My introduction to fly fishing in Colorado happened when I was in college. I had the good fortune to land a summer job right in the middle of some of the best trout fishing in the country. After seeing the huge trout swimming in rivers like the Gunnison and Taylor and even catching a few, I almost didn’t return home at the end of the summer. Once you fish some of these gold medal waters, you might not want to go home either. At the very least, you will start planning an annual trip to enjoy the bounty of Colorado’s best fly fishing waters.
Best Places to Fly Fish in Colorado
1. South Platte River
The South Platte River has meandering meadow sections and rough canyon water. The fish are plentiful throughout. While rainbow, cutthroat, cuttbow, and brown trout along with some kokanee salmon are the main targets, don’t overlook the incredible carp fishing opportunities in the Denver area. The reservoirs throughout this system are fantastic as well.
Where to Fly Fish on the South Platte
The entire river is worth exploring from top to bottom by the wading angler. If you are more interested in numbers, then try Elevenmile Canyon. Cheesman Canyon is the place to go if remote hike-in fishing is your thing. Deckers is probably some of the most pressured water on the river because of its proximity to Denver. One section, the Dream Stream, receives an influx of huge trout in the spring and fall. While there are many other sections to this fine river, if you want to catch a monster this is the place to go. During the summer, tricos hatch in epic numbers providing good dry fly opportunities in the mornings for patient anglers.
Recommended Flies for the South Platte
- RS2 in #18-#22
- WD40 in #20-#24
- A variety of small midges #18-#28
2. Frying Pan River
The Frying Pan is a small mountain trout stream until it enters Ruedi Reservoir. Below this lake, the tailwater provides some of the best trout fishing in the country. Mysis shrimp in the lake get flushed into the river below and the trout gorge on the bounty. The Frying Pan tailwater also has some amazing hatches for the dry fly purist. Green drakes and pale morning duns in particular are fun to hit just right. When nothing else is happening, fish in the upper sections of the tailwater will eat midges any day of the year.
Where to Fly Fish on the Frying Pan River
The tailwater below Ruedi Reservoir is the place to fish although there are fish above the lake as well. Below Ruedi dam to the confluence with the Roaring Fork in Basalt, there are miles of excellent water. The crowds will be below the dam trying for one of the giant trout in the Toilet Bowl or just downstream. If crowds aren’t your thing, then look for trout rising to the hatch further downstream.
Recommended Flies for the Frying Pan
- Mysis Shrimp imitations, white or translucent, size 16-20
- Pale Morning Duns, pinkish tan instead of the normal yellow, size 14-18
3. North Delaney Butte Lake
One of Colorado’s gold medal stillwater fisheries, North Delaney is known for producing huge rainbow, brown, and cutthroat/rainbow hybrid trout. The best time to fish the lake is early and late in the season. Right after ice out is normally excellent. Pay attention to seasonal area closures and check the regulations for closures on the small stream that feeds the lake.
Where to Fly Fish on North Delaney Butte Lake
The lake has a boat ramp available. A boat or small personal watercraft is the best way to fish this lake. Anglers can also walk the banks and look for cruisers feeding in the shallows. This is probably the best way to target big brown trout in the fall and rising trout in the spring. During the summer, trout often go deep so a boat and sinking lines are a must.
Recommended Flies for North Delaney Butte Lake
- Midge Patterns early in the season, #16-#22
- Damselfly Nymphs, size 6-8
- Crawdad patterns, orange and olive, size 2-4
4. Animas River
Anglers visiting the southwest portion of the state should make time to fish the Animas when they are in Durango. This river is special not only for its gold medal fishing, but also because it is one of only a few true freestone fisheries in Colorado. Anglers can find rainbow and brown trout in the waters of the Animas and some of them get large. Some of the best fishing is right in the city of Durango. Anglers should have plenty of caddis patterns for summer fishing. If you want to find those big trout, try streamers that imitate sculpins.
5. Colorado River
The mighty Colorado River is one of the best fisheries that Colorado has to offer. From its headwaters in Rocky Mountain National Park downstream, the Colorado has everything from small meadow stretches that requires wading to big water where a boat is a necessity. Rainbow, cutthroat, brook, and brown trout all call this river home. Anglers looking to wade should check out Gore Canyon or the upper river near Parshall.
