by Kate Senn
When people get dreamy-eyed and start mumbling lyrics to John Denver’s 1970s hit, Rocky Mountain High while reminiscing about a fishing trip in Colorado, they are probably thinking about the bright colored brook trout, broad-backed rainbows and big browns found across the state. The number of fly shops,trout-bum sightings, casting clinics, fly fish expos and acclaimed guide services are also a great surprise to the visiting fly fishermen in Colorado. With an obsession with trout older than its statehood, Colorado has a long history of fly fishing adventurers with a taste for freshwater fish.
Colorado has over 230 streams, creeks and rivers that will raise at minimum one eyebrow from an angler; but 11 rivers and three lakes receive the acclaimed ‘gold medal status’ as designated by the Colorado Wildlife Commission. These award-winning fisheries must have over 60 pounds of trout per acre and sustain at least 12 14” or larger trout per acre.
Today, most people arrive in Denver, and travel the state west, north and south towards the state’s favorite fly fishing spots. Take a look at the different regions of Colorado fly fishing and their gold medal waters.
Cheeseman Canyon, only an hour and a half drive from Denver is a gold medal tailwater on the South Platte River. A technical nymph-master’s dream come true, this canyon hosts a beautiful fishery not too far from Denver. Another gold medal fishery less than two hours from Denver lies below the Dillon Reservoir. 34 miles of cold trout water coming from Lake Dillon host some of the state’s best fishing opportunities not too far from the capitol.
Closer to the metropolitan area are the smaller creeks and rivers in and around the city of Boulder. Walk wade Boulder Creek in town or the Big Thompson river to find dozens of brown trout ready to feed on dry flies near the University of Colorado Boulder campus.
Tip: Can’t leave the big city for long? Find feeding, tailing carp throughout the South Platte River as it makes its way through Denver.
Nestled between the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest, the Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge and Roosevelt National Forest, the small town of Walden, known as the “moose viewing capital of Colorado” is home to incredible fishing on the North Platte River and at the North Delaney Lake. As the freestone river meanders northward to the Wyoming border, spunky rainbows and bows are abundant in this gold medal fishery.
The Steamboat Reservoir is another gold medal fishery not far from the idyllic ski town of Steamboat Springs and excellent fishing on the Yampa and Elk River. The Yampa, flowing west through Colorado towards the Green River, hosts spectacular fly fishing float trips in the summer months. High mountain streams and countless alpine lakes can also be found in the Flat Tops Wilderness area near Meeker, Colorado- a good spot for elk hunting in Colorado, too. Cutthroat, brook and brown trout are abundant with plenty of public access and minimal fishing pressure.
Cleaning up the headwaters of the Arkansas River after decades of mining pollution pushed this stunning river’s status up to a gold medal fishery in 2014. From Leadville to Pueblo 102 miles of water became one of the top places to fly fish in Colorado. Near Durango, fish the Animas, an awarded fishery despite its history with acidic mining contamination; plenty of big browns, rainbows, and cutthroat thrive well it's cool snow melt waters.
The Rio Grande’s headwaters start west in the San Juan Mountain Range but flow south through Colorado into New Mexico. Known as the Upper Rio Grande, fly fishing between the trout-bum towns of Creede and Del Norte, Colorado is as excellent as salmon fishing in Iceland. Guided float trips on the Rio Grande are a popular way to beat the heat and private fishing access although there are plenty of opportunities to do some “DIY” walk wading on the Rio Grande.
Fly fishing west of the continental divide in Colorado and you are enjoying the beautiful scenery on what is called the ‘western slope’. The hot, arid climate gives a grueling challenge to anglers and trout alike in high summer (July, early August) but nothing compares to a float trip down the iconic Gunnison Gorge or a hiking trip along the Taylor River. The Gunnison River has excellent public access along its 80 mile journey to the mighty Colorado River and is one of the most favored gold medal rivers in the state. Take a break fishing and visit the home of three of America’s finest fishing products proudly created in Montrose, Colorado. Abel Reels, Ross Reels and Scott Fly rods are manufactured in the heart of western Colorado’s fly fishing country.
Everyone must have a fishing license on them regardless if they are in a catch-and-release fishery or not. Colorado fishing licenses are inexpensive with a total cost of only $66 a year for out of state residents. Colorado hosts both public and private fisheries, meaning, not every stretch of river is available for the public. Despite the moderate use of private waters and “no trespassing” signs in Colorado, there are thousands of miles of public river access for fly fishing. Research where to go before heading to the river or ask permission to fish on private property to enjoy your time on the water in Colorado!