For many anglers, winter is for tying flies, for skiing, for spending time with family. For some of us, however, it presents a unique opportunity for quick weekend road trips to popular rivers, bereft of summertime angling pressure. Whether you’re looking to get away for a couple of hours, a couple of days, or some amount of time in between, there’s definitely a nearby tailwater that fits the bill. We’ll spend the next few weeks covering our favorite places to find some wintertime solace and hopefully a few cooperative fish. Next up: the famed Fryingpan River.
I mowed lawns when I was a kid growing up in Ohio. I used the money I earned to buy my first fly rod when I was nine or ten years old. It was a five-weight Orvis Clearwater. I thought I was a goddamned king when I was wading around my home river, the Clear Fork (which was anything but clear), catching one ten-inch stocker after another. As far as I could tell, I had this whole fly fishing thing pretty well figured out and there wasn’t a thing that could get in my way.
When an unexpected family trip to Aspen popped up, my mind went immediately to fishing the Fryingpan. I’d spent every free moment I had reading John Gierach books in which both he and A.K. Best would exclusively fish dry flies and exclusively catch huge fish. I couldn’t wait to bring my rod along for my shot at some big, western trout. After all, I was an absolute badass of a ten-year old angler from Ohio. What could possibly go wrong?
Fast forward to the first day of the trip. It was sometime in December in 1995 or 1996. I remember visiting a fly shop in Basalt and the guy behind the counter was talking nonsense about some little shrimp or something. Mysis maybe? I didn’t know and I didn’t care. “Point me toward the Drakes, sir. Oh, and while you’re at it, I’ll take a few of those Dave’s Hoppers. I’ve read Trout Bum and I’m kind of a big deal.”
My mom drove me from town all the way up to Ruedi Dam where I suited up in preparation for what was sure to be the most incredible day on the river in my very young fly fishing career. Spoiler alert: it didn’t go well. Throughout the course of the day, I made one stupid mistake after another. You name it, I did it wrong. I fished giant dry flies instead of tiny nymphs. I waded downstream. I high holed folks. I spent an entire afternoon terrorizing trout and thoroughly pissing off every single adult who had the misfortune of being anywhere near the river that day. It should surprise no one that I didn’t catch a single fish on that trip.
Now, you may want to know: in order to achieve success, what can you do that a very young Mark did not? For starters: don’t be a cocky little kid. Sure, the Fryingpan is full of big fish, but they don’t come easy. Once you’ve successfully set your hubris aside, peruse the article below. I caught up with local guide Shyanne Orvis and we compiled this checklist of must dos and most do nots that will help you to have a better experience than I did way back in the day.
1. Walk softly, and carry a small stick.
Like most tailwaters, you’re likely to find the Fryingpan at its lowest levels during the winter months. As such, this is not the place for a giant streamer and 0x you were just wrestling with up on the North Platte. Stealth and patience go a long way here. Leave that 7-weight meat cannon at home and bring your 9’ 5-weight to adequately micro manage your drifts. If the wind is down, a 9’ 4-weight will also get the job done quite nicely. While you’re at it, size down both your tippet and flies. On any given winter day, Shyanne recommends 6x fluorocarbon paired with small mysis patterns like Mayer’s Mysis, along with a wide variety of baetis and midges. She pointed out a pair of Matt McCannel patterns, the Demon Midge and Neon Nightmare, as her go-to flies for the winter months and she fishes them in positively Lilliputian sizes—all the way down to a 26.
2. Don’t forget your polarized glasses.
“Keep in mind that with those low flows during the winter months you’ll have the perfect opportunity to sight fish to bigger trout that are actively feeding,” Shyanne says. The Fryingpan is a relatively small river anyway and in the middle of the winter flows are at their lowest you’ll see them all year. Carefully scan a pool or run before jumping in and making a cast. Take a moment and let your eyes adjust. While low flows make fish a little pickier, anglers should have no trouble finding trophy trout. Now getting that trout to eat your fly… that’s a different story.
Skip the Toilet Bowl.
If you’ve heard of the Fryingpan, you’ve probably heard about the Toilet Bowl. Sure, there are definitely some frighteningly enormous trout that hang out here and feast to their heart’s content on macerated mysis shrimp pumped from the depths of Ruedi Reservoir. When you’re in a place as beautiful as this one, though, I can think of very few less inspiring ways to spend my day than watching a bobber circle the concrete-bound emerald vortex that is the Toilet Bowl. The fact of the matter is that there are big fish everywhere here. Do yourself a favor and avoid this uppermost bit of the river and make the most of the truly world-class fishery that exists immediately downstream.
3. Don’t get stuck—and pack some whiskey in case you do!
While you’re not far from one of the most densely populated areas of Colorado’s Western Slope, there is not one iota of phone reception up at the top of the Fryingpan River. During the winter, the road is icy and some of the pull-off areas can be deeply drifted with snow so make sure you have extra supplies in your car in case you overshoot your parking spot—or if you find yourself in a situation like Shyanne did: “A few years ago I thought it would be a good idea to drive my truck on the C&R (catch & release) portion of the ‘Pan in the midst of a blizzard that dropped like two feet of snow. They hadn’t plowed the road yet and I didn't quite make it. I was stuck up there for a few hours. No complaints, though. I spent the time fishing solo, drank some whiskey to keep me warm, and had an epic day with this entire section of the river to myself. Finally, someone showed up and they were able to pull me out.”
4. Drink to remember—and to forget.
Need a warm up before hitting the water? Shyanne says Craft Coffee House in Basalt is not to miss. They’re open at 7 so, unless you’re a real overachiever, you should be able to grab a bite and some coffee before driving up the Fryingpan road. On your way back out, whether it’s to celebrate your conquests or to drown your defeat, Shyanne also recommends stopping to grab a beer at the Tipsy Trout.
5. Remember the Roaring Fork.
If conditions permit, make sure to throw a few casts in the Roaring Fork. Though winter’s icy grip usually renders the upper river unfishable, anglers can often find lots of accessible water from Carbondale all the way down to the confluence with the Colorado at Glenwood Springs. Minus the mysis, all the same flies and techniques you were implementing up on the Fryingpan should work here, too.
About the Author & Photographer:
Mark Rauschenberger is a writer and creative from Denver, Colorado. Over the years, he’s created content for powerhouse brands like Yeti, Abel, and Ross, and his writing has been featured in places like The Flyfish Journal, This Is Fly Magazine, ESPN, Powder Magazine, and Freeskier Magazine, among many others. A lover of the written word, Mark has a tireless work ethic and a penchant for punctuality. When he’s at his laptop with a cup full of coffee, bourbon, or a combination of both, you can find him adventuring around the country with his wife Claudia and son Bridger. An admitted slave to hyperbole, he’s on a never-ending journey to find the next greatest place.