For many anglers, winter and early spring 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 cover our favorite places to find some later winter and early springtime solace and hopefully a few cooperative fish.
Next up: the Williams Fork River.
You know the feeling. It’s 5 am and you’re headed west. Your right hand fiddles with the lid of a coffee cup while you steal glances into your rear view mirror watching the city lights slowly fade away. You’re excited about the day but you can’t shake that feeling that you’ve forgotten something important. You run through a mental checklist over and over but can’t seem to figure out what it could be, so you push it out of your mind and keep driving.
A couple of hours later, you park, wader up, and begin to string up rods. You reach into your pack for your fly boxes and your heart stops. With wide eyes you rifle through the backpack, then your gear bag, then every inch of the inside of your truck. Nothing. Well, not nothing. You find an old, black sculpin inside your wader pocket. It’s a far cry from the hundreds of nymphs and dry flies that line the boxes you’ve undoubtedly left sitting on your kitchen table, but this streamer will have to do. Sullen, you tie it onto your line, pick up your six-weight, and begin the long walk to the river.
You spend the day fishing your black streamer through a thick mayfly hatch. Noses are poking up in every run. It’s nearly enough to make you scream. As the afternoon wears on, the hatch wanes but with nearly no break in between, the evening caddis pick up right where the blue-winged olives have left off. Like it’s some sort of punishment, you persist through the agony. One cast after another, slinging the heavy, black streamer through thick clouds of bugs.
Eventually you round a bend and find a deeply undercut bank shaded with the branches of a fallen pine. “One more cast,” you think to yourself. One more cast, one more swing, a few final strips. Your fly stops. Surely this must be a snag, a fitting end to this positively torturous day. Then, the snag begins to move.
A few moments later, a beautiful 24” brown slides into your net. It’s only April but you’re hopeful that this trout is a harbinger of what to expect out of this fishing season. On the way back to the truck you clip off the black streamer and stash it back inside your wader pocket. Next time you forget all of your flies at home, you’ll know exactly what to do.
For those of you who haven’t had a chance to check out “the Willys” as it’s colloquially known, I think you’re in for quite the treat. This little river possesses all the trademark characteristics of a classic Colorado tailwater and it’s within not-so-figurative arm’s reach of the upper Colorado: one of our finest freestone fisheries. Read on for some helpful tips that will help to make the most of your next — or very first — trip to the Williams Fork.
1. Keep an eye on the weather.
Keep an eye on the weather. This will come as a surprise to no one, but the Spring season in Colorado is wildly unpredictable. It can be 65 and sunny one day, then 25 and dumping snow the next. Beyond the obvious implications of clothing choice, this is a unique time when the weather will have a major effect on the water conditions even on tailwaters like the Williams Fork. If it’s cold and snowy, the water should be low and clear. If, after a cold and snowy spell, you see that it’s supposed to be warm and sunny, subsequent valley melting could drastically diminish clarity and increase flows throughout the day. This doesn’t mean that fishing will be impossible, but be mentally prepared to deal with rapidly changing conditions. When the river changes, you might have to switch flies, adjust your rig, or change techniques altogether.
2. Pack Smart!
It’s a long walk from the parking area to the river. Think carefully about what you’re going to need and what you don’t. Do you plan on fishing all day? Maybe bring a sandwich and a big bottle of water. Better yet, grab some sort of water filtration so you don’t have to lug around a heavy bottle full of water. For destinations like this one, I love my bottle from Grayl. Some other useful items to think about are extra layers, some sort of wind or rain jacket in case the weather turns, and finally, a headlamp. There are two positively terrible scenarios that may befall an angler at the end of the day: 1. Being forced to leave the river early and missing out on an incredible evening hatch so you don’t have to walk back to your truck in the dark, and, of course, 2. Walking back to your truck in the dark.
3. Don’t forget your dry fly box.
I know, it’s been a long winter. But we’re right on the cusp of some of the most exciting dry fly days of the season. Blue-winged olives, midges, a wide variety of caddis, early stoneflies, the list goes on and on. Now is the time to make sure that dry fly box has made its way back into your fishing pack. Make sure you don’t forget your dry fly accoutrement: things like nylon tippet, floatant, and the all-important bottle of dry shake.
4. Two rods are better than one.
As the weather begins to warm up, it’s prime time to be walking around with two fly rods. It can be a little bit annoying keeping track of another rod while you’re working a run, but I’d rather do that than spend half the day re-rigging. For a day on the Willys, I recommend a 9’ 5-weight that you can use for both nymphing or quickly switch over to dries if the opportunity presents itself, and also a 9’ 6- or 7-weight for chuckin’ the meats. While streamer fishing can be productive all winter long, things really begin to heat up, figuratively speaking, along with the actual temperature of the river. The warmer water helps to kickstart the trout’s metabolism and makes them much more likely to chase a big meal.
5. Beware of the locals.
I’ve run into moose on this tailwater more than a few times. While these positively massive ungulates are generally docile, it’s worth noting that they can be territorial and they are hyper-protective of their young. Moose are incredible animals so if you see one, observe from a safe distance and make sure to give them plenty of room.
Now I realize these next creatures live all over the state and you could run into one on most any river, but this is one of the few places where I’ve seen big cat tracks. I’m not one to be a fear monger, but if you’re asking me, I’d say that this isn’t a great place to bring a dog if I know I’m going to be fishing late into the evening. Use your best judgement here, but frankly: I don’t trust anyone who isn’t at least a little bit terrified of mountain lions.
6. Fish the Colorado too!
The tailwater section of the Williams Fork is relatively short, about two miles long. If you’re fishing for the whole day, it’s entirely possible that you may run out of water, or perhaps the fishing just isn’t that awesome. In either case, take advantage of fishing the Colorado around the confluence and beyond. Spring is an incredible time to swing streamers through the bigger runs on the Colorado and take advantage of hungry trout trying to pack on some calories before the rigors of runoff. One of my favorite things about fishing in this area is the amount of opportunity you have to move around. Do your due diligence to figure out the fishing, but if it’s just not working or you’re in the mood for a change of scenery, pack it up and get movin’!
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.