Some of the best trout fishing in Colorado can be found just outside the door or a short drive from downtown Denver. Get ready for your exhilarating fly-fishing day trip by checking out these tips and places to fish.
4. DO-IT-YOURSELF FISHING AND GUIDED TRIPS
DIY: Fishing on your own is a great way to experience Colorado's rivers and lakes. Colorado Parks & Wildlife has an excellent Colorado Fishing Atlas website for you to research access on public lands, streamflow gages and catchable species. Try to check out one of the many local fly shops to get up-to-date information and fly patterns that are effective for the specific rivers you are visiting. You can walk, use bike- or ride-sharing services, or take light rail to interesting fly-fishing spots in Denver. A rental car can take you to accessible streams in 20 minutes.
There is a tremendous sense of accomplishment when you put all of the pieces of the puzzle together and the result is a beautiful Colorado fish hammering a fly that you presented just right.
GUIDED TRIPS: If you want to learn from a local about Colorado fly-fishing or don't have the time to research and plan, the other option is to hire a guide. This is probably the most efficient way to fish on your first trip to Colorado or if you are new to fly-fishing. Guides are experienced and specialize in the water they fish. They offer fishing on both public sections of water as well as private areas such as the world-famous ranches along the North Fork of the South Platte only an hour away.
Make sure to talk to your guide ahead of time to make sure they understand your expectations, what equipment you have and what equipment you will need to borrow or rent. Also, be very upfront about your level of experience. If you haven’t fished before, don't be bashful about it. Most guides offer both half and full days. If you are visiting Denver, there are great options — both guided and unguided — downtown or a short distance away.
The Flyfisher (Denver) — offers private trips, classes and fishing reports with access to a range of private waters
5280 Angler (Arvada) — offers walk and wade tours close to Denver
Colorado Wilderness Rides & Guides (Boulder) — offers world-class fly-fishing and float trips
Front Range Anglers Fly Shop (Boulder) — offers the top-notch fly-fishing products and advice as well as guide services
Lawson Adventure Park (Lawson) — offers guided fly-fishing on Clear Creek, plus a zillion other exciting outdoor activities from whitewater rafting to ziplining
5. FISHING LICENSE
You must purchase a fishing license for single or multiple days and, once a year, a habitat stamp. You can purchase your license online and carry the receipt on your smartphone as proof. Fishing is permitted the entire year but certain streams can be iced over in winter or closed for periods to protect the fish during exceptionally hot days. The Colorado Parks & Wildlife site or local fly shops can confirm the status of your selected fishing destination. Fly-fishing anglers in Colorado love their fish and will be impressed if you release your catch as gently as they do.
1. Denver South Platte (DSP)
The 26-mile urban portion called the Denver South Platte (DSP) from Chatfield Reservoir to 120th Avenue has and continues to undergo significant habitat, water quality and structural improvements. This portion of the river transports sediment from the Rocky Mountains toward the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. Although it appears to be cloudy most of the time, the trout, walleye, bass, carp, catfish and 13 other species of fish don’t seem to mind. Fish counts in some sections are in the 750 fish/mile range.
Recent private trout stockings and temperature logging by Denver Trout Unlimited have proven that these fish are thriving in the improved Denver South Platte. About 90 percent of the 26 miles is accessible from the South Platte River trail that follows this stretch and connects with other municipal public trails. Your access options from your hotel are walking, bike- and car-sharing services, rental cars, or light rail. Don’t be surprised to see other anglers in waders on our light-rail system. Numerous public parks along the river provide easy access to the river. You will join other fly-fishing anglers on display in downtown Denver as you attempt a DSP SLAM of a carp, trout, and bass all in the same day.
You can easily spot good feeding areas from the downtown bridges but DO NOT fish from these bridges because of the risk of clothes-lining bikers and walkers. You’ll find access from the bank with waders, clambering over rocks with a wading staff or free wading. If you fish in the crowded confluence park or other areas with many pedestrians and swimming dogs, use a roll cast, steeple cast or bow-and-arrow cast. A couple of overhead false casts is a recipe for a bad day. People and dogs do not count for the DSP SLAM.
Your 5-weight rod and 4x tippet are fine for all of these species, but if you do manage to connect with a carp get ready for the ride of your life. They will scream your reel and take you into your backing. Just as on any urban river in the world, practice catch and release, help improve the river with a quick trash pickup and wash up after your trip.
