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Fly fishing Colorado is one of my favorite things to do in the state. Like many states in the western United States, Colorado is a hub for outdoor recreation.
Outdoor enthusiasts have multiple options all throughout the year to fill their needs. The mountains and vast landscape make Colorado the perfect place for people to visit.
Despite it being one of the best fly fishing destinations in the US, the water isn’t overcrowded and anglers have the freedom to fish a variety of waters. On top of that, there’s a strong lean towards catch-and-release fly fishing in the state, which keeps populations of fisheries strong and the environment healthy.
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Over the past few years, I’ve made winter trips out to Colorado to snowboard. I started bringing along my fly rod and began fishing in the morning before the resorts opened. Then I went snowboarding for the rest of the day.
I’ve since returned for some summer visits as well, and as you can imagine, the conditions were even better. The fly fishing is high quality and there’s no shortage of it. It’s definitely near the top of my list of my favorite states to fish.
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Why Start Fly Fishing Colorado?
Colorado has one of the highest fish counts in the entire United States. On top of that, there’s private water that anglers can gain access to, helping to avoid overcrowding.
The crisp mountain air, beautiful scenery, and trophy trout are the main reasons to make Colorado your next fishing destination.
What to Pack for Fly Fishing Colorado
Here are a few things that you’ll want to bring on any fishing trip, as well as some items (like specific flies and rod weights) that are important to bring when fly fishing Colorado.
- 3 weight fly rod: For smaller trout species
- 5 weight fly rod: For medium sized fish
- 6 weight fly rod: A great versatile option
- 7 weight fly rod: Versatile and good for larger fish
- 8 weight fly rod: Good for most of the biggest fish you’ll catch in Colorado
- Your favorite fly rod overall: No angler leaves home without their favorite rod.
- Your favorite reel overall: Pack your best reel.
- Fly fishing waders: I love my Frogg Togg Waders.
- Wading boots: Keep the feet on your waders protected from sharp rocks.
- A fly fishing combo set: Everything you need in one kit.
- Fly box: Bring your best waterproof box to keep your flies.
- A fly fishing vest: Pack your leader, line, nippers, and flies close to your chest.
- A fly fishing pack: A decent pack to hold your extra gear
- Fly fishing net: Get a rubber net to protect the fish.
- Polarized sunglasses: Great for keeping the glare off those shimmering Colorado lakes
- Flies: Woolly Buggers, Prince Nymphs, Elk Hair Caddis, Pheasant Tail Nymphs, Parachute Adams, BWOs, Midge Nymphs, Clouser Minnows, crayfish patterns, gnat patterns, Green Caddis, Sex Dungeons, Stimulators, Hoppers, PMDs, dry flies & large streamers, Elk Hair Caddis, Drake patterns, mosquito patterns & baitfish patterns
Colorado Fly Fishing: The Fish Species
Trout is the name of the game for fly anglers in Colorado. The variety of wild and stocked trout always given me an entertaining day on the water.
Rainbow trout are the most common trout found in Colorado. The Colorado Game and Fish Department stocks millions of these fish every year into the lakes and rivers throughout the state.
I’ve hooked into rainbow trout in the South Platte, Gunnison, and Blue rivers. To catch these, you’ll only need your 5-weight. You’ll find them most commonly around 12 inches and can always catch them on a variety of flies.
Be sure to pack Prince Nymphs, Elk Hair Caddis, Pheasant Tail Nymphs, and Woolly Buggers. These fish aren’t all that picky as long as you present the fly well.
Colorado has three types of cutthroat. I’ve caught the Greenback, Rio Grande and Colorado cutthroat in many rivers all throughout the state. However, their numbers have been dropping in recent years, and they’re now protected by the Parks and Wildlife Service.
I’ve found cutthroat in the Eagle River, Yampa River, and Arkansas River. These fish vary in size and can most often be found in high mountain streams. Take along your 4 or 5-weight and light fluorocarbon tippet.
Parachute Adams, BWOs, Woolly Buggers, and midge nymphs will catch cutthroat. Many argue that these are the most beautiful fish in the world, so be ready with your camera!
Brown trout are another common species caught throughout the state. These fish are extremely hearty and don’t only need cold and clear water to survive. They can grow upwards of 5 or 6 pounds throughout the state.
You’ll find brown trout in the San Juan, Rio Grande, Dolores, and Yampa rivers. They’re great fighters and are a lot of fun to catch during their fall spawning runs.
Bring along your 5 or 6-weight as well as 4 or 5x tippet to land these fish. They’ll eat a variety of flies including Clouser Minnows, Woolly Buggers and crayfish patterns. You can also land them on hoppers and beetles in the fall.
