Let’s cut right to the chase: spring fly fishing in the Roaring Fork Valley is awesome. In fact, for many local anglers it’s their favorite time of the year to be on the water. If you’re planning a spring ski trip to Aspen and are mulling over the idea of tacking on a day of fly fishing, hopefully you’ll enjoy this article!
What should I expect on a typical spring day?
Ask any experienced angler and they’ll tell you a very cliche, but very accurate, statement…every day on the water is different and you never know what to expect. So telling you what your spring fly fishing day is going to be like is impossible, but hopefully I can summarize my experiences to give you some expectations grounded in reality.
There’s a saying in Colorado: “If you don’t like the weather, just wait 10 minutes.” That’s especially true in the spring, when truly anything can happen. From 70 degree blue bird days to a serious snowstorm. And while it can get windy in the mountains anytime of the year, spring is typically our windiest season. So from a weather standpoint, it’s always a good idea to brace yourself mentally for anything and everything. Even within a given day, you can go from bright and sunny to cold and snow showers and back again to bright and sunny.
For the purposes of this blog post, let’s assume spring fly fishing starts April 1st. As I posted earlier, when you fly fish in the winter you don’t have to worry about the clarity of the water. The rivers are always running low and clear and fishable. But when you get into spring, the temperatures start to rise which means the snow in the high country begins to melt, sending more and more water into our river systems. Eventually (usually mid-late May), the “run off” gains so much traction that the Colorado, Roaring Fork, and Crystal Rivers blow out, meaning the water levels get too high and the amount of sediment in the water reduces the visibility to near zero. In other words, you just can’t fish. When that happens, you’re best bet is to hope the Frying Pan River’s flows are manageable.
A nice brown trout released from the bottom section of the Frying Pan River in crystal clear conditions.
When it comes to water clarity in the spring, it can be a gamble. If you’re planning a trip in April, you shouldn’t have anything to worry about. May gets tricky. A warm week, with daytime highs in the 70’s and nighttime lows above freezing can make things tricky. Usually if the middle and lower sections of the Roaring Fork, along with the Colorado River, are not fishable, guides will take you to the Upper Roaring Fork near Aspen or the Frying Pan River. But all it takes is a couple of days where the temperatures drop in order for the Fork to clear up and fish well.
There’s always a chance you show up in late May and everything is a mess. In that case, the only game in town is still water, meaning lakes and private ponds.
Now the fun part…the fishing! I absolutely love fly fishing in the spring because the fishing can be bonkers. I’ll do my best to give you an accurate rundown of the fishing you can expect should you decide to pull the trigger on a spring guided trip (or solo trip without a guide).
What makes spring fly fishing so great?
I’m glad you asked. I’m going to break down the various aspects and qualities of spring time fly fishing that can make it so much fun. Hopefully some combination of the following happens for you and makes your experience unforgettable!
The fish eat more consistently
Unlike in the winter, when the feeding can be spotty and you sometimes really have to work to get a fish in the net, the spring brings about warmer weather (meaning warmer water temps), more bugs, and happier fish. They’ve been hunkered down over the winter in conservation mode and when spring comes it’s like a switch is turned on. They begin to spread out throughout the water system and feed much more aggressively. The bottomline is they are hungry and eager to eat!
A beautiful Roaring Fork River cutbow (cutthroat and rainbow hybrid) caught on an olive spinner dry fly)
The summer crowds haven’t started to roll in
There’s definitely an uptick in activity on the water once spring arrives, but you still don’t see the same level of pressure on the water as you do in July and August. If you’re planning on floating or wading, you typically won’t see too many other anglers on the water.
The fish start feeding on top!!!
For me, there’s really nothing more satisfying than finding a fish consistently sipping bugs on top of the water and targeting that fish with a well presented dry fly. Cracking the code in terms of fly selection, getting the right presentation, then watching the fish rise to your dry fly and setting the hook after allowing it to swallow the hook…there’s just nothing better than that! It’s an incredibly visual moment and something that you just have to experience to understand.
When you’re talking about dry fly fishing in the spring, the bugs are typically smaller (anywhere from size #16 caddis to #22 blue winged olives…more on that shortly). That doesn’t lend itself to great dry fly fishing out of a boat, so most dry fly fishing will need to be done while wading the banks of the river.
Rainbow trout are in spawn mode
Rainbow trout spawn in the spring. And if you know anything about trout when they’re spawning, you know it’s a time when they get very aggressive and active. If you’re like me and you’ve spent all winter catching fish that can be…what’s the word…lethargic, hooking into a hot rainbow is a welcome event. Many times they’ll take to the air and give you a few solid runs that’ll have your reel screaming and your heart racing!
If you’re planning on hiring a guide, you don’t need to worry about this part. Their job is to be dialed in what the fish are eating and to put you on them. But if you’re going it alone, you need to make sure these are in your box:
Stoneflies – found in abundance throughout the Roaring Fork, Colorado and lower stretches of the Frying Pan, the stonefly is a constant food source for hungry trout. But they become particularly keyed in on them during the spring. Around April, many adolescent stoneflies shed their exoskeleton, and when they emerge from this molting process they are golden color. The trout can become locked into this color pattern during that time. When you get into May, using a Pat’s Rubberleg as your point fly is always a good idea. And don’t forget to let it swing at the end of your drift. They swim like crazy in the water and trout are triggered by this swimming motion!
A couple of golden stone flies tied on a scud hook
Chartreuse egg pattern – when eggs are present, fish are eating them. They’re high in protein and easy to see. A small yellow egg is the best imitation of a rainbow trout’s eggs.
Blue-winged olives – this baetis (or mayfly) pattern is a workhorse on spring days, especially when it’s cloudy and overcast. That’s when they’re triggered to emerge from their larva phase and swim to the surface to become adults and mate. If you’re nymph fishing in the afternoon (meaning using an indicator and fishing with wet flies below the surface) and find yourself on the Roaring Fork river, around a size #18 emerger pattern is a great bet. If it’s cloudy, make sure it has some flash like a bead head, sparkle wings or flash tail. You can’t go wrong with a tried and true pheasant tail pattern, or a CDC loop wing emerger. I find the loop wing creates a nice bubble effect under the water and that the natural CDC materials breathe and create a pulse under the water that trigger trout.
If you’re throwing mayfly dries, you’ll need to play around with various sizes, colors and patterns to figure out what they’ll eat. I carry a box full of everything, because let’s be honest…there’s nothing worse than seeing fish rise and realizing you don’t have a pattern that accurately imitates what they’re feeding on. Check a local fly shop and get the best advice on dry fly selection!
Caddis – If you’ve never experienced a swarming caddis hatch, keep fishing until you hit one. As an old-timer told me once ‘Ray Charles can catch fish during a caddis hatch.’ Caddis are slightly bigger and bulkier than our spring mayflies, and are usually best imitated using around a size #16 black bodied pattern. If you’re nymphing, go with a prince nymph or a western coachman pattern, and don’t forget to let the swing at the end of your drift. Like the stoneflies above, they swim aggressively to the surface and trout are triggered by this movement. For adult dry flies, I use a never sink black foam bodied caddis. Oh and word of caution…should you find yourself fishing a section of river just after the caddis hatch has made its way through, you’re in for a long, frustrating day. Trout will gorge themselves on these caddis to the point they can’t physically eat anymore. If you’re going out with a guide, they’ll know where the hatch is what sections to avoid.
So that’s it, I hope you find this spring fly fishing guide helpful and that you enjoy your day(s) on the water! To end, here’s a cool shot my wife took while I was fishing the other day. Spring bloom, honeybees, and a big stonefly skeleton…pretty much sums up this time of year!