The DSP is listed as one of the top 100 places to fly-fish before you die, particularly for the monster carp. These fish are as difficult to catch and land on a fly as bonefish. In fact, local anglers with 8-weight rods practice their skills here before winter trips to the saltwater flats. The fall Denver Carp Slam Pro/AM fly fishing tournament is world-famous and raises funds benefiting Denver South Platte restoration and educational programs. You can find the beats they fish on carpslam.org.
2. Clear Creek
About 66 miles in length, Clear Creek is a tributary of the South Platte River and can be reached from Denver in less than 20 minutes. Clear Creek begins at the continental divide near Loveland Pass and the Eisenhower Tunnel on Interstate 70 in western Clear Creek County.
It descends eastward through Clear Creek Canyon past the towns of Silver Plume, Georgetown, Idaho Springs and Golden – all of which have abundant public access that is fairly well marked. Within the canyon that it shares with I-70, it receives numerous smaller tributary creeks that descend from the rugged mountains on either side. These tributary creeks like the West Fork and South Clear Creek all hold trout and get little pressure from anglers or guide operations. South Clear creek supports many wild brook trout. Wild brown trout predominate in canyon between Idaho Springs and Golden and have been maintaining a density of 1,100 fish per mile. You may also connect with rainbows, cutthroats, and cuttbows. Fishing upstream of Golden just 25 minutes from Denver Union Station, can be a great close fly-fishing fix if you are short on time while visiting The Mile High City.
3. Bear Creek
Bear Creek flows through Bear Creek Canyon south of I-70 from Evergreen Lake to Morrison. There are well-marked turn-off spots and public parks along the way. The parks are easy to fish either by wet wading or with waders. The pull-off spots in the canyon, like Clear Creek Canyon, may involve clambering over large boulders down a steep bank. Be careful and use your wading staff or craft one from a dead branch. The fish are smaller but more numerous at about 2,400 per mile. It ices over in the winter. Check with Blue Quill Angler fly shop in Evergreen.
4. Upper South Platte River
The Upper South Platte River starts high in the mountains surrounding South Park as numerous creeks and springs drain eastward. The river cuts through Eleven Mile, Cheesman and Waterton canyons before it enters Denver.
The best quality trout water can be found in the tailwaters below Spinney (Dream Stream or Charlie Meyers State Wildlife Area), Eleven Mile and Cheesman reservoirs. The fish in these sections are as smart as they come. One of the closest sections of the river to fish that is easily accessible by car is the small town of Deckers located less than 60 miles from downtown Denver. There is plenty of publicly accessible riverbank here as well as camping and picnicking areas. The last fish survey by CPW measured more than 3,000 fish per mile (62 percent browns) in the 8 miles of river from Deckers to the confluence with the North Fork of the South Platte.
Deckers can be crowded (“combat fishing”) on weekends. Travel downstream to find a nice secluded area with just as many fish. Be careful, there are some private property in-holdings. Cheesman Canyon is a challenging hike to a quiet gorgeous canyon with more than 3,000 very difficult to catch fish per mile. Bald eagles patrol your every move and cougars have been spotted. Fish bigger than 14 inches were counted at 248/mile in the 2016 survey.
5. Blue River
The Blue River runs north from the dam at Dillon Reservoir near Silverthorne to its confluence with the Colorado River near Kremmling. When you visit the Blue you are in "fourteener country." Colorado has 54 peaks that soar to 14,000 feet and above. Quandary Peak, 14,265 feet, is the highest point in Colorado's Tenmile Range, where the headwaters of the Blue River begin.
The Gold Metal water section runs from the dam in Silverthorne to the town of Kremmling. The river acts like a typical tailwater through Silverthorne and more like a freestone river below town. In town, the fish count of browns and rainbows is about 1,400 per mile. Large brood trout from the Crystal River Hatchery are retired to this section each year.
As you drive from the Dillon Dam toward Green Mountain Reservoir, the fish density decreases but the scenic beauty of the river with its mountain backdrop increases. There are numerous turnouts and fishing access points along the road. Camping and picnicking areas are also available. Just below Green Mountain Reservoir, access down to the river is possible but very difficult (and impossible in the winter). As the Blue flows out of the Arapaho and Roosevelt national forests, public access is lost for the 10 miles to the confluence with the Colorado River. From Denver, the Blue River can be reached in the town of Silverthorne, 66 miles west of Denver on I-70.
6. Colorado River
The Colorado River is an amazing place to experience all the beauty that Colorado has to offer – including great opportunities to target big brown trout in the fall. The river starts high in Rocky Mountain National Park and is Colorado's largest watershed drainage. From deep canyons to panoramic meadows and majestic peaks, the Colorado River is a great river to explore.
