For many anglers, late winter in Colorado 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 Blue River.
How the Broncos won Super Bowl 50
Feb. 7th, 2016 – Super Bowl Sunday
Born and raised outside of Cleveland, I inherited an undying love for the Browns. As such, it’s been a lifelong Super Bowl tradition of mine to do anything but watch football. After all, it’s a great way to get outside, avoid the crowds, and forget about the fact that your home team is perpetually terrible. To keep my tradition alive, I spent this particular morning lapping a favorite backcountry ski zone in the Gore Range. This year, however, my new hometown team, the Denver Broncos, had made it to the big show and I’d be damned if I was going to miss the game.
The game didn’t start for a few more hours, though, so I found myself parked beneath the highway in Silverthorne on the Blue River just a few minutes from the trailhead where I was skiing. The day before, I lost a battle with one of the biggest trout I’d ever seen so I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to exact some revenge.
Walking up to the run I felt the hair on my neck stand up with anticipation.
“He’s gonna be there,” I said to myself.
I scanned the water for several minutes. Nothing. I walked downstream to the next run and started casting. Within a couple of drifts, I hooked up with a nice rainbow. Not the big fish I was after, but it would do.
I caught and released a few more nice fish then remembered why I was there. Carefully, I snuck back toward the scene of the crime. The sun had disappeared behind an incoming storm and I could barely see into the water. Several minutes passed. Again, nothing. Damn.
Just as I was about to walk back to the truck, a giant red stripe appeared from the dark water.
“No f*#$ing way,” I said out loud with utter incredulousness.
He was back. I took a few deep breaths and made a good cast and an even better drift. I could see the fish shift to the right, presumably to eat my fly. The bobber went down and I set the hook.
But as quickly as this had all transpired, it was over. I broke the cardinal rule of not checking my rig before casting to a big fish. My tippet must have been damaged at some point during the last hour or two on the river. I couldn’t believe it. The big rainbow was still there, and it felt like he was reveling in the fact that he’s just beaten me fair and square for the second time in as many days.
I stared at my frayed and broken tippet then looked at my watch. I knew it was no less than a 20-minute drive back to the house. “If I leave now,” I thought, “I should be able to make it home just in time for kickoff.” On any other day, there’d be no chance in the world that I’d leave without taking another shot at this fish. On this particular day, though, I felt like it was the right thing to do. So, I reeled in and packed it up, making an angler’s ultimate sacrifice that I hoped would put us in the good graces of the football gods. Before walking back to the truck, I stole one last glance at the enormous rainbow and immediately I felt better about leaving him alone. I had a feeling he’d be rooting for Peyton and the boys, too.
The Blue is close to Denver and far from a secret, so you may think you already have a handle on this place, but I implore you to read on. I managed to glean some very hot tips from Summit County local, tailwater jedi, and Trouts own: Zeke Hersh.
You can thank me (and Zeke) later.
1. Fortune favors the bold, so think outside the Troutlets.
While it may be a fantastic place to kill some time while your kids are eating at Chipotle, there are miles and miles of incredible river to be fished where you won’t have to worry about hooking a shopping bag from Under Armour with your backcast. Zeke suggests the same, saying “You can find some cool areas away from I-70 and asbestos alley that are woodsy and aren’t full of people walking between the outlet stores. To give yourself a little different aspect of the Blue, I recommend spending some time walking the river and looking for fish all over. You will be surprised where you might find small little holes holding fish in areas you might not have thought to look.”
While the Blue usually freezes just a couple of miles from the dam, during these late-winter weeks you might be able to find more open water. Zeke suggests keeping an eye out for a streak of warmer days. “As we begin to emerge from winter and the ice starts to drop off the river north of Silverthorne, I will start to venture north of town to fish some of the less obvious spots. Think fewer cars with rod racks on them. Some good spots get overlooked and I don’t mind getting a little hike in to get away from other anglers.”
