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Grand Trout Waters in the Rockies

The Colorado and Fraser river valleys in Grand County, Colo., have some of the best—and most scenic—trout fishing in the Rocky Mountains.

Grand Trout Waters in the Rockies
Floating the Colorado puts fly anglers within easy reach of the river’s innumerable current seams and eddies that hold trout. (Photo by Larry Larsen)

It wasn’t five minutes after boarding our guide’s skiff when a fat brownie sucked in my fly as it swept along an eddy edge. A battle ensued as the fish moved away downstream into the swift run. The stubborn trout jumped a couple of times while running in and out of the current as I hung on. A couple of whitewater rafts with jovial paddlers whooping it up quickly moved by on the opposite side of the river.

The fish surfaced again in the shallow riffles, and I pressured it toward the boat. Guide Jeff Ehlert oared us toward the edge of the slower-moving flats as the brownie tired. The 17-inch trout made one last turn at the surface before I pulled it into Jeff’s waiting net. We took a few quick photos before carefully releasing the fish. Then we paused to take in the scenic peaks on each side of the pine forest valley.

The mighty Colorado River has shaped the landscape of the Rocky Mountains and the American Southwest for millions of years. Its headwaters lie just below La Poudre Pass in the Rocky Mountain National Park. The storied stream on the west side of the Continental Divide meanders through marshy bogs, wildflower-covered meadows and pine forests. It then flows southwest from Kremmling through the Colorado Plateau country.

rainbow trout at net
Although browns are the dominant trout species in the Colorado River, anglers can also expect to land an occasional rainbow. (Photo by Larry Larsen)

For decades, anglers have cherished the opportunity to wet a line in this watershed. Today, some of the nation’s finest trout fishing still exists in both public and private waters of the Colorado in Grand County. (In Colorado, anglers can fish through private waters in a boat but they can’t get out on shore.) Jeff’s clients have caught brown trout up to 28 inches in length and even the rare 17-inch brookie. On six or seven previous trips, I fished different stretches of private and public waters in Grand County and always caught several trout.

FLOATING THE COLORADO RUNS

Jeff had launched his comfortable 15-foot Adipose Runoff skiff at a Colorado River access called the Pumphouse. It lies a few miles from the town of Kremmling, which is known for its unique butte formations, the Kremmling Cliffs. This scenic, 4-mile section of the river from Pumphouse to Radium offers a rocky canyon stretch with Class II whitewater as well as eddies, pools and riffles. Brown trout are the primary inhabitants throughout most sections of the river (and throughout the state), but there are also a few fat rainbows to be caught.

My wife Rosie and I were fly fishing along the twisting river on our four-hour float to the take-out ramp area at Radium. Water clarity on the Colorado is often relevant to success, and Jeff told us when we launched the clarity was relatively good. Turbidity, a measure of suspended particles in the water, was around 10 parts per million (ppm) according to our guide.

fly angler with brown trout
Jeff Ehlert of the Winter Park Flyfisher admires a brown that fell for a fly on the Colorado. The guide often drifts the river in a skiff. (Photo by Larry Larsen)

“Water turbidity above 50 parts per million usually means poor fishing,” Jeff explained. “You may catch a few trout when it is 15 to 25 ppm, but turbidity below 15 ppm should provide the best action. The month of September usually offers the best clarity, around 3 ppm, for catching trout on the Colorado. We call it ‘September Clear.’ It is easier to spot fish then, and they may be larger.”

One of Jeff’s clients had recently taken a 25-inch brown in the section we fished, but Rosie and I weren’t quite as lucky. We had plenty of fun fighting mostly 14- and 15-inch fish coming from eddies, breaks, edges and drops. We caught nine trout, all browns averaging about 14 inches with our largest being the 17-incher.

“We often get the biggest browns in the river when a hatch will draw those fish into the flat waters,” Jeff noted. “The monster trout over 20 inches are feeding then. In the fall months with clear waters, I like rocky banks with big boulders and fast drop-offs for the giants.”

On our float, there was an abundance of beautiful riverscape for us to gaze at between spells of focusing on our dry flies scooting through productive-looking trout habitat. We also enjoyed watching a curious golden eagle glide over us when we had one of our trout hooked up. Canada geese and a variety of ducks fed along the shore in quieter areas.