Brook trout are the final common species found in Colorado. They were introduced to the state in the late 1800s and have been able to repopulate on their own ever since.
You’ll find brookies in the Poudre Canyon and the Big Thompson. These fish rarely grow over 12 inches in Colorado, but they’re beautiful and put up impressive fights.
Bring along your 3 or 4-weight and tackle some of the pools and small pockets. These fish will hold in places you wouldn’t expect them to, so be prepared to fish in small water. You’ll catch them on small Prince Nymphs, Pheasant Tails, and gnat patterns.
Best Fly Fishing Spots in Colorado
Colorado has a massive variety of water for people to try. On my many trips to the state, I’ve fished large rushing rivers, tranquil streams, and glassy lakes. Anglers of all skill levels will be challenged, but will still catch fish. Whether you’re after moving or still water, Colorado has a many options.
Best Fly Fishing Rivers in Colorado
Anglers have their choice of small streams sitting at an elevation of 10,000 feet and wide flowing rivers spread throughout the state. Spend a few days seeing the variety that Colorado has to offer and you’ll likely make a trip back.
South Platte River
Directions: South Platte River, CO
The South Platte River is a fly fishing haven. It’s a tailwater fishery, so the water temperatures stay consistent all year long. Plus, there are a variety of hatches and access is solid considering all of the private water throughout the state.
When fishing the South Platte, you want to target the portion the locals call the Dream Stream. It holds brown, rainbow and cutthroat trout. All these can be caught ranging over 20 inches. You may even stumble upon a Kokanee salmon, as they spawn in this portion during the fall.
Bring your 5 or 6-weight to the South Platte. The water is a bit wider and you’ll almost always be dealing with wind. You’ll need the extra power to reach the spots you’re trying to hit.
Be sure to have floating and weight forward line. The hatches in the mornings and evenings are well worth fitting into your day. Also, have 5 or 6x tippet so the trout don’t see everything you put in their way.
If you use streamers, be sure to have 1 or 2x leader. Some great flies to use are the Parachute Adams, Green Caddis, Sex Dungeons, and Woolly Buggers.
Directions: Arkansas River, CO
The Arkansas is a must for any angler in Colorado. It has over 100 miles of Gold Medal Water available for anglers to fish. You’ll find rainbow and brown trout well over 20 inches all throughout the river.
The Arkansas has countless pockets, pools and riffles that test anglers. Pay attention to the BWO and caddis hatches because as soon as they begin, the fish start their feeding frenzy.
Fish the Arkansas with your 5 or 6-weight. Also, 9 foot 3x leader will do the trick. If the flies are hatching, switch over to 5 or 6x tippet and start targeting the rises.
Use Gnats, Stimulators, Hoppers, and Parachute Adams on the Arkansas.
Frying Pan River
Directions: Frying Pan River, CO
The Frying Pan is another tailwater fishery in Colorado that’s filled with nice size trout. I’ve caught rainbow and brown trout throughout the Frying Pan that were extremely healthy and large.
The water flows out of the Ruedi Reservoir, so the fish are well fed and the water temperature stays consistent all year. It’s a great river to fish during the winter if you’re looking for some fishing action.
You’ll catch fish on Mysis Shrimp patterns. The shrimp flow out of the lake, and the trout love to eat them on a regular basis. You’ll also catch fish on PMDs and small Buggers.
Be sure to use your 5 or 6-weight and 5 or 6x tippet. These fish can spook due to the high visibility. Survey the river before you choose the spot you’re going to fish.
Directions: Colorado River, CO
The Colorado River can be intimidating. Quite a bit of the water is large, and it’s great to fish from a drift boat. That way you’ll gain better access to pools and the seams spread throughout the river.
However, there are also portions of the Colorado available to wade. These are located more in the headwaters within Rocky Mountain National Park and are a beautiful place to visit if you’re willing to hike a few miles.
You can catch brown, brook, and cutthroat throughout the Colorado. Depending on where you’re fishing, bring different rods. If you’re spending time in the headwaters, use your 3 or 4-weight. Take along 5 or 6x tippet as well.
These areas require finesse casting and smaller nymphs and dry flies. As soon as you reach the bigger waters down south, use your 6-weight. Also, be sure to bring 1 or 2x leader to handle some of your larger streamers.
Directions: Gunnison River, CO
The Gunnison is one of the best rivers in Colorado. Large reservoirs split up the majority of the river, so the trout are extremely well fed and capable of reaching upwards of 25 inches.
The Gunnison offers opportunities to fish extremely remote water as well as giving anglers a chance to bring their family. The portion below the Taylor Park Reservoir is catch and release and a great place to fly fish.