The Upper Colorado River traverses from Windy Gap Reservoir, just west of the town of Granby, to the confluence of the Blue River near Kremmling. This section is Gold Metal water and closely follows Highway 40, making it a fairly easy road trip. Major public access points include Hot Sulphur Springs, Buyers Canyon, Parshall (with access to the Williams Fork) and Kremmling (Pumphouse Campground). The rainbow above migrated out of inaccessible Gore Canyon. Your mileage may differ.
Two things to know about Colorado Trout.
Cutthroat trout are recognized as one of the most beautiful trout species. Anglers from all over the world come to Colorado just to catch a cutthroat trout.
They evolved from the Pacific Rim rainbow trout. Our subspecies of cutthroats were landlocked in the Rockies in ancient times. The greenback cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarkii stomias) is the Colorado state fish native to the South Platte River watershed. It was thought to be extinct in 1937 until a small population was found near Colorado Springs. In 2012, DNA comparisons with museum specimens confirmed that they are the same subspecies of cutthroat trout collected following Lewis and Clark expedition. Their reestablishment is slow and painstaking because they easily cross with both rainbows (yielding cuttbows) and the other Colorado cutthroat subspecies: Colorado River cutthroat and Rio Grande cutthroat.
Check under the jaw to see if there is a distinctive red or orange slash indicating a cutthroat descendent. Catching a cutthroat in Colorado could be the peak of your fly-fishing career. It will not be a greenback cutthroat since they are just being reestablished in protected waters, but you’ll be able to take a photo showing that it is, in fact, a cutthroat.
Although an occasional cutthroat or cuttbow can be found in all of the rivers and creeks above, they are most easily found in the high alpine lakes of Rocky Mountain National Park.
If you are a serious hiker, a two-hour drive from Denver Union Station will take you through Estes Park to the Fern Lake trailhead. Take the 3.6-mile trail to Fern Lake or the longer 4.1-mile trail that branches off to Spruce Lake. Both are a 1,500 feet elevation gain to 9,555 feet over a moderate to difficult trail, but the cutthroats are plentiful and easy to catch and release. With careful planning, the locals do this in a one-day out-and-back trip. This trip is only possible when the ice has melted over the alpine lakes.
An easier trip to RMNP for cutthroats is to the Wild Basin trailhead. This 90-minute drive from Denver Union Station through Allenspark puts you on North Saint Vrain Creek and in fly-fishing author John Gierach’s stomping grounds. You can start fly-fishing from the trailhead parking lot. The fishing is technical along the overgrown banks of this wild 8,500-foot stream but bow-and-arrow casts or steeple casts will put a Parachute Adams in front of a brown, brook or cutthroat. This is a popular hiking spot for visitors from all over the world but does not get a lot of traffic from fly-fishing anglers and little if any from guided operations. Beware that the parking lots fill up early in the day with hikers.
All the fly shops and guide operations can take you to cutthroat waters if you let them know in advance. You won’t catch big fish because life is tough and food is slim at the elevations favored by cutthroats, but you will catch the most beautiful of Colorado trout.
The brown trout (Salmo trutta) are an anadromous fish introduced from Germany that now naturally reproduce in rivers across the state of Colorado. Being an anadromous fish, browns have an instinct to ascend into rivers from the sea to spawn. In landlocked states, this drive still exists and browns typically begin a migration from lakes or lower sections of a river to upper sections when the days begin to get shorter.
This biological switch is triggered during the beginning of the fall months – the shortening daylight hours and decreasing water temperature are a signal to brown trout. In addition to reproduction urges that drive their runs into the upper reaches of waterways, they also bulk up for the coming winter months. This means browns will often charge big dry flies, streamers and the occasional mouse pattern.
When the browns begin to move in Colorado they get aggressive; it is one of the most beautiful and stimulating seasons to explore the different river systems that our state has to offer. You can fly-fish and target browns on walk/wade trips or float trips via raft or hard boat.
Once the trout form redds and spawn, Colorado anglers do not target the spawning fish but fish below the redds with egg imitations for marauding rainbows in the fall and browns in the spring looking for an easy meal of washed-down eggs. Catching a spawning brown or a spawning rainbow will NOT go down well with local Colorado anglers. There are a number of Facebook groups and Instagram feeds focused on Colorado fly-fishing and Colorado tenkara fishing.
The fish of Colorado look forward to meeting you.
Special thanks to John Davenport for helping update this page and for contributing information on where to fish and trout species.