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Colorado's Rainbow Strongholds

Colorado's Rainbow Strongholds

Contrary to the dour opinions of some Centennial State anglers, there are plenty of rivers offering quality rainbow trout fishing these days.

By Glenn Bamburg

Research by the Colorado Division of Wildlife indicates a 90 percent loss of wild rainbows in some of the state's best trout streams as a result of whirling disease. The South Platte, Rio Grande, Gunnison, Colorado and Cache la Poudre rivers have suffered the greatest devastation, losing most recruitment classes in recent years. Brown trout have partially filled the niche, providing adequate angling action.

However, some fishermen still yearn for the sight of a rainbow leaping at the end of a fly line. I'm one of those anglers. The odometer on my fishing rig attests to dozens of trips taken in search of Colorado's remaining rainbow strongholds and there's good news to report. Respectable rainbow populations survive in a few noteworthy streams, including the Big Thompson River below Lake Estes, White River near Meeker and Fryingpan River downstream of Ruedi Reservoir.

This triad of Centennial State waters offers rainbows from 12 inches to 12 pounds, depending on your choice of rivers. Essential information is given for each stronghold. Maybe the odometer on your fishing rig won't spin nearly as often before colorful rainbows fill the Rocky Mountain sky!

Rising in Forest Canyon below Trail Ridge Road, the Big Thompson River meanders the lofty expanse of Rocky Mountain NP into Estes Park where crystal currents are delayed by Olympus Dam, forming Lake Estes. The river then tumbles through Big Thompson Canyon, gliding past Loveland to greet the South Platte River near Greeley.

Zeke Hersh makes frequent winter trips to the Fryingpan, Taylor and Blue rivers -- for obvious results. Photo by Glenn Bamburg

"I would rank the Big Thompson as the number-one rainbow fishery on the Front Range," said Keith Keenan, president of Trout Unlimited's Alpine Anglers in Estes Park and owner of Alpine Guide Service. "In the past, the Big Thompson was really a special rainbow fishery, but we're catching more and more browns every year. However, there's still a majority of rainbows.

"The trout are getting bigger," he observed. "The DOW quit stocking the river 8 years ago. Fish have less competition for food, so average size goes up each year." Most rainbows measure 12 to 13 inches, including a few 16- to 18-inchers in deeper holes and undercut banks. A 30-inch fish was landed two years ago.


"All trout are wild," noted Keenan. "About 13.5 miles of stream from Olympus Dam to Waltonia are regulated as catch-and-release, flies-and-lures only water to protect wild trout from harvesting. We're only 40 minutes away from 600,000 people, so we want to make sure our wild trout fishery is preserved."

Thirty miles of canyon water are accessible via U.S. Highway 34 from Estes Park to Loveland, offering dozens of turnouts and public access points. A sizable portion flows through private property, so watch for trespass warnings.

During winter, the canyon is shaded from direct sunlight, causing icy stream conditions, but a few sunny stretches are always open. The best action takes place in the improved section below Lake Estes. Even in freezing weather, there is ice-free water in the first mile or two from the dam.

"The DOW brought in a stream designer," explained Keenan, "and built a custom-made trout fishery below the spillway, including holding areas and spawning beds. They put in rocks and tree stumps for current breaks and shelter, then dumped in smaller-sized gravel for spawning areas. It's really a nice part of the river now."

Look for rainbows behind boulders in slow-moving pocket water or beneath undercut banks away from faster currents. Drift nymphs through the deeper holes. Wintertime 'bows won't move far, so put your flies on target.

"The trout feed mostly on midges," indicated Keenan. "We have a local pattern called the 'little black thing' or LBT. Basically, it's black thread with a tiny polywing tied to a #22 hook. Anglers use a strike indicator or larger fly and fish the LBT as a dropper." Other midge patterns include a #18-24 Black Beauty, #16-22 Brassie and #16-22 Griffith's Gnat.

The balmy conditions of late-March and April create lengthy stretches of open water in Big Thompson Canyon. As stream temperatures rise above 40 degrees, aquatic insects awaken along the bottom.

"From mid-April until mid-May is my favorite time to fish the river," noted Keenan. "We have low flows in winter, but during the first or second week of April, they kick up water releases. The water gets warmer and trout come out of hibernation to feed on Blue-Winged Olives and other insects.

Your Trout Trip Planner

The town of Estes Park huddles against the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park where cross-country skiing and snowmobiling are popular winter pastimes. For river information or guide service, visit Estes Angler, 338 West Riverside Drive, 1-800-586-2110 or Alpine Guide Service at (970) 586-5226. Motel lodging includes Comfort Inn, 1450 Big Thompson Ave., (970) 586-2358, and Holiday Inn, 101 South St. Vrain Ave., (970) 586-2332. If you prefer a homestyle bed-and-breakfast, try Black Dog Inn, 650 South St. Vrain Ave., (970) 586-0374, or Antlers Pointe Log Cabins, 1515 Fish Hatchery Road, (970) 586-8881. The historic Stanley Hotel, 333 Wonderview, (970) 586-3371, lends sleeping/dining elegance from its 1909 past along with the Stanley Museum.