When fishing the Gunnison, it’s best to use your 5-weight. You need the power to fight the larger fish as well as the faster action to hit your spots. Be prepared to nymph the riffles and swing streamers through the pools.
Bring both weight forward and floating line. The fish are very active during the hatches and you’ll need a variety of tackle to fully experience the Gunnison. Some smart flies to use are Elk Hair Caddis, Drake patterns, Buggers and Parachute Adams.
Heading to the Sunshine State for fly fishing?
Don’t miss our full guide to fly fishing around Florida.
Best Fly Fishing Lakes in Colorado
The lakes in Colorado are rarely fished with a fly. As a result, I’ve often had a lot of success when fishing them. I’ve pulled impressive fish out of alpine lakes as well as large reservoirs. There’s a nice variety for anglers of a wide variety of skill levels.
North Delaney Butte Lake
Directions: North Delaney Butte Lake, CO
North Delaney Butte Lake is considered a Gold Water trout fishery. Even though it’s still water, this lake offers anglers an opportunity to catch rainbow, brown and cutthroat trout.
When fishing the North Delaney, if you can use a smaller boat or canoe, do it. It’s also possible to fish from shore, but the structure spread throughout the middle of the lake is filled with fish.
The lake will freeze over in the winter, so in spring make sure to know when the ice is on its way out because the fish are extremely active during these first few weeks. During this time, the water levels are a bit higher, so don’t forget to have darker streamers to match the cloudy water.
Bring your 5 or 6-weight to North Delaney Butte Lake as well as your floating and sinking line. The trout aren’t always picky, but it’s smart to be fully equipped for wherever the fish are in the water column.
Bring your Buggers, Deceivers, Clouser Minnows, and small caddis flies. As soon as you see some topwater strikes, be ready for a fun stretch of fishing.
Directions: Ruedi Reservoir, CO
The Ruedi Reservoir is the perfect place to bring your family for a day of fishing and other outdoor activities. It’s a 1,200-acre lake, so you won’t have too much trouble finding places to fish along shore.
If you have a boat or smaller watercraft, bring it because it’ll provide you with more access than you otherwise could have. You’ll be able to catch rainbow trout, Kokanee salmon and a variety of panfish.
If you’re planning on taking someone out to learn about fly angling, the Ruedi Reservoir is the place to do it. The fish are always willing to eat, you’re surrounded by the beautiful views of northwest Colorado, and you’ll have the chance to enjoy a simpler side of fly angling.
Bring your 5 or 6-weight and a variety of flies and line. If you’re looking to learn a new way to cast or try a different technique, the Ruedi is forgiving enough to let you.
Blue Mesa Reservoir
Directions: Blue Mesa Reservoir, CO
The Gunnison River was dammed in the mid-1960s and out of it came the Blue Mesa Reservoir. This happens to be Colorado’s largest body of water and is filled with fish.
There’s over 90 miles of shoreline to fish from, but it’s surrounded by thicker vegetation so be sure you’re wading in a ways before you make your casts. Otherwise, you’ll be in for a long day of getting stuck.
If you can, fish the Blue Mesa with a boat. There are quite a few streams that flow into the lake and fishing them from a boat will provide you with wonderful opportunities to catch the rainbow, brook, and brown trout that call these waters home.
Bring your 5 or 6-weight to the Blue Mesa. Since there’s so much water, you’ll want to be able to cover quite a bit of it. Bring both floating and sinking line and a variety of leaders and tippet. These fish can be picky, but not impossible to catch.
Stick near the moving water and the tributaries that flow out of it and you’ll be in for a treat.
Directions: Trappers Lake, CO
Trappers Lake is Colorado’s second-largest natural lake, and it’s filled with cutthroat trout. It’s a beautiful body of water and the cutthroat population is the largest population of consolidated trout in the world.
This lake is heavily wooded and needs to be fished from some sort of watercraft. A kayak or canoe is your best bet because the lack of noise from a motor allows you to enjoy the quietness and beautiful scenery.
While the cutthroat are willing to hit smaller streamers and nymphs, the dry fly action is second-to-none. Gnats and mosquitoes are prevalent in the evening, so be sure you have those patterns in sizes 16 to 20.
Throw these flies with floating line on your 5-weight and you’ll wish the sun would never set. The Colorado cutthroat are a beautiful fish and are considered to be endangered, so be sure you’re handling the fish with care.
Bring your family, take a long weekend, and explore the Flat Tops Trail Scenic and Historic Byway. It’s a trip you won’t soon forget.
Wolford Mountain Reservoir
Directions: Wolford Mountain Reservoir, CO
The Wolford Mountain Reservoir is a 66,000-acre body of water filled with rainbow trout. Plus, there are nearly 50 campsites for you to make into a home for a few short days.
