February 21, 2012
By Roger Wheaton
There is something special about March trout fishing in the high country. While most fishermen simply reminisce over the previous summer's exploits while dreaming of future summer hatches, a hardy few continue to enjoy some excellent fishing through the cold months of winter. Deep winter is the toughest fishing of the year, but as March approaches, there is a rising optimism of better fishing on the near horizon. The arrival of spring finds awakening trout with a growing appetite just as the aquatic insects come to life after a long winter rest.
Winter catches are usually measured in single digits, but success isn't always measured in numbers. A couple of years ago, I stepped out into a frigid 5 degree morning to see some subtle rise rings nearby. A few casts later, I had done battle with a couple of huge rainbows, neither of which I got to the net, and watched a few other lunkers ignore my offerings. The bright morning sun and idyllic winter setting in absolute solitude made for a perfect, satisfying day on the water.
Frigid winter water temperatures (35-40 degrees) so decrease trout metabolism that they tend to lie virtually motionless, congregated in the deepest holes. These fish will feed perhaps only every other day, surviving mainly on the only active insect life in the rivers — midges. To maximize nutrient value from such tiny fare, these lethargic fish will not waste energy by moving very far to intercept a bite. Winter waters are very thin and crystal clear, making the trout super-spooky.
Increasing daylight in late February begins to warm some waters enough to invigorate the trout as well as the aquatic insect base upon which the fish feed. Even in the depths of winter, a radiant sun will sometimes stimulate the trout to respond to midge hatches, making for a superb fishing experience. However, in early March, winter conditions will probably still prevail.
As mentioned, lethargic winter trout congregate in the safety of deep holes leaving much of the water devoid of fish. Sight-fishing to find feeding fish becomes important under these conditions. Occasionally, hunger pangs will strike and fish will move into feeding lies. Feeders will be found at the head of holes, in shallower water that has been sun-warmed, or they'll be suspended above the bottom. Spooky trout demand precise presentations; very long, fine leaders and, generally, tiny midge or mayfly nymph patterns. To attract interest, your offering must be placed right on the fish's nose. Rather than relying on an indicator, which can miss subtle strikes, watch the fish to signal a take. Lethargic strikes demand a gentle set. A 9-foot, soft-action rod is perfect and helps to protect the delicate leaders.
The astute angler will fish gentlemanly hours during this frigid period. Personally, I seldom hit the water prior to 10:00 a.m. In the morning, midge larvae are readily available as they drift in the current, so, normally, I will begin the day drifting a pair of midge larvae patterns deep. As the day warms you may well notice occasional light surface water disruptions as midge larvae evolve into the pupal stage prior to hatching. In this situation, I'll change to a midge pupae pattern with another pupae or larvae dropper. If it becomes evident trout are feeding on adult midges, change to an adult with a pupae dropper. Snow or shine, sometimes a midge hatch will produce incredible fishing for an hour or two after lunch. By 3:00 p.m., I'll usually call it a day.
Depending upon climatic conditions and altitude, late March usually heralds the transition from winter to spring trout fishing. Just as a slight water temperature increase stimulates increased trout metabolism, it also drives an increase in aquatic insect activity. As March progresses into April, more rivers and streams will become productive and accessible as spring surges ahead. March trout will respond to the warming water like a bear abandoning hibernation, feeding ravenously to sate their increasing appetites. Old Man Winter begins to loosen his icy grip and blue-winged olives (BWOs or baetis) awaken, leading to hatches that attract trout like a magnet. These active little olive/brown insects love nothing better than a dreary, drippy day to come out to play. Some incredible, dramatic fishing can occur as blizzard hatches of both midges and BWOs occasionally occur simultaneously. I have found that during hatches, fishing sub-surface or emerger patterns is often more effective than fishing adult patterns. Spring is happening and it is likely that some of the best fishing of the season is at hand. Enthusiastic fishermen head for the rivers when the forecast is gloomy.
By late March or, more likely, early April, restless caddis will begin to toss and turn in preparation for their annual spring fling. Even the stoneflies begin to stir as the water warms slightly. The spring trout buffet line will soon be complete and the dinner bell will ring more frequently as the variety of food in the fishes' pantry increases.
