When you picture fly fishing in the Rockies, you likely conjure up an image that you’ll find within the confines of Rocky Mountain National Park. Whether you’re looking to fish high-country lakes beneath a cirque, or you’re dying to find a remote stream meandering through a meadow bordered by aspen and pines, Rocky Mountain National Park is the place to find that quintessential fly fishing experience. While other places in the Rockies may offer bigger fish, few can match the grandeur of the scenery you’ll find here.
The park is home to enough lakes, streams, and creeks to keep even the most ardent angler busy for a lifetime – or more. It’s these streams that John Gierach has made famous in his 20-odd books, and it’s these streams to which anglers make a pilgrimage of sorts each year.
Fly fishing in Rocky Mountain National Park is a must-do trip for any trout angler. If you’re planning a trip soon, or want to make sure it’s on your bucket list, then this guide is for you.
As always, this list isn’t put together with any one fishery being ranked above another. Sit back, grab a cool one, and read on to find out what you just can’t miss when you go fly fishing in Rocky Mountain National Park.
1. Big Thompson River – Stream Fishing at its Finest
If I had to pick just one place in Rocky Mountain National Park to exemplify its stream fishing, I’d be hard-pressed to find one better than the Big Thompson. This river runs from its headwaters within the park, through the Moraine Valley, and eventually tumbles right off the Front Range in the general direction of Denver.
It’s the upper reaches of this river, in Moraine Valley, though, that are of most interest to us. Up here, you’ll find the stream meandering through a classic Rocky Mountain meadow, although in early spring it flows fast and high with runoff. In this stretch of river you’ll most often find brown and rainbow trout, though brookies are always a possibility.
If you’re up for a true adventure, you can hike up Forrest Canyon and fish the headwaters of the Big Thompson. This is rough, tough country, though. I’d only recommend attempting it if you’re confident in your backcountry skills.
Where to Fly Fish on the Big Thompson River
The most easily-accessible section of the Big Thompson that fishes well, and sits in the gorgeous Moraine Valley, is from the Cub Lake trailhead. This isn’t too far from the main park entrance near Estes Park, CO.
The river through here is windy, relatively wide, and swift.
Recommended Flies for the Big Thompson River
What’s great about fly fishing in Rocky Mountain National Park is that you really only need one box of flies to fish everywhere. Classic trout flies are a must, because they flat-out work everywhere here.
For the Big Thompson, though, I’d recommend:
- Hare’s Ear in size 16-18. There are tons of mayflies in the Big Thompson, so a Hare’s Ear is a must.
- Parachute Adams, size 14-16. Again, tons of mayflies means you need plenty of mayfly imitations.
- Zebra Midge, size 18-22. I’ve yet to find trout that turn their nose up at zebra midges.
2. The Loch – Dramatic Lake Fishing
If the sweeping granite and limestone cliffs of the Rockies capture your imagination, then fishing The Loch needs to be on your bucket list. This lake, located just under three miles from the Glacier Gorge Junction Trailhead, is just far enough away to dissuade most crowds, but not so far that you can’t do it in a day trip.
Don’t expect to catch anything too big in The Loch – or any of the other waters in Rocky Mountain National Park, for that matter – but be ready for fast fishing for plenty of 10-12-inch trout. The scenery up here might just be impossible to beat, even if the size of the fish leaves a bit to be desired.
Where to Fly Fish The Loch
The Loch is accessed via the Glacier Gorge Junction Trailhead, which is located in the southern end of Rocky Mountain National Park, in the Bear Lake area. The trail is steep and long, so prepare accordingly. Remember that you’re in the high country – weather can and will change on a dime up here.
Recommended Flies for The Loch
High-country lakes are relatively simple to “decode.” All you need are simple flies, and some of what I’d suggest you fish are:
- Chironomids in size 10-14. Any color will work, but the solid Ice Cream Cone pattern will be money.
- Bunny Leech in size 8-12. These lakes are chock-full of leeches, and a bunny leech is one of my favorite leech imitations.
