Can I fly fish during the winter in Aspen?

People from other parts of the country ask that question often so I thought I would try to help answer it. The short answer is yes, absolutely! While many of the trout streams elsewhere in the US are frozen over (or off limits due to closure), the rivers around Aspen are (for the most part) flowing freely and full of rainbow, brown, cutthroat and brook trout. But winter fly fishing presents unique challenges (as well as beautiful scenery and solitude), so I’ll try to offer an honest viewpoint so that you can decide if you want to give it a try.

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(Angler John Turpin feeds a nice Roaring Fork rainbow on a bead head midge emerger pattern)

Weather can be unpredictable

That’s certainly the case 365 days a year, but obviously winter weather can be extreme in Colorado. If a cold front blows through, it can get really windy and bitterly cold quickly. I’ve seen a number of guide trips call it quits pretty quickly when Old Man Winter gets ticked off. It’s tough to catch fish when you can’t get your flies in the water because of the wind and you can’t do much of anything else because your fingers are frozen solid.

With that said, the winters in the Roaring Fork Valley aren’t that cold compared with other popular areas in Colorado. There are many, many days in the winter where the weather is calm and in the 40’s (and sometimes higher) and the fishing can be quite excellent. The good news for you is that fly shops will be eager to offer a last minute guide trip if there’s a day during your trip where the weather looks nice.

One note I will make here is that during particularly cold spells, many of our rivers will form ice shelves. Besides the obvious safety concerns of standing on a piece of ice hovering over a river, little sections of these shelves will melt off as things warm up during the day. It usually occurs in the late morning, but can vary depending on the weather. As these shelves are melting, the river becomes a highway for floating ice, making it nearly impossible to cast your flies and get them down into the water where the fish are feeding. The flies themselves will either land on a mini-iceberg or your float line will sit on top of them. Luckily this phenomenon only occurs for about an hour or so, but just be aware of it!

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(Winter is a great time to catch colorful rainbow trout on the Roaring Fork River as they are beginning to take on their spawning colors in preparation for the spring.)

Feeding activity slows down

Trout eat year-round. They are opportunistic and will eat when they can consume a lot of calories without expending too much energy. But in the winter, when the water temperatures drop and the fishes’ metabolism decrease, fish don’t expend as much energy nor eat as much food as they do in the summer months when the temperatures are warmer and more food sources are present. What this means for someone fly fishing in the winter is that it’s possible you find yourself in search of fish that aren’t actively feeding. That doesn’t mean you can’t catch fish, but it certainly makes things challenging. But I’ve had days in the winter when I happened to hit a feeding frenzy, easily catching 12-15 fish out of the same hole with my friend netting just as many right next to me. As you’ll hear any angler say, you just never know what you’re going to see on any given day.

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Fish tend to ‘hole up’

In the summer when the water levels are higher the fish tend to spread out throughout the river, such that there is usually a fish or 2 in every spot that looks like it should be holding fish. But in the winter, water levels drop on the Colorado River and Roaring Fork River while flows are also low on the Frying Pan River. Fish will usually seek shelter in deeper pools that are holding a decent amount of water. What that means for the winter angler is that you usually need to be covering a lot of water and working harder to find the fish. Never stay in the same place long and commit yourself to working a section and then moving on to find other water that looks like it might be holding fish.

 

Water clarity is consistent

Summer rain can wreak havoc on the rivers in the Roaring Fork Valley. But in the winter, you can usually count on great water clarity. While the lower Roaring Fork River (typically considered the section below the confluence with the Crystal River) doesn’t allow for much sight fishing, the Upper Fork (typically considered anything above Basalt) offers great sight fishing during the winter. I love finding fish, observing them and attempting to stalk them and feed them. It’s an incredibly visual experience and is extremely rewarding when you’re successful.  And in the winter, being able to see the fish is a huge advantage because you can determine if they are actively feeding.

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Food sources are limited

I’ve discussed food sources and fly patterns that work well in the winter, but the important thing for you to understand is that you don’t need a dozen different patterns to find success in the winter. If they’re feeding, a few simple patterns will work. In the summer, the fish have a lot of different sources of food coming down the river and sometimes key in on one particular food source. That means you may have to play around with a number of different flies before you discover the right patterns. In the winter, things are much simpler. The name of the game is mostly midges, although streamer fishing can also be successful on certain days.

streamer-pan

(On the right day, winter streamer fishing can be very productive. Duller colors like white, black and olive seem to work best.)

Solitude and beauty abound

I love fly fishing in the winter. While the bugs are smaller and there isn’t much in the way of dry fly fishing (unless you’re fishing at the top of the Frying Pan), standing in a beautiful river with snow covered boulders and banks is a jaw-dropping scene. It’s unbelievably serene and something I wish everyone could experience. And it’s no secret our rivers are heavily fished during the summer season. The amount of pressure our fish see is frankly crazy. But if you’re willing to roll the dice in the winter, chances are you’ll have the river mostly to yourself. I love that type of solitude and you can find it in abundance during the winter.

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What flies should I use when fishing in the winter on the Roaring Fork River?

Go into any fly shop in the Roaring Fork Valley and ask what flies you should use this winter, and chances are you’re going to discover a couple of flies that everyone will recommend and then see some variance with the remainder. While you’re at those shops, take a look at the sheer number of flies they sell. Why do they have that many? Well, why does a grocery store have 15 different types of orange juice? I guess the theory is the more options there are the more products they can sell, although recent studies seem to debunk that theory. When it comes to fly fishing, every angler is going to have their go-to patterns and those won’t always be the same. Some guides swear by certain patterns that others never use. What that means to me is lots of different flies work. And when it comes to winter fishing, there are much fewer sources of food in the river so you really don’t need to have a ton of different patterns in your box to find success during these shorter days. You just need to understand what the fish are feeding on during the winter and match your flies to those food sources.