Another major annual trout happening is also occurring that further beckons the spring fisherman. In March, the rainbows begin their spawning ritual, especially on the South Platte tailwaters. Increased daylight and warming water sparks the primeval urge to reproduce, and mature rainbows migrate up out of the reservoirs or lower river, gathering like the swallows returning to Capistrano each year. The big males arrive early to locate and stake out their love nests, then await the arrival of the females. They will be followed by big browns anticipating the upcoming egg buffet. Fishing droppers off an egg pattern from mid-March to mid-April is likely to attract one of these huge trout. As a reminder, if you do fish during the spawn, please don't disturb the spawners and avoid wading through the redds.
Winter fishing opportunities are restricted. Few freestone rivers are fishable until sometime in April. However, tailwaters remain open for some distance downstream throughout winter because of warmer reservoir water flows. Meanwhile, access to favorite fishing holes remains blocked by impenetrable, snowy drifts and ice-covered streams. Fortunately, Colorado has several high-quality tailwaters that not only offer good fishing, but a chance to hook up with a real hog. Invariably, tailwaters are managed as quality "catch-and-release" fisheries where flies and artificial lures are the only legal fishing method.
Colorado is blessed with some world-class tailwaters that produce outsize trout with regularity. These waters are popular and overcrowded throughout the summer, but can be fished in relative solitude during the winter and early spring. Three of these rivers deliver fat, double-digit-weight trout fattened on mysis shrimp washed down from the upstream reservoir. They also benefit from healthy aquatic insect populations that produce trophy trout en masse.
THE TAYLOR RIVER
Colorado's state-record catch-and-release rainbow, measuring 40 1/4 inches long, was recently taken from the locally known Taylor River "Hog Trough." Several double-digit-weight fish are taken here each year and the Taylor is probably the best trophy-trout water in the state. Incredible numbers of the nutrient-rich mysis shrimp flush out of the reservoir and produce outlandish growth rates for the trout feeding below the dam.
Heavily fished in the summer, the 9,000-foot altitude and attendant cold temperatures deter many fishermen until late spring, however, the fishing is excellent in March despite abundant snow and ice along the water's edge. Spring conditions won't typically reach this relatively short public section of the Taylor prior to mid-April, but it is a wonderful March fishery. Bring a well-stocked midge fly box along with some mysis shrimp patterns and ample cold-weather gear. This is deep canyon fishing that receives minimal sunshine along the river.
The Taylor River "Trough" is located just below the Taylor Reservoir Dam, about 18 miles upriver from Almont, on U.S.F.S. Road 742.
For information, contact Dragonfly Anglers at (970) 349-1228 or High Mountain Drifters at (970) 471-5829.
THE BLUE RIVER
Fishing the Blue River is a unique experience. As noted by several writers, it is somewhat unusual to cast to huge trout under the watchful eyes and occasional guidance from a large audience. Very large trout reside in the Blue where it flows through the center of the Silverthorne shopping mall. A couple of bridges enable shoppers to "participate" in your angling efforts here. Trout fatten on a diet of mysis shrimp, dining to the din of Interstate 70 traffic passing directly overhead.
Because of its 8800-foot altitude, the Blue will remain a winter fishery through March, so come prepared to fish midges and mysis shrimp. You may also wish to bring your skis to enjoy the world-class ski facilities here. The Blue flows directly out of Dillon Reservoir along Interstate 70 in Silverthorne.
For information, call Cutthroat Anglers at (970) 262-2878.
THE FRYING PAN
The Frying Pan is a world-class fishing destination and, for good cause, is probably the busiest winter fishery in Colorado. The tailwater flows out of Ruedi Reservoir. Rainbows, browns, brooks and cutts all grow to massive proportions on a diet rich with mysis shrimp. There are huge fish feeding in the "toilet bowl" where the reservoir dumps directly into the river.
Winter hangs on here at the 7,700-foot elevation, but the trout continue to feed periodically. Art Powell, from the Frying Pan Anglers shop, says the BWOs can show up as early as February on "the Pan." There is plenty of public access to the Pan. Take Highway 82 from Glenwood Springs (or Aspen) to Basalt, then take Road 105 to the east, toward Ruedi Reservoir.
For more information, contact Frying Pan Anglers at (970) 927-3441 or Taylor Creek Fly Shop at (970) 927-4374.