- Chubby Chernobyl in size 10-12. Big terrestrial insects often get blown onto the water in these high-country lakes, and a Chubby imitates most of them perfectly.
Guide Tips – Remember that brook trout aren’t terribly piscivorous, meaning they don’t really eat other fish. Brookies prefer insects, especially high-calorie targets like scuds and damselflies.
3. Sprague Lake – High Mountain Trout
Home to rainbows, browns, and brook trout, Sprague Lake is a much easier place to access than The Loch. It’s located just off the Bear Lake Road, one of the main thoroughfares in Rocky Mountain National Park. A trail circles the lake, so you should be able to run off and find your own space, even on a lake that gets as much traffic as Sprague.
The views offered at Sprague Lake are part of what makes it so appealing to so many people, in addition to the easy fishing for brook trout. You can easily catch enough for dinner here.
Where to Fish on Sprague Lake
Accessing Sprague Lake is about as simple as it gets. Drive the Bear Lake Road south, and turn off onto Sprague Lake Road a few miles before the Glacier Gorge Junction Trailhead. The road ends right at the lake.
Recommend Flies for Sprague Lake
With the pressure this lake receives, you’ll get away with throwing more off-the-wall patterns. These fish see plenty of flies from the local fly shops, so anything you tie yourself with work well. With that in mind, I’d recommend:
- Scuds in size 14-18. Tan and olive are the best color options here, and make sure you get them weighted.
- Zebra midges in size 14-18. These bugs span the gamut of chironomids and midges, which is a great way to offer exactly what the fish are eating.
4. Lake of Glass and Sky Pond – Glacial Elegance
One of the hallmarks of true high-country fishing is seeing and fishing glacier-fed lakes. These two lakes sit next to each other, located on Icy Brook. This flows from Taylor Glacier, which eventually dumps into The Loch. If that sort of fishing isn’t adventurous enough for you, then you need to visit these two fisheries.
Home to brook trout and the endangered greenback cutthroat, Lake of Glass is a true high-country gem. It’s nearly impossible to find a more classically elegant glacial lake.
That is, until you walk upstream a bit to Sky Pond. This tiny bit of water sits right at the foot of Taylor Glacier, and is home to brookies. Its water is the icy blue you’d expect from a glacial lake. While there are plenty of incredible sights to see in Rocky Mountain National Park, it may be hard to beat what you get out of these two lakes.
It’s important to remember that these are located far enough into the backcountry that you’ll want to make an overnight trip out of visiting them. You also have to scramble up and through Timberline Falls, which requires previous scrambling experience. Don’t attempt this trip if you’re not used to strenuous, tough backcountry excursions.
5. Ouzel Creek – Remote Stream Fishing
If you want to really avoid the crowds, then Ouzel Creek is the place to visit. It’s located in the southeastern corner of the park. You access it via the Wild Basin trailhead, and the hike isn’t an easy one. However, once you get above Ouzel Falls, you’re able to catch and keep a legal limit of brook trout. You’ll also have the chance to fish for – and release – the native and endangered greenback cutthroat trout.
This entire area of the park doesn’t get the attention other areas do, so be prepared for a more remote experience. Make sure you leave your itinerary with someone, and that you’re adequately prepared for an entire day in rugged wilderness.
6. Roaring River – As Good as it Gets
The Roaring River is one of the best-kept secrets within Rocky Mountain National Park. It flows south from the Mummy Range, on the north end of the park. There’s a trail that borders the Roaring River from its confluence with the Fall River. There are two lakes located on the Roaring River – Crystal and Lawn – but the draw here is fishing remote, rough country without the crowds. And, word on the street is that you have a good chance of hooking into better fish in this section of the park, too.
Brook, brown, rainbow, and greenback cutthroat trout are all up for grabs in the Roaring River. While it’s not overtly technical fishing, you’ll want to be on your A-game as you scramble through the steep, rushing river. A lot of high-stick nymphing will come in handy here.