2. Be prepared for the cold. Seriously.
The lower reaches of the Blue River valley are some of the coldest places I’ve ever fished. I remember some mornings when my truck says it’s 18 degrees when I exit the highway and just a handful of minutes later it’s -10 when I park next to the river. Now, if you find yourself in a situation like that, I’d recommend either turning around or taking a nap until it warms up. But for those of you who hate your fingers and toes, Zeke has some hot tips, pun very much intended: “The first thing I do is bring my puffy jacket. Another helpful option, because you are at the Blue, there are plenty of opportunities to park your vehicle close. I’ll use my vehicle for lunch or for short breaks to warm up for the next session of fishing. Then don’t underestimate the value of that walk looking for those obscure fishing spots. Taking a walk to look for these areas will get the blood flowing and warm you up a bit, not to mention, maybe see something you weren't expecting.”
3. Think small — then, think even smaller.
This is a common theme for pretty much every Colorado tailwater so it should come as no surprise to see it mentioned here. I can’t remember the last time (during the winter) that I fished anything bigger than a 16 and used tippet heavier than 5x. While catching fish here isn’t quite as painstaking as some other places I’ve been, they’re definitely not pushovers when it comes to fly and gear selection. Zeke echoes that sentiment. “Winter months offer nymph fishing for the most part and I mostly fish very basic small patterns on light tippet and usually minimal weight. I mostly use lighter weight as the Blue is typically running very low in the winter months and there can be a lot of algae on the rocks. For flies, I typically fish very small, very basic patterns such as the Miracle Nymph, Black Beauties, Cardinal Midges in pearl and black, Black Beauty Emergers, and Charlie’s mysis patterns.” Zeke also suggests shuffling through patterns, colors, and sizes if the fish aren’t cooperating.
Zeke added: “Keep your eye out for good midge hatches. On some of the slower, slicked-out holes, you can find good numbers of fish rising to mid-day midges”, something that makes for quite the treat on a cold, winter day.
4. Too busy in Silverthorne? Go to Breck!
For a variety of reasons, not the least of which are its productive fishing and relatively close proximity to Denver, the tailwater section of the Blue can get pretty busy. If that’s the case, Zeke suggests heading toward Breckenridge to check out the upper stretches of the Blue. “A great alternative to fishing the tailwater section through the town of Silverthorne is to check out the open water up towards Breckenridge on the “Stairsteps.” This section has some warmer water coming into the river that prevents it from freezing and it fishes well all winter long. This is a smaller stream so the fishing can be technical but can offer some good fun and even the chance at finding fish willing to eat dry flies.”
5. Après isn’t just for skiing.
One really good thing that comes along with Summit County’s exponential growth over the years is the incredible food and beverage scene. No matter where you find yourself, Frisco, Breckenridge, or Silverthorne, there are some truly great options to warm up with some hot food and a cold drink after a day fishing the Blue.
Zeke, the consummate local that he is, has some incredible suggestions for food: “If you’re right in Silverthorne, I like Pho Bay Silverthorne. You can’t go wrong with some hot Pho after a long, cold day on the river. Then in Breck, a favorite restaurant of mine is the South Ridge Seafood Grill. Always offering some great food and local beers. My favorite on the menu is the Teriyaki Glazed Ahi. In Frisco, I love to eat at The Uptown on Main which happens to be right across the street from Trouts Frisco location so grab some lunch and then stop in the shop to replenish your fly box.”
If you’re in the mood for a brewery, check out Outer Range or Highside Brewing in Frisco. In Silverthorne, Angry James will not disappoint. If you find yourself in Breck, don’t miss Breckenridge Brewery for beer and food as well as Broken Compass for a refreshing beer that’s right next to the stairstep section of the upper Blue.
6. Keep your eye on the flows!
I asked Zeke if there were any special conditions that will make the Blue fish exceptionally well during the winter months. He said, without a doubt, that the bump in the flow can really turn on the fishing. “If you happen to see flows jump on the Blue in the winter, that’s a great reason to get there pronto. On one such day, I happened to be guiding a couple of teenagers. We showed up at the first spot and after my casting and hook setting demonstration, I did what you hope to never do: I put down a demonstration cast in the first pool and sure enough hooked the biggest fish I have ever landed on this section. It was a twenty-eight inch, very large, very fat rainbow. I tried to give it to one of the boys, but they refused. After landing that fish and snapping a few photos, the boys went on to hook fish after fish, that day. Nothing quite the size of the one I had the lucky chance to land, but those boys were seriously happy!”
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.