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Colorado's Trout A'Plenty

Colorado's Trout A'Plenty

Don't wait for summer to let a trout put a bend in your fishing rod. These Colorado tailwaters provide prime early season action you don't want to miss.

By Joel L. Evans

April. Tailwaters. Big fish. Clear water. No crowds. Hungry trout. Eager trout.

Early spring is an outstanding time for Colorado fishing. It might even be better than summer and fall fishing. The river of opportunity is skinny, but the results can be fat - fat as in trophy trout measured in pounds instead of inches!

In that shoulder season after winter ice has vanquished its vise grip on rivers but before the heat hits the high country, there is a sweat spot for the early-season angler before the soupy waters of spring run-off come tumbling down.

True, I can't go a summer without hiking into the Colorado Rocky Mountain backcountry to a small creek in hopes of enticing small cutthroat trout to a softly laid dry fly. But for consistent chances of large fish, the best place to go hunting is a tailwater river. And Colorado has some of the best in the world.

Tailwaters, although they may be in out-of-the-way places, are easily accessed simply because there is always a road to the dam that creates the tailwater, even if it is just a dirt road. No hiking required.

Easy access also means that you should not expect solitude. In fact, during the height of the summer tourist season, tailwaters can be take-a-number fishing. And the fish - they are wary, smart, and difficult to catch.


One of Colorado's most-storied rivers, the Fryingpan. Finesse is the name of the game here. Photo by Joel Evans

So what's the attraction? Big fish.

How does it get that way? Tailwaters create an environment conducive to rapid and constant growth of trout. With a rich supply of food coming fresh from the reservoir above, fish feed year-round. Constant water temperatures due to the mass of the upstream reservoir provide a narrow range of optimal stream temperatures - cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter - than would otherwise be. Working like a big filter, reservoirs tend to clarify the water as solids settle out in the lake. It all adds up to a prime environment.

So how do you experience the best of both worlds - big fish with minimal crowds? Fish in the spring before the summer angler wakes up! Late March through early May is prime time in Colorado.

Waters are warming and fish are increasing their activity, feeding more and more after a winter of cold metabolism. Hungry trout are easier to fool. Although you won't be alone at a tailwater stream, most anglers either aren't willing to bear the cold of spring or they just aren't in the fishing mood yet. So what may become combat fishing in summer will instead have a reserved springtime place just waiting for you to drop in.


There seems to be no end to tailwater fly pattern variations, but all of them have two things in common: They're small (size 20 and smaller) and simple. Fish these standard patterns with 5X and smaller tippets:


Mysis Shrimp -- For the Frying Pan, Blue and Taylor rivers, mysis are a year-round, high-protein food source that gets sucked into a dam's outlet. Dead-drift a mysis in a current line, both in surface film and deep.


Miracle Nymph -- Tied with white floss over a pink body. When wet, this fly has varied color and texture. Fish on a dead drift.


Sparkle Wing Emerger/Sparkle Wing Dry -- For midday dry-fly action, have this blue-winged olive/pale morning dun pattern in both an emerger and a dry tie, in gray or olive body colors.


Red Midge -- Tie with red thread on a standard hook or a red hook with a thin peacock head. Trout take this simple midge ever so lightly in deep runs on sunny days. -- Joel Evans


Tailwaters require a change in tactics to fool wary fish. Be sneaky. Don't just splash your way along the stream. Remember the rules for crossing a street? Watch, look and listen. At first, don't even cast. Instead, observe. Using polarized sunglasses, peer into the holes and riffles to locate fish. Since we are talking bigger than average trout, you will often be able to spot them before they spot you.

Knowing where they are before you cast gives you a big advantage. Often you may be focusing on a single fish, so adjust your angle of approach, study the subtle flows of the current, and plan where you can land the fish - all before you make your cast.

Numerous reservoirs in Colorado make it easy to find a tailwater near you. Four of the best chances for a larger than average fish include the Frying Pan River below Reudi Reservoir, the Blue River below Dillon Reservoir, the South Platte River below Spinney Mountain Reservoir, and the Taylor River below Taylor Reservoir. Each of these is in a different part of the state, so one of them is close to you. Plan a springtime visit to one of these outstanding fisheries.

Every time a Top 10 list of the best trout streams in America is compiled, the Fryingpan always makes the list. Known throughout the United States for its football-shaped fish, the Fryingpan is easily worth a special trip.

Nearby Aspen gets a lot of attention for its glamour and high style. But just a short distance away, up the Fryingpan Valley, finesse is the name of the game. Only patient fishermen need apply for a workout here. It is a rare day that the hookups come easy. Typical days mean repeated casts, changing flies, and checking knots and tippets. But attention to detail will be rewarded with browns that commonly go over 18 inches and weigh 3 to 5 pounds with the potential for rainbows over 10 pounds.

"Flows usually increase in April and the big rainbows cruise the river looking to spawn," according to Tim Heng of Taylor Creek Fly Shop

in Basalt. "The big fish are shrimp and midge eaters, so trail a mysis behind a midge," he said.

Sight-fishing with a partner to spot fish and watch for a take can be a big boost. Complacent trout move very little for a take, so you must put a fly on their nose and watch for the white inside of their mouth to show, signaling the intake of your fly. Often, strike indicators are useless. An educated fish will test your fly and spit it out before your strike indicator pauses, and you will have missed the take. These trout are so accustomed to fishermen and flies that if they feel a tippet touch them or a fly doesn't look right, they don't spook, but lazily drift aside.

