For the fly fishing community winter is a typically a time to catch up on tying and replenish fly boxes emptied from the year’s fishing. Many of us reflect on the trips taken and the trophies caught to get us through the winter and to battle severe cases of cabin fever. Here in Colorado, many turn their focus to the slopes during the winter as Colorado has some of the best skiing opportunities in the country. However, the winter months in the Rocky Mountain west can offer some amazing fly fishing opportunities if you are willing to brave the cold and snow.
Most major rivers in the west are dammed to retain water for the dry months later in the year. The tail waters released below most dams remain at fairly constant temperatures during the winter which means there are ice free sections for the willing anglers. This also means an angler can find hatches throughout the winter, and where there are hatches there are feeding fish. The dominate winter hatches here in Colorado are the midge family. These hatches will usually occur later in the morning when the temperature has warmed. Fortunately for the angler, the midge/chironomid makes up the vast majority of a tail water trout’s diet (with a few exceptions). The winter midges are small ranging in size from 18’s all the way down to 26’s in some instances. A few mainstays in every winter midge box are the mercury black beauty, miracle midge, WD40, blood worms, zebra midge, jujube midge, ufo, RS2, and the tungsten rainbow warrior to name a few. Drab colors in olives, browns, blacks, and grays are always good choices since the water is usually crystal clear, low, and extremely slow flows. When fish are feeding on the surface small dry fly patterns, again in the 18-26 range, such as the parachute Adams or the Griffiths gnat are good choices. If the conditions force an angler to throw these small dry flies there a couple ways to keep an eye on a fly that small without straining to see it. It is fairly easy to keep an eye on the general vicinity of a fly as it drifts down the river. If a fish rises in that vicinity set the hook and chances are it will be fish on. The other option is similar to the popular hopper-dropper rig. Instead of the dropper, tie on another dry fly with the first fly being big enough to see. This will allow an angler to hone in on the tiny offering trailing the larger dry fly. If a fish rises behind the leading fly set the hook and fish on.
As mentioned earlier, the flows will be extremely slow and low with crystal clear visibility. A 10-12 foot leader is needed to keep fish from spooking. This time of year 6X and 7X fluorocarbon is a huge must in order to fool trout. Fish will most likely be holding in the deeper pools during this time so focus your efforts on the deeper sections. A trout’s metabolism is largely determined by the water temperature so do not expect a trout to expend energy and go out of its way to take an offering. The old cliché that 10% of the water holds 90% of the fish is very true during the winter so if you do not turn any fish in the first several drifts of a pool then keep trying. More times than not a fly must be presented so close to a trout that all it has to do to eat it is open its mouth. So keep drifting those deep pools. Work up stream if possible and stay out of the water as much as possible. Try to find a position so the sun is to your back but be mindful to not cast shadows into the river. Again, these flows will be low and slow so stealth is the name of the winter fishing game. Of course you will occasionally have to get flies down deep, but try using tungsten or as little weight as possible. Casting farther upstream will give the flies more time to get down to the fish with less weight which reduces the impact split shot or tungsten putty can have on the water and in return spooking fish.
There are several winter tail waters in Colorado that can be fished year round. The main ones, however, are the Blue River in Siverthorne; the Blue River below Green Mountain reservoir; the Frying Pan below Reudi reservoir; the South Platte River in Cheesman canyon; the South Platte River below Eleven Mile reservoir; the Dream Stream between Spinney reservoir and Eleven Mile reservoir; the Taylor River; and the Yampa River below Stagecoach reservoir. Although these rivers all have their quirks and own personalities, the basic winter strategies are all the same: stealth, light tippet, long leaders, and small flies. These rivers are also near the major ski resorts so sneaking away for a day while the family hits the slopes is easily done. Denver, Carbondale, Aspen, Deckers, and Steamboat Springs where these tail waters are located all have top notch fly shops that can give up to date fishing conditions. Stopping by to pick up a few items and check river conditions with the local experts will only increase your chance of success and shorten the learning curve. So the next time the winter blues have you down with the fly rod tucked away for the season, pack up the family and head to Colorado for excellent skiing and winter fly fishing for trophy trout. You will be happy you did.
For more blogs by Chris Cross check out: theotolith.com