Basalt, between the Basalt and Sopris mountains, boasts of cross-country skiing, the best of downhill in nearby Aspen, or a soak in the hot springs of Glenwood Springs. For information, flies and guides, check with Fryingpan Anglers, 123 Emma Road, Suite 100, (970) 927-3441; Fryingpan River Ranch, 32042 Fryingpan River Road, (970) 927-3570; or Taylor Creek Fly Shop, City Market Shopping Center, (970) 927-4374. Lodging in Basalt includes Aspenwood Lodge, 220 Midland Ave., (970) 927-4747; Best Western Apenalt Lodge, 157 Basalt Center Circle, (970) 927-3191; and Midland House Bed and Breakfa

st, 234 Midland Ave., (970) 927-8811.


Meeker lies in the shadows of the Flattops Wilderness. A museum there touts the 1879 Meeker massacre and other exhibits of pioneer heritage. A Cowboy Poet Gathering meets each February. For information regarding the White River, contact Wyatt's Sport Center, (970) 878-4428, or Downing's Hardware, (970) 878-4608. Lodging in Meeker includes the historic Meeker Hotel, 560 Main, (970) 878-5255; Rustic Lodge, 173 1st. St., (970) 878-3136; Valley Motel, 723 E. Market St., (970) 878-3656; and White River Inn, 219 E. Market St., (970) 878-5031. -- Glenn Bamburg


"It's easy to catch a lot of fish in a day," he indicated, "because they're hungry and searching for food. One guide up here said every rock in the canyon has a trout behind it. Cast upstream and let your flies drift into holding areas." A #16-20 Pheasant Tail Nymph, #16-24 RS-2, #16-22 Olive Comparadun and a #10-12 Black Woolly Bugger are effective April patterns."

Spilling from Reudi Reservoir, the Fryingpan River races 14 miles to join the Roaring Fork at Basalt, offering one of the most prolific and celebrated stretches of trout water in the Rocky Mountain region. Flycasters from around the world come to the Fryingpan to match angling skills and wits against gigantic rainbows lurking below Ruedi Dam.

"The Fryingpan River is one of Colorado's best winter fisheries," said Will Sands, guide and manager of Taylor Creek Fly Shop in Basalt. "We probably don't have the same numbers of rainbows as we did some years ago, but there's still quite a few big fish throughout the river in the 14- to 20-inch class and some huge rainbows in the first mile below Ruedi Reservoir.

"February, March and April are prime months to catch trophy fish," he informed. "Larger rainbows move around in the tailwater section, getting ready to spawn and are much easier to find during the lower water conditions. Anglers catch 10-pound fish on a weekly basis near the dam, while our guides and clients have landed rainbows up to 18 pounds."

Flows from Ruedi Dam remain a constant 40 degrees, providing 6 or 7 miles of open water below the spillway. The lower river can freeze over and become unfishable, so concentrate your efforts on the upper tailwater section.

The river from Ruedi Dam downstream to the Roaring Fork is designated as Gold Medal Water. Anglers must use artificial flies and lures, immediately returning all trout, except browns, to the water. Bag and possession limit for brown trout is 2 fish under 14 inches. The upper river flows mainly through Forest Service property and is readily accessible during the snowy season. Fryingpan Road (FR 105) parallels the stream and is well-maintained, providing numerous parking areas beside the river.

"Large rainbows feast on mysis shrimp flushed out of the reservoir," reported Sands. "These crustaceans enter the river on a daily basis and often in great numbers. Oftentimes, trout focus heavily on mysis and let their guard down, making them easier to catch. When shrimp numbers are down, the trout's interest may spread out between midges and mysis.

"We'll see heavy midge hatches throughout winter," he observed, "but especially on warmer days when water temperatures rise a couple of degrees between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. April is somewhat milder, with prolific midge hatches and occasionally BWO hatches."

Load fly boxes with #16-20 Tim's Mysis, #16-20 Will's Epoxy Mysis, #16-24 Brassie, #18-22 Black Biot Midge Emerger, #16-22 Bill's Adult Midge, #18-22 RS-2, #20-22 Sparkle BWO Dun and #20-22 CDC BWO Comparadun.

Fryingpan anglers normally locate and stalk larger rainbows before casting. These fish are often visible when they eat your flies. Remove your strike indicator to reduce spooking and wade as close as possible to the quarry. Cast upstream into the proper feeding lane and dead-drift flies into the strike zone. Observe the trout's reaction or movement and set the hook immediately.

"You want to make only one or two drifts," cautioned Sands, "without startling the fish. Most people cast far too much to one trout. After a cast or two, adjust weight so your flies drift right in the fish's face. If the trout spooks, stop casting and wait until it eats several natural food items. Let the fish get secure in its feeding rhythm again before casting."