To access the Fryingpan, leave Highway 82 at Basalt in west-central Colorado, and head east through town and up the Fryingpan Road. In the 13 miles between Basalt and the dam, there is a patchwork of well-marked public and private land. Anywhere along the way is better than average fishing, but the big fish mostly hang out in the one mile public section immediately below the dam from the Toilet Bowl down to Baetis Bridge.

Ever fished in front of a crowd of onlookers who cheer if you are lucky enough to get a hookup? Silverthorne, immediately off Interstate 70, is crowded with outlet stores and shoppers. Trophy trout await you in the Blue River, only a stone's throw from a cash register.

"When the flows come up in the spring, it pushes the big fish out of the off-limits outlet pool below the dam and into the river structure downstream where they are accessible," said Mitch Vogt of Cutthroat Anglers in Silverthorne. "Spring can be the most fun fishing of the year."

A pedestrian bridge puts curious shoppers in full view of all your casting skills. Catch one here and you may cheered! Casual shoppers aren't the only ones. People in cars and trucks pass by within view of the fishing on Interstate 70. Anxious drivers in a hurry stand in stark contrast to the fisherman below who may be taking several minutes just to tie the perfect knot.

Looming nearby is the tall, flat top of Dillon Dam, quietly and consistently releasing its cold water, keeping the Blue flowing open and fishable all year. Due to its coexistence with a major highway, the Blue does see an inordinate amount of pressure. The fish are there and they, of course, must feed, but figure that if you catch more than one or two, you've had a good day.

As a bonus, subject to opinion, you can always be shopping in the matter of minutes it takes to change out of your waders and pull out your credit card. You don't even have to move your parked car!

Exit the bustle of I-70 at Silverthorne in north-central Colorado and follow the signs to the parking for the outlet stores. With stores and river on both sides of the interstate, you can't go wrong. Expect to see few fish, but the ones you do spot could easily weight more than the family dog. Just be prepared for an audience!


Contact these fly shops for more information:


Taylor Creek Fly Shop, Basalt, (970) 927-4374


High Mountain Drifter, Gunnison, (970) 641-4243


Cutthroat Angler, Silverthorne, (888) 876-8818


Angler's Covey, Colorado Springs, (719) 471-2984


In contrast to the bustling Fryingpan, the South Platte River between Spinney Mountain Reservoir on the upstream end and Elevenmile Canyon Reservoir on the downstream end is stark, atypical of the mountainous areas of Colorado we routinely picture.

Located within South Park, which is a large expanse of open, treeless, flat grassland between two mountain ranges in central Colorado, the South Platte here is near nothing and is on the way to nowhere. Which is all the better for anglers seeking good numbers of large fish with easy access.

A rare combination of two nearby reservoirs provides an unusual situation. Trout live and grow large in Elevenmile. Upstream four miles from Elevenmile is Spinney. Spinney releases cold, clear water to the South Platte River between the two. The result is a wide, meandering stream of alternating pools and riffles that is perfect for spring rainbows coming out of Elevenmile. Unlike the Fryingpan and the Blue, these fish are not stream residents that get pounded all year long and grow wise with the years.

Still, even though they are not so educated, they are not easy because they have something else on their minds besides feeding: Spawning. This is when typical fly-fishing tactics may be rendered ineffective. There are good numbers of resident and non-resident fish, so most bends and riffles contain a chance for a large trout. Here persistence pays.

So does stealth. With no trees or bushes to hide the profile from the trout's window of vision, anglers must be careful to not just walk the banks in search of fish. You will likely spook them before you even see them. Keep low, wading if you can, rather than casting from the high bank. Make long casts to prime lies. Keep casts delicate and accurate, creating a slow drift taking a fly down deep into the runs or against cut banks.

One added note: Even on a sunny day in spring, be prepared for winter conditions. South Park is known for high winds and late-season storms.

Access the reservoirs via Highway 24 between the towns of Lake George to the east and Hartsel to the west. Follow the signs to either the Spinney or Elevenmile state recreation areas. About halfway between the reservoirs is a gravel road leading directly to the river.

Of these four tailwaters, the Taylor probably sees the least amount of pressure. Not because the fish are less in numbers or size, but rather because there is no major population center nearby, the road to the reservoir isn't on the way to anywhere else, and the public property below the dam is a relatively short half-mile stretch compared to other destinations.

Mysis Bridge on the highway crosses the river about one-quarter mile below the dam. The best water will be found in the 100 yards both above and below the bridge.

Although these fish are accustomed to the sight of fishermen, you need every advantage you can get. Approach cautiously and see if you can get the right drift from a lower position. If not, carefully walk upstream along the banks to locate a fish, memorize its location, then backtrack downstream away from the river and approach the spot from below.

"April is the time of year when the big fish are caught. Sight-fish with a mysis behind an egg pattern," advised Tra Lowell of High Mountain Drifter in Gunnison.

Avalanche Hole, so named because it sits in a bend of the river downstream of the bridge beneath an avalanche chute of the rock canyon wall, harbors plenty of large fish. You really can't sneak up on or hide from the pod of trout hanging out in this pool. They will know you are there. Just wade slowly into the edges and make repeated casts.

Fish do feed on dries, so whether you are presenting a dry fly on top or nymph fishing with weight on bottom, drag-free drifts are critical. Make repeated casts until you get the attention you are after. If you are lucky enough to land one of these bruisers on a light tippet, then share the hole with someone else, taking turns watching and fishing.

In southwestern Colorado, you'll find the Taylor River north and east of the town of Gunnison. Take Highway 135 north from Gunnison 11 miles to Almont where you will meet the downstream end of the Taylor River. Go northeast on Forest Road 742, which follows the river canyon about 20 miles to the dam.

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