The salmonfly hatch in late spring or early summer is worth trying to fish. Otherwise, nymphing with caddis pupa or stonefly nymphs is usually best. Hoppers may also be good during late summer. If you want more intimate water, check out the meadow water of the North Fork of the Colorado in Rocky Mountain National Park. There are some surprises under those undercut banks, but most fish will be smaller brown, brook, or even cutthroat trout here.
6. Spinney Mountain Reservoir
This incredible stillwater is chock full of large rainbow and cutthroat/rainbow trout hybrids along with some brown trout. Midges, callibaetis, and damselflies keep the fish fed and growing at unbelievably fast rates. One popular strategy is to suspend a midge pupa under a strike indicator and wait until a cruising fish takes the fly. Early or late in the season is best. If you like fishing for pike, bring equipment to do that as well. Take a heavy rod and big streamers to target the pike. The brown trout here migrate up river in the late summer and fall on their spawning journey.
7. North Platte River
Flowing through North Park and near the town of Walden, the North Platte features some amazing high country fishing. Brown trout are the primary target but rainbow and cutthroat trout can also be found. The best fishing is in the gold medal reach at Northgate Canyon where the river descends into Wyoming. Don’t overlook some of the tributary streams as well. Watch for moose as this is an area where their populations are doing very well! The moose are most likely to be found in areas with lots of willows. These meandering stretches also harbor some large brown trout under the undercut banks.
8. Blue River
The Blue River is perfect for when you want to fish and your spouse wants to shop. The tailwaters below Dillon and Green Mountain Reservoirs are particularly good for anglers looking for a trophy. Dillon Reservoir harbors mysis shrimp, which grows trout in the tailwater to massive proportions. What is the best thing about this tailwater stretch? It is right next to some of the best shopping in the area making for the perfect compromise.
In the fall, try streamers in the section below Green Mountain Reservoir for large brown trout making a spawning run up from the Colorado River. This section is also home to some big rainbow trout so bring your best game when you fish here.
9. Gunnison River
The Gunnison is formed by the confluence of the East and Taylor Rivers at the small town of Almont. This upper section of the Gunnison features great caddis and green drake hatches. Don’t overlook the tributaries of the Gunnison. In particular the Taylor River features great fishing for some truly giant trout in the short catch and release section below Taylor Park Reservoir. The Lake Fork is another special tributary that is worth exploring.
Below the town of Gunnison, the river is impounded in a series of reservoirs before being turned loose into the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. This remote water is not for the faint of heart or for anyone who isn’t in peak physical condition. The rewards are worth the effort to get there, however. Brown trout as well as large rainbows call this river home. The famed salmonfly hatch is a must fish hatch on this river for any serious fly angler. Great caddis hatches along with plenty of stoneflies keep the fish fed through the summer. Pale morning duns, green drakes, and blue-winged olives are just a few of the great mayfly hatches you can find on this river.
10. Roaring Fork River
This major tributary of the Colorado River begins as a small stream in the high country above Aspen. During its descent to the Colorado, the river picks up numerous tributaries such as the equally famous Frying Pan River. The green drake hatch is the main draw on this stream, but there are plenty of other hatches to bring up the rainbow, brown, and cutthroat trout that inhabit this river. Wading anglers should focus on the stretch between Basalt and Aspen. A float trip is the best way to enjoy the lower river.
11. Yampa River and Steamboat Lake
The Yampa provides amazing fishing both above the dam in Steamboat Lake as well as in the tailwater that flows all the way through Steamboat Springs and beyond. This river features hefty rainbow and brown trout along with a few cutthroat and brook trout. Midges are a staple for anglers on this river. Also bring some blue-winged olives size 18-22 and plenty of caddis patterns. For the lake, midges are best along with damselflies and callibaetis patterns.