This is a great fishery to turn into a backpacking trip. The elevation at the northern end of the park is pretty extreme, so make sure you’re acclimated properly before setting out. It’s a great out-and-back trail, and you’ll be treated to spectacular views of some of the least-photographed peaks in the Rocky Mountain National Park area.
7. Thunder Lake – Off the Grid
If you’re looking to get as far from anyone else as possible, then Thunder Lake should be on your destination list. Located on the edge of Mt. Alice, which is arguably the most remote 13,000+ foot peak in the entirety of Rocky Mountain National Park, Thunder Lake is surrounded by craggy cliffs, sparse forest, and meadows that sweep towards the tree line.
Thunder Lake also offers some of the best views of Mt. Alice, Pilot Mountain, and Tanima Peak that you’ll find in the park. This is obviously a backpacking destination, and you shouldn’t try to rush yourself through this trip. Between the remote location and extreme elevation, you don’t want to get into trouble up here.
The fishing is what you’d expect in a place like this – great, bug temperamental. Bring your patience, too, and soak up the scenery. Few enough people get to fish in places like this – take a moment to appreciate it.
Guide Tip: High-mountain lakes often harbor a lot of trout on or near the bottom. Use a slip-strike indicator to suspend your bugs deep, and retrieve them slowly towards the shore. This technique should produce fish when it feels like you’re fishing a “dead” lake.
Recommended Fly Fishing Gear for Rocky Mountain National Park
Gearing up for a day in Rocky Mountain National Park isn’t much different from what you’d expect anywhere else in the Rockies. Waders, boots, and a good pack are a must. If you’re backpacking into a lake or river, then you can – and should – obviously ditch the waders and boots.
I’d go with either a 9’ 5wt or a shorter 7’ 4 or 5wt, if you had to confine yourself to one rod. The longer rods and higher weights will be better for lake fishing, but you’ll want something soft and light for streams and small ponds.
You don’t need anything special in the reel department. Remember, most of the trout you’ll catch here aren’t going to stretch past 15 inches in length, so you don’t need a disc-drag, large-arbor reel to help you land fish.
Speaking of landing fish – make sure you take a lightweight net that’s suitable for both lake and stream fishing.
If you can’t make it to RMNP, but your looking for places to cast a fly checkout these Guide Recommended articles:
- 14 Best Places to Fly Fish in Colorado
- 15 Best Places to Fly Fish in Wyoming
- 11 Best Places to Fly Fish in New Mexico
Recommended Flies for Rocky Mountain National Park
Again, the classic flies you grew up fishing are going to be the ticket here. And, remember that these fish see a lot of anglers – and flies – throughout the year. Any variation on a pattern that you tie yourself will likely produce fish better than what you buy at a store.
I like keeping things simple with my flies, and really only carry a dozen or so different patterns at a given time. Of those, this is what I’d absolutely not leave at home if I was headed to Rocky Mountain National Park:
- Parachute Adams, size 12-16. This is an indispensable fly that you just can’t do without.
- Hare’s Ear, size 14-18. Again, you can’t afford to leave these flies at home. They’re absolutely killer for trout, especially in the high country.
- Bunny Leech, size 8-12. If you want to fish streamers, it’s hard to beat the movement and natural look of the bunny leech.
Fly Shops and Fly Fishing Guides for Rocky Mountain National Park
There’s no shortage of guide and fly shops in the Rocky Mountain National Park area. These are a few to consider visiting:
Lodging and Campgrounds in the Rocky Mountain National Park Area
Estes Park is the closest large town to Rocky Mountain National Park. You can stay in a hotel there and explore the park with various day trips, or you can camp inside the park. These are some of the hotels and campgrounds available:
- Stanley Hotel
- Ponderosa Lodge
- Moraine Park Campground
- Timber Creek Campground
Fishing Resources from the National Park Service
The National Park Service has a ton of information available about fishing within Rocky Mountain National Park, in addition to bag limits and possession laws.
Fishing Licenses and State Regulations for Colorado A Colorado fishing license is only valid from March 1 – March 31. Anglers over 16 need a license. You can buy one here.