THE SOUTH PLATTE
It would be hard to find a better cold-weather fishery than the incomparable South Platte River. There are two major tailwater sections on the Platte that deliver trophy trout regularly. Occasional double-digit fish are taken in the "Dream Stream" section just below the Spinney Mountain Reservoir dam. Large trout also reside in the world-renown South Platte segment below Cheesman Dam. South Platte trout are extra-spooky, demanding precise presentations, teeny flies and long, 6X or smaller leaders.
To learn more, call Blue Quill Angler at (303) 674-4700 or Colorado Trouthunters at (303) 325-5515.
THE DREAM STREAM
This section attracts a crowd year-round despite the ever-present winds in South Park. By March, the annual rainbow spawn begins luring huge rainbows and an accompanying entourage of browns up from 11 Mile Reservoir. Expert guide Pat Dorsey has written that he finds the larger fish typically spawning down nearer the reservoir. Midges remain the principal menu item in March until the BWOs begin to arrive after mid-March. Some amazing midge hatches occur throughout March. Just west of Wilkerson Pass, on Highway 24, turn south on CR 23, then left on CR 592 and, finally, right on CR 59 to reach the river.
By March, midge hatches can provide superb dry fly-fishing in the canyon. As usual, midges dominate the menu until BWOs show up in late March — the same time that rainbow spawners move into the lower part of the canyon. Cheesman trout can be the most finicky, selective trout in the world. The 3-mile Gill Trail walk-in access can be tricky, especially when snow and ice abound, so take care. Take CO 67 from Sedalia or Woodland Park to Deckers. At Deckers, turn west on CO 126 for 2.5 miles to the Gill Trail parking area.
This great northwestern Colorado tailwater, below Stagecoach Reservoir, can yield excellent fishing in March, but you will have to breach the short, snow-packed trails to get from the parking area to the river. Some very large trout await the fishermen who make the effort. Midges will be the main fare in March, and some dense hatches do occur. The BWOs normally don't show here before April. Take Highway 40 south from Steamboat and turn right on 131. Turn left on 14 Road to the reservoir.
Additional information is available from Steamboat Flyfisher at (970) 879-6552 or Bucking Rainbow Outfitters at (888) 810-8740.
On one of the good early spring freestone rivers, the Arkansas, BWOs arrive in late March and fishing explodes. Royal Gorge Anglers' Bill Edrington considers this his favorite hatch of the year. They provide exceptional fishing right up to the renowned late-April Mothers' Day caddis extravaganza. Highway 50 follows the river from Canon City to Salida and Highway 285 follows the river from Salida to Buena Vista. The Arkansas is one of the most accessible fishing waters in Colorado.
To learn more, call Royal Gorge Anglers at (719) 269-FISH or ARK Anglers at (719) 539-4223.
A large southwestern Colorado freestone, the Animas may fish best right through the center of Durango. John Flick, from Duranglers, anticipates the BWOs to show up as early as mid-February. Fishing emerger and pupal BWO and midge patterns will work here. Be sure to be on the water around noon when the fish seem to feed best here.
For more information, reach Duranglers at (888) 347-4346.
Other good winter/spring destinations include the Eagle River, the Arkansas River tailwater below Pueblo Reservoir, the South Platte tailwater just below 11 Mile Reservoir, and the Uncomphagre River. All of these waters will normally have open water, and some large fish as well.
Lure fishermen should use small, gold lures retrieved slowly. A 9-foot, soft-action, 5-weight with a floating line is a good combination for potentially larger fish using tiny flies on light leaders. Early spring weather is fickle, changing rapidly. Wear layered clothing and warm headgear. Using fishing gloves is a good idea and neoprene waders with wool socks and fleece underneath are required. Don't forget polarized sunglasses and use sunscreen on exposed skin. Sun reflected off the snow will burn quickly and even overcast days can lead to bad burns. Don't forget a thermos of hot soup or coffee.
March and April bring the heaviest and wettest snows of the year, although they tend to melt quickly. At altitude, though, these storms can create serious problems. Cold spells (sub-zero temperatures) can strike quickly, so be prepared with clothing and supplies in case of emergency. I always carry extra clothes in case of a dunking and warm gear/food in case I get stranded for a couple days. Make sure someone knows where you will be and when you will return. River edges and rocks are very slippery and an accidental fall or dunking could become a survival situation.