Some anglers use a larger, white mysis pattern as a strike indicator and trail a smaller mysis pattern. You can easily track the larger fly's pathway through the water columns and see the fish's reaction, signaling either a strike or the appropriate weight adjustment for a higher or lower drift.

The use of fluorocarbon leaders and tippets is vital throughout the year, but especially when water flows are lower in winter. A 9-foot leader tapered to 6X tippet is standard for the Fryingpan, but stream conditions or finicky trout may demand longer leaders and 7X tippets.

"Before casting to larger 'bows, anticipate what the trout might do when hooked," suggested Sands, "so you can keep the fish away from rocks, logs or other nearby obstructions to prevent snagging the line. Secondly, keep as much fly line and leader out of the water as possible, minimizing drag buildup and stress on the leader and tippet. Then, you must give chase in order to land a big fish."

A 9-foot, medium-action, 4-weight fly rod gives you plenty of line control and manipulation yet cushions the powerful runs, head jerks and sudden lunges of the Fryingpan's mammoth rainbows, while protecting 6X or 7X tippets.

Flowing out of Trappers Lake and Flattops Wilderness Area, the White River rambles 50 miles west through pine forest, pasture lands and hay meadows before swirling past Meeker on its 170-mile journey to the Green River in Utah. The long riffles, deep runs and wide corner pools of the river's upper section afford prime habitat for numerous rainbows. Angling is superb in late winter and early spring.

The average size of 'bows runs 14 to 16 inches, including several 18- to 24-inchers. Last spring, Craig fisherman Shane Baker caught a 28-inch rainbow from private water east of Meeker.

The bag and possession limit is two trout from White River headwaters (including North Fork and South Fork) downstream to the CO13 bridge. Along this stretch, Nelson-Prather, Wakara and Sleepy Cat easements are restricted to artificial flies and lures and catch-and-release.

You can generally find open water near Meeker because of the river's high gradient and springs. The stream has surface slush on colder days and anchor ice in extreme weather. Deep powder covers the riverbanks, making stream access more challenging. However, wintertime discomforts melt away as images of 28-inch rainbows monopolize the senses.

"The farther you go up the White River in winter, the more likely you'll find some icing-over," said Dan Prenzlow of

the CDOW in Meeker, "but lower sections near Meeker are fishable all year. On normal days, you can catch trout from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m. when temperatures are warmer, but you'll have to wait until slush ice subsides from the river."

Trout stack up in deeper, slower holes of corner pools, narrow troughs, sharp drop-offs, back eddies or any depression scoured-out by water. The fish's metabolism is way down, so they're not actively feeding. You have to put flies right on them to get a strike.

"Get your nymphs down, deep in the hole," advised Prenzlow. "Most fishermen put split shot and a strike indicator above their flies and bounce them through the deeper holes, trying not to hang up on the rocks. Basically, I fish straight nymphs in winter - Hare's Ears, Buckskins, Scuds, Princes, Pheasant Tails or any #12-20 bead-head nymph."

Stream conditions improve steadily during late March and April, prompting a burst of insect activity. Blue-Winged Olives hatch in mid-April, bringing rainbows to the surface from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m. or longer in cloudy weather. Cast a #16-20 Baetis Nymph, #18-22 Olive Quill Emerger or #16-22 BWO Dun as the hatch progresses through its various stages.

During winter and early spring, anglers enjoy excellent rainbow action within Meeker at City Park and on four fishing easements east of town accessible via County Road 8. These public access sections include Nelson-Prather at 2.0 milepost (1.0 mile upriver); Wakara Ranch at 5.0 milepost, then right on CR 4 to Wilbur Bridge (0.4 mile downriver) Sleepy Cat Ponds at 14.5 milepost (1.8 miles upriver); and Lake Avery at 18.2 milepost (2.0 miles upriver).

Other Rainbow Strongholds
Highlighted are three additional Colorado fisheries offering steady rainbow action.

Animas River -- San Juan and La Plata counties. Rainbows -- average 12 to 14 inches, some exceed 20. Hotspots include the Gold Medal water in Durango. From Lightner Creek to Purple Cliffs is flies and lures only; two trout, 16 inches or longer. Check with Duranglers, (970) 385-4081.

Arkansas River Tailwater -- below Pueblo Reservoir. Most trout are 10 to 12 inches, some to 16. Hotspots include the 9-mile stretch from Pueblo Dam to Fountain Creek. The daily bag is four, possession limit: eight. Call Anglers Choice, (719) 564-2671.

Yampa River -- Steamboat Springs. Rainbows range from 12 inches to 10 pounds. Hotspots are from .6-mile tailwater below Stagecoach Reservoir 4.5 miles through Steamboat Springs. Regulations call for flies and lures only and catch-and-release. Contact Bucking Rainbow Outfitters, (970) 879-4693.

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