that when the sun isn't shining through heavy clouds, bad weather days can produce some of the Pan's most memorable fishing.
"I have fished up there for a half-hour in a driving blizzard," Rowell said. "When I turned around, there was six inches of snow plastered to my back, but I had had one of the best half-hours I've had in many a year. Usually, it's not that cold when it's snowing like that; usually it's just around 30 to 32 degrees, so it's a little warmer. On a snowy day, you can do fine. In fact, some of the best baetis days of the year happen out there in the snow."
Aside from fishing the right weather, Ro
well advises anglers to be sure to think small when stocking their fly boxes for a Pan adventure.
"I'd fish nothing much bigger than No. 20 all the way down to No. 24 or No. 26," Rowell said. "When it comes to those real small flies though, I'm not that good. (We) old guys have to fish some of the larger flies so we can see them."
Rowell says several patterns tied by Frying Pan Anglers fly shop owner Roy C. Palm are always good on the Pan. "Roy's Biot Emerger is a good one," he said. "Roy's Special Emerger is a good one too, especially in the smaller sizes."
Other patterns likely to find their way into Rowell's midwinter fly box include red Brassies, Discos, various Barr's patterns, Parachute Adams, Black Midge Parachutes, and various red worm patterns. Primarily, he'll use flies tied in red or black variations since he finds the river's gray-shaded midges - and their matching fly patterns - to be simply too small for him to adequately see and fish properly. Mysis shrimp patterns are also important to have in Nos. 14 through 20.
Like the Blue, the use of delicate tippets is a key on this famous tailwater.
"One of the secrets of the Frying Pan is light tippet," Rowell said. "The fish will follow you around like dogs, but if they see the tippet, they will not touch the fly. We don't use anything heavier than 6x tippets."
While some Pan regulars insist on snaky leaders in the 12- to 14-foot varieties, Rowell says he hasn't found such lengths to be necessary. He uses 9-foot fluorocarbon leaders.
As for fishing locations, just about any portion of the river's public water is good, although for bigger fish, the fly shop manager admits that the well-known upper river sections like the Toilet Bowl, the Bend Pool, and the Bridge Pool are good for those hoping to hook a Frying Pan pig.
"The Toilet Bowl right up below the dam is pretty good," Rowell said. "One of my guides got a 17-pound rainbow out of there last January. I didn't believe him and told him I didn't believe there was anything in there over 12 pounds. But he showed me a picture and it was definitely over 17 pounds - as big as a silver salmon."
But while the Pan's upper reaches can be rainbow hog heaven, Rowell often prefers to fish farther downstream.
"I'm 62 years old and I've caught a lot of trout all the way up to 10 and 12 pounds (in the upper river sections)," he said. "But those rainbows actually get fished over so much by pros who are there 365 days a year. The hotter fish are downriver. You can go downstream and catch a 20-inch fish that's hotter than a 10-pounder up by the dam because he's so tired."
Like the other two rivers already profiled, the Taylor River can produce some legendary midwinter fishing, thanks again to mysis shrimp and midges.
But while there's some room to spread out on the Blue and the Frying Pan, the Taylor River can be akin to combat fishing, albeit less so in the wintertime.
"Everyone knows about it (the Taylor River)," said Rod Cesario, owner of Dragonfly Anglers fly shop in Crested Butte. "There's only one area you can fish on the Taylor. It's right below the dam and it's less than a half-mile long."
But what a half-mile it is! Even with the crowds that will sometimes show up on the Taylor, the river is worth a midwinter visit from trout anglers.
"The river has gotten incredible amounts of publicity, including that cover shot on Fly Fisherman magazine a couple of years ago," Cesario said. "There's no hiding from the crowds, but it's the only place to catch the large ones."
Is fishing the Taylor River a hassle? Well, you be the judge - is a huge rainbow trout measuring 30 inches or more and weighing in the 14-pound range enough to tempt you? It is me!
"It's definitely worth it to chase one in the winter," Cesario agreed. "I remember many fish in the winter, from November through February, which were in the 27- to 28-inch range and weighed around 10 pounds."
The Crested Butte fly shop guru instructs anglers to use 5x or 6x tippet and admits that fluorocarbon definitely helps tip the odds a bit more in the angler's favor. At the end of those tippets, he says Chocolate Emergers, Black Beauties, Brassies, WD-40s, Pheasant Tail nymphs and mysis shrimp patterns in Nos. 18 through 20 are good bets for a Taylor River fly box.
One other key, according to Cesario, is the water flow coming into the river. The higher the flow, the better the fishing tends to be.
What should you do if you actually hook one of the Taylor's legendary 'bows? Well, besides pray a lot, it helps to let the fish dictate the fight. "Let them run," Cesario said. "That's the hardest thing to do. It's harder to land them than it is to hook them, I think. It's a 'Catch 22' - you have to use really small tippets to get them to take, but then you've got to know what you're doing to land one of these fish."
Located in the shadow of the Steamboat Springs Ski Resort, the Yampa River in northwestern Colorado might be among the lesser-known mysis shrimp-fed rainbow trout pig factories.
Part of that reason is that private land surrounds the best portions of the tailwater. Sure, there can be some superb fishing in town, even in the dead of winter when ice conditions permit it. But for those willing to pay to play with local fly shop guides who have the keys to the locked gates in their hands, fishing on private stretches of water can be nothing short of spectacular.
Yampa River — Bucking Rainbow Outfitters in Steamboat Springs: www.buckingrainbow.com; (888) 810-8747;
Taylor River — Dragonfly An-glers in Crested Butte: (800) 491-3079; www.dragonflyanglers.com.
Frying Pan — Frying Pan Anglers in Basalt: (970) 927-3441; http://www.fryingpananglers.com.
Blue River — Trapper Rudd's Cutthroat Anglers in Silverthorne: www.fishcolorado.com; (888) 876-8818. — Lynn Burkhead
A couple of years bac
k I made a late-winter visit to the Yampa with my buddy Rhett Bain and John Duty, owner and operator of Bucking Rainbows Outfitters fly shop in Steamboat Springs. With the temperature near 20 degrees and 18 inches of fresh powder burying nearby ski slopes, the day was frigid to be sure.
But the action on the private water was red hot, producing numerous hook-ups with big rainbows. I landed a personal best 24-inch 'bow but busted off a fish that might have been its twin, thanks to an unforeseen ice ball build-up that caused me and the big rainbow to part ways.
Bain had his own big-trout troubles, battling for 10 minutes with a true-blue rainbow monster that was likely 8 pounds or better.
"You might want to go ahead and fish," Bain told me as I readied the camera for the grip-and-grin hero shot. "This is a real pig and it's going to take awhile."
Unfortunately, Bain's fly line eventually went limp too, once again victimized by ice build-up.
Which brings up an important consideration on any of Colorado's rivers during the midwinter cold: How do you avoid a broken heart caused by the unfortunate appearance of ice on your fly line or leader? "It's just constant maintenance, really," Duty said. "The only thing that you can really do when you're playing a fish, you've got your tip up and you suddenly realize that you're starting to ice up, is to drop the tip down into the water. That will normally help clear it up."
While anti-ice build-up products are on the market, Duty cautions that they're not miracle cures and that anglers must constantly be aware of the condition of their equipment when on a trout stream in midwinter.
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