Best Fly Fishing Rivers In Colorado
October 22, 2020
Fed with from snow high atop the Continental Divide, Colorado’s rivers develop into some of the country’s best trout streams. The water flowing east, eventually to the Atlantic Ocean, crosses the more arid slopes and short grass prairies, while the water flowing west meanders through the greener terrain of the Western Slope, before it (hopefully) reaches the Pacific Ocean. Each winding path of Rocky Mountain water provides its own outstanding fly-fishing experience, so narrowing down these rivers to only ten is an impossible task. But the ten on our list are guaranteed to provide some of the best fly fishing of your life and most include Gold Medal Stream sections, as designated by the state of Colorado.
SOUTH PLATTE RIVER
One of the most popular fly fishing rivers in Colorado (for good reason) is the South Platte River. With its Gold Medal status and proximity to Denver, it’s an easy choice for locals and visitors flying into Denver. In a little more than an hour after picking up your rental car at Denver International Airport, you can be casting to rising rainbow, brown, and cutthroat trout on the North Fork of the South Platte. The 3.8 miles below Spinney Reservoir and above Elevenmile Reservoir is home to the Dream Stream section of the South Platte.
While Spinney creates an ideal tailwater fishery downstream with dependable cold water, Elevenmile allows for trout to grow to trophy size before moving upstream for their spring and fall spawning runs. Both banks of the Dream Stream section are open to the public. Combine that with its proximity to Denver and Colorado Springs, and you’ll end up having a few neighbors every time you fish this section. However it is well worth the trip, whether it’s your first time ever, or fifth time this week.
The Gunnison River flows west from its tributaries along the Continental Divide, before joining the Colorado River in Grand Junction. The Gold Medal section of the Gunnison stretches between Crystal Dam, just outside of Cimarron, and the confluence of the North Fork of the Gunnison River, about 15 miles east of Delta, CO.
The Gold Medal water includes Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, full of thousand-foot walls, crags, spires, and fast-moving water — through the canyon the river makes the fifth steepest mountain descent of any river in North America. The steep walls make wading access through this section of river difficult to impossible. Combined with the fast-moving water, it’s recommended you fish the Black Canyon section with an experienced guide or outfitter. The difficult access keeps the fishing pressure down, and the pristine water produces trophy browns and ‘bows. If you’re in search of salmon, you’ll find a Kokanee salmon run in the late summer into fall in the upper Gunnison River above Blue Mesa Reservoir.
The Blue River offers more outstanding tailwater fishing on the western side of the Divide. From Denver, head west on I-70, through the Eisenhower Tunnel and down into Silverthorne. While the Blue lost its Gold Medal designation in 2016, Colorado Parks and Wildlife redesignated the Silverthorne section of the Blue as a Gold Medal Stream for 2017. The loss of Gold Medal status put a spotlight on the management of the Blue, resulting in better strategies to help boost already impressive trout populations. Below Lake Dillon, the Blue flows north through the city of Silverthorne, providing a contrast of trophy trout fishing and tourist-packed outlet malls — a scene only possible in Colorado. Because of this section’s easy access, the trout see a lot of pressure, but you can still expect to enjoy a productive day with the potential for a 20” fish on any drift.
Most anglers took note of the 2015 mining waste spill in the Animas River, north of Durango, and wondered if this Gold Medal river was lost forever. The good news is the fishing “remains strong” almost two years after the disaster, and the Lightner Creek to Rivera Crossing bridge section, immediately downstream of downtown Durango, continues to produce world-class trout fishing. A past state-record-holding 20-pound brown trout was pulled from the Animas in the 1950s and big trout continue to grow large on the plentiful invertebrates in one of the last free-flowing rivers in Colorado.
A big river calls for a big Gold Medal stream designation. The Arkansas stretches 1,469 miles from Leadville, CO to the Mississippi River, dropping more than 9,000 feet in elevation. About a third of its river miles flow through Colorado, and 102 of those miles (from Leadville to above the Royal Gorge) are designated as Gold Medal water. Through this section, the Arkansas cascades and tumbles, holding trout in deep pockets, and crystal clear runs. Because of the geography, the Arkansas is popular for whitewater rafters and kayakers, so in the high water of spring and early summer (the Arkansas trout fishery is not a tailwater), you may have to fish around the “kayak hatch” midday. High water calls for streamers and nymphs, but as the summer progresses, dry dropper combinations are incredibly productive.
UPPER COLORADO RIVER
The newest addition to Colorado’s Gold Medal rivers is a section of the Upper Colorado, between Canyon Creek and Rock Creek. In addition to the Frayser River to Troublesome Creek section near Granby, the Upper Colorado is home to some of the best trout fishing on the West Slope of Colorado. Neighboring Rocky Mountain National Park, the Upper Colorado is a great destination to combine world-class trout fishing with a sightseeing or hiking trip. Set up “camp” in Granby, and take advantage of easy wading access from grassy banks.
Below the Reudi Reservoir dam to the confluence of the Roaring Fork River, the Fryingpan holds trophy brown and rainbow trout and a Gold Medal stream status. The deep pools along the 14 miles of stream provide ample cover for trout waiting to rocket from the bottom to take an emerging BWO. It's also worth venturing above the reservoir for its small pocket water fishing.
ROARING FORK RIVER
The Fryingpan joins its neighbor, the Roaring Fork River, in the town of Basalt. From here all the way to the Roaring Fork’s confluence with the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs (22 miles), is designated Gold Medal fishing — meaning, when combined with the Fryingpan, you get more than 30 miles of continuous world-class trout fishing. The Roaring Fork can be wade fished, but may be best fished from a guided float trip. From a boat, you’ll access more difficult-to-reach water, and can cast to big browns huddled up against the bank. Catch a late summer Green Drake hatch on the Roaring Fork and you’ll swear you’re in heaven.
The Rio Grande cascades out of the mountains of Rio Grande National Forest and into the town of South Fork. Here, the river picks up its Gold Medal status and for the next 17 miles, you’ll find aggressive populations of quality brown and rainbow trout. While the Gold Medal section draws most anglers, the headwaters in the National Forest are not the be missed. There you’ll find Rio Grande cutthroat (Oncorhynchus clarki virginalis) which are barriered from interbreeding with nonnative species downstream.
HIGH COUNTRY POCKET WATER
Every crack in Colorado’s high country seems to hold sparkling clear, cold water, teeming with small wild trout. If you’re in search of trophies, the high country is probably not your ideal destination. But if you’re looking to catch aggressive, wild cutthroat, grab a topo map, close your eyes and point — you’re bound to find a scenic, high-elevation stream, full of trout. Finding the best of these mountain streams requires either a lifetime of experience, or a good friend or guide who can show you where to find the highest populations of trout. If you crave adventure and solitude, and enjoy the unique experience of catching truly wild, native fish, then hit the trail and discover the boulder-strewn pocket water in high in the Rockies.