You can fish the Wolford Reservoir from the shore as well as a boat. If you can, use a fishing boat so you can cover the wide range of water. You’re going to wish you could fish the structure and deeper portions of the water where the big trout tend to congregate.
The reservoir is best fished with your 6-weight paired with floating and weight forward line. You’ll use 3 or 4x leader with 5x tippet to catch the fish in the reservoir.
Take along a few larger baitfish partners, gnat patterns, and Parachute Adams flies. These fish aren’t necessarily picky, but it might take a bit for you to discover which pattern will work best.
Colorado Fishing Season
The official fishing season in Colorado depends on where in the state you’re casting your lines. There are also some free fishing days at the start of June every year.
Fly fishing in Colorado is possible year-round. The heavy amounts of snow make only a few months of the year less than ideal for fly fishing. When the difficult months hit, spend your time fishing the lakes or finding another outdoor activity!
Colorado Fly Fishing in April
April is one of the best spring months to fly fish. The runoff hasn’t fully started and the fish are still willing to eat. Bring along your caddis, sedge, and BWO patterns to any of the rivers listed above.
The lakes are likely going to still have ice on them, but you may be able to fish towards the end of the month. Be sure you’re equipped with enough warm clothing! The weather can change in an instant.
Colorado Fly Fishing in May
Fly fishing Colorado in May is best reserved for the lakes. The rivers are filled with runoff and it can be extremely frustrating to try and maneuver some of the larger water. If you insist on fishing moving water, try some small tributaries.
Otherwise, stick with the lakes! Your streamers and BWO patterns will work great.
Colorado Fly Fishing in June
June is another tricky month when it comes to fly fishing in Colorado. The runoff is still in full swing and the water levels fluctuate in extreme ways. As a result, you’re going to want to fish closer to shore.
The fish will move up in the water column and hug the shallower water when the levels are too high. Strip your streamers along the banks and you’ll likely find fish.
June is a great time to fish the above-mentioned lakes on this list. The runoff doesn’t necessarily impact the reservoirs and you’ll be able to find quite a few fish.
Streamers, BWOs, and drake patterns will be your best bet.
Colorado Fly Fishing in July
By July, the runoff has subsided and the true Colorado fly fishing begins. This is my favorite time to fly fish Colorado, and I try to make a visit every year. The temperatures warm and the trout begin to get back to their older habits. Wading and drifting are both possible!
Drake, dun, and quill patterns will all catch you fish. Also, your streamers are going to work when you’re fishing in the larger pools.
Colorado Fly Fishing in August
August is another great month to fly fish in Colorado. Be aware of the warm sun because you can easily burn within a few hours on the water. Take along your protective clothing and be prepared for some amazing fishing.
The terrestrials begin to appear in August, so get ready for some wonderful dry fly fishing.
Colorado Fly Fishing in September
Fly fishing in Colorado in September is beautiful. The leaves begin to change and the terrestrial bite is still in full swing! Take advantage of September because it’s usually the last of the warm weather.
Best Fly Fishing Lodges in Colorado
Colorado has some extremely beautiful fly fishing lodges! Due to the higher amount of private water in Colorado, you’ll want to spend some time at the local lodges.
North Fork Ranch
Located on the South Platte River, the North Fork Ranch is located only an hour from Denver. You’ll have great access to Gold Medal water and stay in great accommodations. A full guided day on the water costs around $600 a person.
High Lonesome Ranch
Located a few miles outside of Grand Junction, the High Lonesome Ranch offers anglers quite a bit of access to tributaries of the Colorado River. It’s an Orvis endorsed fly lodge with quite a bit to offer. A two-day, three-night stay will cost you around $2000 per person.
Three Rivers Resort
The Three Rivers Resort gives you great access to brook trout. It’s located on the Upper Taylor River and has access to some great water. Plus, there are other activities for the entire family. An all-inclusive two-day, three-night stay will cost around $1500 per person.
Colorado is a must-visit for anyone looking to gain a true fly fishing experience. You can fish in a variety of different ways, find isolation, and learn all of the amazing things that fly fishing has to offer.
For me, the seemingly endless wilderness in Colorado is a fantastic opportunity to combine fly fishing with other outdoor activities. Although casting a rod will always come first, I also enjoy snowboarding, hiking, camping, and more while fly fishing Colorado.
It’s equally great for a solo outing or a family vacation, and its central location in the US makes it reachable by car for nearly everyone. It might take a day or two of driving, but the fish and scenery will make it more than worthwhile.
Some images in this post are courtesy of Shutterstock.
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