 

What food is present in the Roaring Fork River in the winter?

Mostly midges, stoneflies, brown trout eggs and other aquatic animals like smaller trout, baitfish, etc. Stoneflies’ lifecycle under the water is around 2 years, so no matter what time of year it is, you can rest assured there are stoneflies in the water, so fishing a Pat’s rubber leg or hare’s ear as your point fly is always a good idea. Midges are the other common insect found in the Roaring Fork during the winter. I’ve heard that midges represent roughly 50% of a trout’s annual caloric intake, so it’s safe to say that they understand the value of this small insect to their diet. Brown trout spawn in the fall and their eggs can be found in the river throughout much of the winter. And lastly, other fish. Many beginning anglers think of trout as just eating small insects. The reality is that they’ll eat anything. They are truly opportunistic animals, and if they can nab another small trout, or even a mouse or baby bird that has fallen into the river they’ll absolutely take advantage of that massive meal (can you imagine how many midges a trout would have to sip to equal the calories of one small fish?).

 

Midge larvae

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(photo credit: http://www.explorenature.org/latest-blog/testing-the-waters/midge-larvae/)

Midge pupa (emergent phase)

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(photo credit: https://swittersb.wordpress.com/tag/chironomid/)

Stonefly larvae

(photo credit: http://merseybasin.org/projects/kick-sampling/)

Brown trout eggs

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(photo credit: https://theweekendanglersguidetogoodfishing.wordpress.com/2011/12/28/late-fallearly-winter-tail-water-trout/)

Other fish

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What fly patterns are the most productive in the winter?

 

The name of the game when it comes to winter fly fishing on the Roaring Fork is nymphing. There might be a rising fish or 2 in certain spots every once in a while, but in most cases they’ve moved to deeper water and are holding steady through the winter, expending as little energy as possible and eating when food is present. So if your goal is to have a productive winter day on the water, bring your nymph rig and a few of these flies.

For the most part, I tie my own flies. That allows me to get a little more creative (or less creative) and just tie stuff that I’ve found works. So you may not necessarily find all of these patterns in a local fly shop. But you can at least get a sense for the type of fly that produces when fishing in the winter. At that point, you can explore and figure out what works for you. Fly fishing should never fit into a neat box, and that’s certainly the case when it comes to fly selection. Explore, try new things, and find what works for you!

 

Stonefly nymph pattern

As I said above, I tend to use a Pat’s Rubber Leg pattern when nymph fishing a stonefly pattern.

stonefly-nymph

 

Midge larvae patterns

When it comes to midge larvae patterns, the sky is the limit in terms of how these take shape. With or without a bead head, with dubbing versus peacock herl when forming a thorax, and even using wiring versus rubber tubing for the body. In my box, I try to have a few different types and colors. The key her isn’t so much the color as the size and proportions of the flies. If you’re planning on using a 2 or 3 fly nymph rig, make sure your larvae pattern is your bottom fly so that it’s more likely to be bouncing along the river bottom just like a real larvae would do if the current has dislodged it from its home.

red-tub-midge

The pattern above has a black thread head and red rubber tubing for a body. You might also find this pattern with a green tubing body.
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This pattern has a wire body, peacock dubbing and a black chrome bead head.

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This is a winter classic known as a zebra midge. It typically comes in either red or black.

 

Midge emerger patterns

I’ll discuss the life cycle of bugs in a later post, but for this article its’ just important to know that a larvae sheds its casing and begins to float to the surface where it can sit on the surface, dry its wings and then mate. It is this floating or emerging phase that we imitate when we cast emerger patterns to trout. If you see a trout feeding in the middle column of the water (meaning not at the surface and not on the bottom), that typically means it’s eating these emerging bugs. Here are some of my go-to midge emerger patterns for the Roaring Fork River. When it’s bright and sunny, the rule of thumb is use duller and less shiny flies. And when it’s overcast, it’s a good idea to add some bling (head head, flash back/tail, etc,) to your rig so it catches the fishes’ eyes.

grey-midge-emerger

As simple as it gets. A little wire on the body and small antron wings.

loop-wing-flashtail-emerger

I like loopwing emerger patterns because they create a small bubble that trigger the fish when floating through the water. The fly above is a spin-off of the classic RS2 pattern, but with a bead head, the looped wings and flash tail instead of micro fibets. It is a stoned-cold killer on a cloudy day in the winter!

forward-wing-midge-emerger

I tie this pattern with a forward wing and a few strands of antron on the tail, along with a wire body.

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The always deadly RS2 midge emerger pattern.

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As you can see from these patterns, they have small wings and in most cases very faint tails of varying materials/sizes. I typically throw black, olive or grey emerger patterns of sizes 16-20. If there is one fly you absolutely must have when you head out to fly fish on the Roaring Fork in the winter, make sure it’s an RS2.

I almost always nymph fish with 3 flies, usually with the bigger flies on top and then smaller flies as I go down my rig. So you may want to start with stonefly, then tie on a midge emerger and then finally a midge larvae as your bottom fly. It may be the case the fish are keying on the emergers, at which point I wouldn’t be afraid to put 3 different emergers on my line. I usually just try to vary up the color and pattern slightly to see what gets them eating, but the truth is if they are feeding and you present the right pattern to them, they will eat it.

If you find yourself headed to the Roaring Fork Valley this winter to ski, don’t be afraid to bring your rod and reel. Our Valley is one of the premier year-round fishing destinations as it typically doesn’t get cold enough for a rivers to freeze over and there’s always plenty of hungry trout on the prowl!

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