Colorado River
The 30-mile stretch of the Colorado River between the Pumphouse and Catamount Bridge access points is known for feisty brown trout and picturesque landscapes. (Photo by Larry Larsen)

The Colorado is the state’s best river to float fish, and Jeff guides on five different sections of it in Grand County. Which one depends on the duration of the trip booked. Besides Pumphouse to Radium, he and his guide staff run Radium to Rancho (7 miles), Rancho to State Bridge (4 miles), State Bridge to Two Bridges (5 miles) and Two Bridges to Catamount Bridge (10 miles). That is a total range of about 30 miles downstream from the Pumphouse access.

Jeff, who fishes about 150 days a year, owns and operates the Winter Park Flyfisher in Fraser. He prefers to guide float trips because they offer a more active fishing experience on the picturesque waterway. The latter section of the river from Two Bridges to Catamount is a favorite of his. It offers unique and interesting vistas of red rock cliffs with a desert background.

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WADING THE FRASER BEATS

The scenic, 30-mile-long Fraser River is the first main tributary of the Colorado River running north from Berthoud Pass through Fraser Valley to its confluence with the Colorado west of Granby. This wild alpine fishery has a better mix of 10- to 18-inch rainbow and brown trout, plus it offers an occasional brook trout. In fact, the Fraser River Canyon is one of the most frequently visited fishing destinations in Grand County according to guide Adam Long, owner of Fish Winter Park.

The Fraser River is fairly flat, meandering with riffles, deep pools, runs and shallow cuts. Much of the river borders private land covered with sage brush and conifers. As a result, a guided trip is the most effective way to access the least-pressured waters. Adam has been guiding on lakes and streams in Grand County since 2008.

brown trout being released
The author’s wife, Rosie, and guide Adam Long of Fish Winter Park release a brown taken on the Fraser River. (Photo by Larry Larsen)

For wading trips, Adam prefers to fish away from the crowds on permitted, private-access ranch waters. He has fishing arrangements with numerous landowners on a variety of waterways, but he often opts for fishing one of his Fraser River beats. Adam, who fishes about 225 days each year, has taken both browns and rainbows up to about 21 inches from the river and has even caught cutthroat up to 10 inches and brook trout to about 14 inches in length.

Rosie and I went with Adam to check out the wild brown trout on private stretches of the scenic river. When we stepped out of the vehicle, we were welcomed by an osprey gliding over the twisting Fraser as the river carved its character into the valley’s vast panorama before us. The bird’s shadow spooked a trout in the water in front of us. We quickly donned our waders and hiked through the meadows of scrub scattered with a few small trees. Carefully easing over a slick, rocky bottom with an occasional cannonball-size boulder, we headed for a small riffle in a couple feet of water.

Adam positioned Rosie near the head, adjacent a small waterfall on one side of an island. I set up beside a long flat with a few large boulders separating the current. Rosie connected on her fourth cast with a nice brown trout, and Adam slid the net under the beautiful 15-incher as I arrived with my camera. My wife caught a second brown before I had even returned to my rod downstream.

In the following four hours, we covered about a mile and a half of winding river that varied from 15 feet to 40 feet in width. Adam focused us on fishing “broken areas” with three key habitat factors: current, oxygen and shelter. Rosie and I concentrated our efforts on places where the oft-placid stream wedged down to a 20-foot-wide waterway with a small rapid.

“The water movement from an increased current over the larger rocks creates more oxygenated water and stirs up bugs, moving them into the drift,” Adam explained. “A choke in the current provides additional food for these fish. And shelter such as deep water, overhanging brush or an isolated piece of driftwood positions them to feed on flies moving by.”

Rocky islands along the river separated the waterway into braids, and their confluences seemed to attract fish. The depth of most waters we cast to maxed out about mid-thigh. As Adam pointed out, any fast water on the Fraser over knee deep holds fish during periods of low water. We caught 10 trout on our expedition, and all were brownies—except the last one.

I had positioned myself on a curving riffle with an inflow from a small rapid in about 30 inches of water. I tossed my double dry-fly rig upstream at about 45 degrees and had an immediate strike. I set the hook and began a lengthy battle with a muscular fish. Adam was wading toward me when my fish finally surfaced. We both yelled, “Brookie!”

It was not a typical 7-inch brook trout that swims in many Colorado waters. It was a hardy one between 12 and 13 inches, and we were excited. The 44-year-old guide had seen few larger in the Fraser. It was my largest brook trout ever and a happy surprise for both of us.

