Winter on the River: Fly Fishing During Colorado’s Colder Months

By JOSIE MCCAULEY

Thirty-two degrees Fahrenheit: the typical temperature of the tail-waters of Olympus Dam in Estes Park, Colo. in March. Date-wise, March barely qualifies for winter. But as inhabitants of Colorado know, winter sticks around a lot longer in the mountains. 

The cold water hasn’t deterred the half-dozen anglers vying for a spot on the river on a sunny Friday afternoon, however. The spot is an accessible stretch of the river, just a minute off of Highway 34 and close to downtown Estes Park. The sun is out, likely contributing to the slight crowd, but the high temperature for the day remains at just 27 degrees. 

Still, there are significantly fewer people on the river than there might be in June or July. In the summer, it’s not unusual for fly fishers to dot the river on a drive up the Big Thompson Canyon. 

The smaller crowds during winter seasons are a draw for some fly fishers. “You can do a lot more [with fewer people on the river],” said Christian Roberts ’22, who tried fly fishing for the first time this winter. “There’s a weird bond between people on the river. It’s nice. It’s chill.” He also found fly fishing surprisingly calming: “It’s like a type of meditation. It’s really relaxing.” 

With smaller crowds, winter fly fishing provides more leeway for beginner fly fishers, allowing them to cover more river and to perfect their technique, even though the conditions might not be the most alluring. 

“[The river was] crazy icy … almost a mini glacier,” said Roberts. In winter, fly fishers must also contend with the snow, ice, and freezing temperatures. “Conditions aren’t exactly what you’d call ideal, but that’s part of the fun of it,” says Rhett Turner ’22, a Colorado College first-year and avid fly fisherman. “It’s very challenging. It’s much more technical in the winter.”

Up on the Taylor River, below Taylor Park Reservoir in Gunnison County, Turner reaped a full reward from braving the winter conditions. He caught a 23-inch Rainbow, a large fish in fly fishing by nearly any measure.

Photo Courtesy of Josie McCauley

Turner has amassed knowledge on the best winter fly fishing methods through personal experience, by reading river-by-river guides to fly fishing in Colorado, and through conversations with fly fishermen that he meets on the river. 

Turner offers his best tips for winter fly fishing below:

1) Fish the tail-water — this is where water will likely be flowing and not frozen over.

2) Use fine tippet (around 6x).

3) Bring a variety of midges. Turner recommends the Zebra Midge, Top Secret Midge, pheasant tail, and grey RS2s — size 18–22.

4) Use a small strike indicator, as the fish will likely be spooky …

5) Sight cast — spot a fish and then cast just above it.

6) Use slip shot  attached to the line for added weight.

7) Try a tandem rig (two or three flies), which helps lead the fish.

8) Check the weather before you go. You don’t want to be stuck in blizzard conditions!

9) Do simple casts, especially if you are using a tandem rig. Keep the line in the water as much as possible. 

Clearly, winter conditions aren’t enough to keep fly fishers off the river. If you haven’t given winter fly fishing a try, it might be worth it. Fly rods, waders, boots, and vests are all available for rent at Ahlberg Gear House on campus with both daily and weekly rates. The CC Fly Fishing Club and local fly shops, like Angler’s Covey and Tumbling Trout, are also great resources. 

Fly fishing in the winter, despite the challenges it presents, can be just as rewarding as fly fishing in the summer. Freezing conditions may very well be worth it — just don’t forget your wool socks!

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