12. Arkansas River
Famous for the big Mothers’ Day caddis hatch, the Arkansas features amazing fishing throughout the season. Blue-winged olive hatches keep the fish feeding early in the season and again in the fall. Because of the large population of brown trout, this river is also particularly good for streamer fishing with sculpin or other streamer patterns. Rainbow trout have been increasing in number the last several years as well in this amazing river. In the winter, the tailwater in Pueblo Colorado offers great fishing for big rainbow and brown trout when other area waters are unfishable.
13. Gore Creek
If you need a fly fishing escape on a family trip to the ski town of Vail, Gore Creek is it. This gold medal stream is more of a mountain creek than a large trout stream. It features good fishing for quality trout, however. This stream has brown, rainbow, cutthroat, and brook trout that can often be caught on dry flies.
14. Rio Grande River
The Rio Grande in southern Colorado is special with its own unique strain of cutthroat in the higher reaches. The high country is worth spending lots of time exploring, but the gold medal fishing is further down this drainage. Brown trout dominate in the lower river where the best float fishing exists. Summer hopper fishing can be great for anglers fishing this section. Wade fishing is limited down here, but this river is worth the money for a full day float trip.
Most of your fishing in Colorado can be done with a good 9’ 5 weight fly rod. On windy days, a 6 weight might be a better choice. That said, there are places where a lighter rod is a better choice.
Gear For Fly Fishing in Colorado
Small streams in any of the high mountains are about the same as small streams anywhere. A 2 or 3 weight rod and simple box of dry flies is about all you need on these streams. Perhaps add a few bead head nymphs to fish dry/dropper and you are set.
On most of the larger gold medal streams, the wind blows often enough that a stout 5 weight or 6 weight rod is best. The trick is balancing something that can cast through the wind with a rod that can gently lay down a size 24 midge emerger. Many of these larger rivers feature rather technical fishing at times. Thus, long leaders that end in 6x tippet are often required.
Something else that’s very important on these larger waters is a good reel with a strong and smooth drag. The powerful trout that call these waters home will often peel off a lot of line. A large arbor reel allows you to quickly reel in the excess line as the fish begins to tire out. Floating weight forward lines are fine for most of your fishing, but on the stillwaters you might have the option of an intermediate as well as two or three sinking lines with various sink rates.
Checkout the fly rods I recommend here – RECOMMENDED FLY RODS
If you want to chase the large trout with streamers, then a 6 or 7 weight fly rod is about perfect. Sink tip lines are useful for the wading angler and almost mandatory for boat fisherman. You will be pounding the banks from the boat making many casts, so a rod that isn’t too heavy is nice.
For pike fishing in places like Spinney Mountain Reservoir, a heavy rod in the 8 to 10 weight range is best. There are some huge pike on these lakes so fish big flies. In particular, patterns that imitate trout are ideal. Don’t forget some type of bite guard such as a steel leader or very heavy fluorocarbon in the 80 pound test range.
Official References for Fly Fishing in Colorado
Colorado Parks and Wildlife is in charge of making and enforcing fishing regulations in Colorado. You can visit the official state fishing page here at:
Colorado Parks and Wildlife – link https://cpw.state.co.us/thingstodo/Pages/Fishing.aspx
The official regulation book and fishing guide is found here: https://cpw.state.co.us/Documents/RulesRegs/Brochure/fishing.pdf
Recent trout stocking information can be found here at: https://cpw.state.co.us/thingstodo/Pages/StockingReport.aspx
Colorado Fly Fishing Clubs
For anglers interested in joining a fly fishing club in Colorado, check out High Plains Drifters at: http://www.hpd-fff.com/
Trout Unlimited is very active in Colorado. You can find the chapter nearest you as well as other information about joining at: https://coloradotu.org/chapter-locations
Popular Fly Shops in Colorado
There are far more fly shops in Colorado then we can possibly share here, but some of the very best are the following.
- Taylor Creek Fly Shop in Basalt – https://taylorcreek.com
- Angler’s Covey in Colorado Springs – https://www.anglerscovey.com
- Front Range Anglers in Boulder – http://frontrangeanglers.com
- Blue Quill Angler in Denver – https://bluequillangler.com
- Rocky Mountain Anglers in Boulder – http://www.rockymtanglers.com