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.

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(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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