Fraser River, Colorado
A tributary of the Colorado RIver, the Fraser is a smaller waterway that often flows through private property. A trip with a guide who has access enables anglers to avoid crowds. (Photo by Larry Larsen)

OTHER GRAND COUNTY OPTIONS

There are other opportunites for brook trout and cutthroats in Grand County. Adam suggests checking out some of the smaller, pristine alpine lakes located near the Continental Divide between 10,000 and 12,500 feet of elevation. Some have a few monster cutthroats. A couple of lakes you can drive up to and then easily hike into are Corona Lake off Corona Pass outside Winter Park and Meadow Creek Reservoir (for brook and tiger trout) outside of Tabernash.

“The best brook trout fishing is on St. Louis Creek, upstream from the Fraser Rodeo,” said Adam. “It has about 10 miles of public waters with limited fishing pressure. The creek is only 10 feet wide and has plenty of big cascades. The brookies are in the areas below the 2-foot drops, where it flattens out some with less gradient.”

St. Louis Creek and Vasquez Creek near Winter Park yield sizeable cutthroat trout and hybrid cuttbows, in addition to brookies and a few browns and rainbows. The streams flowing above and below the alpine lakes usually offer fun fishing in a wild fishery. The best time to hike into these lakes is from mid-June through September. Treks may be challenging.

If Grand County is not on your bucket list, you should add it. Whether you take a skiff down the swift Colorado or hike into a small alpine lake at 12,000 feet, you will find exciting action for a very memorable adventure.

Grand County Trip Planner
  • Adventure among the mountains awaits.
Lake Irene, Colorado
Lake Irene is one of dozens of high-altitude lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park. It sits at about 10,600 feet of elevation. (Photo by Larry Larsen)

Grand County, 70 miles west of Denver on the western side of the Continental Divide, offers sportsmen a gateway to the scenic Rocky Mountain National Park and its Trail Ridge Road, the highest fully paved road in the U.S. This “Highway to the Sky” climbs some 4,000 feet and takes about 20 minutes to reach the summit of the Continental Divide. It offers some of the park’s most spectacular sightseeing and wildlife viewing.

The Winter Park Flyfisher (fraserflyshop.com) in Fraser has been offering customers updates on river conditions and great gear including rods, reels and waders for more than 16 years. Those at the shop are more than happy to help visitors locate productive trout waters. Owner Jeff Ehlert and his guides offer a variety of trips, including walk-and-wade outings on the Fraser, Colorado and Williams Fork rivers, along with float trips. They also have free maps outlining public water access and, in fact, have publicly accessible fishing waters behind the shop.

Fish Winter Park (fishwinterpark.com) is an all-season, all-tackle, all-species guide service. Adam Long and his guide staff have a passion for fishing all types of Rocky Mountain waters using various techniques and targeting a range of species. With his boat, a 17 1/2-foot Tracker Targa, he guides anglers seeking trophy lake trout on conventional tackle, as well as rainbow trout or northern pike on flies in Grand Lake or Williams Fork Reservoir. In the winter, he’ll often take clients ice fishing for lake trout. Trips include wade-fishing many of Grand County’s waterways, from the prominent Colorado River to mid-size private waters and smaller flows like tiny Ranch Creek.

Grand County (visitgrandcounty.com) boasts the quaint village of Grand Lake, which is located near Rocky Mountain National Park’s Kawuneeche Visitor Center and western entrance. The town, surrounded by majestic mountain peaks, is an attraction in itself. It is situated on the serene shores of Grand Lake, the largest natural lake in Colorado, and is an ideal basecamp for outdoor adventure and family fun. Downstream, Shadow Mountain Lake is separated by gates from Grand Lake. It and picturesque Lake Granby, the third largest body of water in the state, are tucked into stunning settings.

Right on the shores of Grand Lake is the rustic Western Riviera Lakeside Lodging (westernriv.com). Farther south is the popular and beautiful Winter Park Resort (winterparkresort.com). Though it’s known for skiing, the resort offers plenty of adventure opportunities in the summer months, such as a gondola lift and an alpine slide. Sun Outdoors Rocky Mountains (formerly River Run Resort; sunoutdoors.com) in Granby and its cabins, RV sites and tent rentals are in the middle of most angling action. Between angling trips, there are various amenities to experience at the resort, and it’s just a couple of miles to Mavericks Grille, home of the excellent Wild Bill’s Game Meatloaf.




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