By Josh Diller
Editor's Note: Josh Diller is a guide for Trouts Fly Fishing based out of our Frisco, Colorado location. Josh is a talented guide, photographer, and videographer. Here spends his off days on the water in and around Summit County, Colorado.
Winter and early spring in Summit County, fly fishing might not be one of the first things to come to mind for most. You might find yourself in this vacation destination for some world-class skiing or snowboarding. But, the truth of the matter is, that Summit County, Colorado might just be one of the top destinations for winter and early spring fly fishing.
Fly Fishing on the Blue River tailwater through Silverthorne. Hooked up on a healthy, freshwater, mysis-fed rainbow. Full of energy, I was fortunate enough to land this fish on 6x tippet!
In Summit County, we are lucky enough to have some super productive tailwaters. These tailwaters have controlled flows and provide suitable and stable temperatures for trout. As such, these tailwaters provide excellent angling opportunities during the winter and early spring. We are within a couple of hours of a number of productive tailwaters including the Blue (our home river), Frying Pan, Dream Stream, 11 Mile Canyon, Cheeseman Canyon (South Platte), Williams Fork, and the Yampa. If you're up for the drive, the Taylor and Arkansas below Pueblo are accessible from Summit County, as well. We are fortunate to have the Blue River right in our backyard. This tailwater is known for a few things. Mysis shrimp, sight fishing big rainbows, and easy public access. The Mysis shrimp live in Dillon Reservoir and make their way into the Blue and make a great food source for trout. Just like a Chilean flamingo gets its bright colors from eating shrimp, so do these tailwater trout. These rivers are labeled as Gold Medal waters with catch and release regulations and can provide excellent fly angling for large trout.
A Blue river rainbow caught on a mysis shrimp pattern. Like the flamingos, the rainbows become super red with this freshwater shrimp as the main food source.
Client Osmand on the Blue river located in the Silverthorne Outlet Mall with an average tail-water mysis fed rainbow. With easy access, we were able to park at Nike and be in the water within minutes!
These tailwaters are no secret and are easily accessible, so crowds are inevitable. Obviously, this means pressured fish, in which case a lot of the time you are fishing lighter tippets and longer leaders as well as smaller flies. 9ft. 5x fluorocarbon leaders and size #18 - #22 flies are common. The tail-waters are crystal clear offering great sight fishing or “head hunting." In my opinion, no matter how bad the crowds are, there is enough public access that finding open holes or active feeding fish is as easy as “spot hopping.” A lot of these tail-waters usually have public access the first few miles below the reservoir. After the first few miles, there is generally spotty public access downstream. During the winter, the water is most suitable for trout closest to the discharge. As winter progresses the river will freeze miles downstream. Trout have two options when this happens. Either go dormant and hibernate the winter away in a deep hole or to push upstream where temperatures are well suited for active fish. That being said, in the later months of winter, you will see bigger fish from private properties downstream pushing up to the reservoir. A tailwater is a unique fishery offering a great opportunity for winter and early spring angling.
A healthy Blue river rainbow I was able to catch on a busy day avoiding crowds finding open water with active feeding fish. This rainbow most likely pushed upriver from a ranch north of Silverthorne finding tolerable water temps for active feeding trout.
Here in Summit County, Colorado most of our freestones freeze over during the winter based on the elevation and temperatures we experience in the Rocky Mountains. Although, if you are willing to drive a little further, you will avoid crowds, as well as find open water and active fish. In almost every direction, there is a freestone river. North of us lies the Colorado River, West - the Eagle and the Roaring Fork, and South - the Arkansas River. The further downstream you drive, the more open water and active fish you will find with higher temperatures and lower elevations. The Colorado River can fish well in the Parshall area close to the confluence with the Williams Fork tailwater, as well as the Rifle and New Castle areas. The Eagle River can fish the further west you go, best in the Edwards and Gypsum areas. The Roaring Fork can fish well down in the town of Glenwood Springs, as well as upstream closer to the Frying Pan tail-water confluence. Finally, the Arkansas River can fish well below the Lake Creek confluence, as well as down towards Salida.
Tying on some bugs to fish the Eagle River near Gypsum in the middle of January. Targeting these fisheries on warmer winter days in lower elevations can offer some winter success.
Fishing a freestone river might mean escaping the crowds, unfortunately, the smaller tippet and long leaders are still needed. 9ft. 5x fluorocarbon leaders are common. These fish are actively feeding on smaller baetis, midges, and nymphs and usually holding in deeper holes. Occasionally when the temps and conditions are right you might find yourself in the middle of a heavy midge or baetis hatch sizing #18-#24 -ish. Overcast light snowfall and warmer temps are key for a winter baetis hatch, this offering some great technical dry fly action. Even floating can be an option for those die-hard drift boat guys. The Colorado River can fish well from a drift boat on the New Castle - Rifle stretch, even offering some streamer action in the right conditions for those streamer guys!
Freestone river brown trout caught on the Eagle with using 6x fluorocarbon on a size 20 purple juju baetis pattern. Though I didn't see any dries they were keying in on the baetis pattern.
Eagles Nest - In recap, is Summit county an eagles nest for the fly fisherman? I'll let that decision up to you, but in my opinion, there is plenty of water to keep me busy during the cold winter months both guiding and enjoying a day off. Sure, it's not wet wading, big dry fly eats, and endless days camping along the water. But, it sure beats sitting around the house at the vise all winter daydreaming of fishing warmer days. Whether you are looking for the perfect winter vacation destination offering top-notch fly fishing as well as ski resorts or possibly looking for some new water to explore or maybe somewhere to spend the winter months, I'd highly suggest checking out Summit County, Colorado.