Baetis & Caddis – Spring Dry Flies

As I’ve blogged about before, spring is one of my favorite times of the year to fly fish in our valley for a number of reasons. While every angler is different, few would argue that throwing a dry fly at rising fish is one of the most fun things you can do with a fly rod in hand. That’s certainly true for me, and perhaps the biggest reason I enjoy the spring so much here in the Roaring Fork Valley. So let’s talk about the most prominent hatches we see in the Spring and how you can have a blast throwing dries to eager fish!

Blue Winged Olives (Baetis)

Starting sometime in March, we begin to see our first true hatches of the year in the form of blue winged olives (also known as baetis). As the water temps start to come up and the days get longer, BWOs start to come off in large numbers. They especially like overcast days where the clouds roll in, which is great because it’s those conditions where trout are most likely to feel comfortable rising to bugs on the surface.

A beautiful rainbow trout caught in March during a BWO hatch

What time of day do they typically start hatching?

As you hopefully understand, bugs don’t wear watches and follow specific schedules. That said, if you’re on the water in March & April and hoping to fish a BWO hatch, the most likely time for them to start coming off in big enough numbers to warrant large numbers of rising fish is somewhere around 12 or 1 PM. Some hatches only last an hour, while other times they’ll come off in waves until the late afternoon. Again, your best bet are overcast days that aren’t too windy. If you hit it right, a feeding frenzy can occur that makes the water look like it’s boiling as fish after fish after fish rise to the bugs.

What flies should I use?

I’ve always felt like our spring baetis were about a size 17. With that said, what I usually do is tie on one #16 baetis fly and then trail it with a #18 baetis fly. Everybody has their favorite patterns, and truthfully I’m not sure it matters much what bug you use in the spring. The reality is the fish haven’t seen much pressure in awhile and they’re really hungry. A proximate imitation with the right presentation will usually elicit a take.

 

Caddis

Oh boy…caddis, caddis, caddis. Perhaps one of the most prolific hatches we see all year in this area is what is known as the Mother’s Day Caddis hatch. If you haven’t put it together yet, it usually occurs some time around Mother’s Day. To put it bluntly, our rivers explode with millions of caddis larva hatching consistently during the mid-day hours, resulting in some truly epic hatches.

Generally speaking, you can expect these spring caddis to be around a size 16, and they typically have a darker body than some of our caddis hatches that occur later in the season.

What flies should I use?

I usually fish 2 dries at one time, much like with the olive set-up I mentioned above. My point fly is typically a dark bodied caddis imitation like a “never sink” caddis or a traditional deer hair caddis. Behind that, I usually tie on a ginger variant colored body that has a lower profile in the water and mimics a female caddis sitting on the water and laying her eggs.

 

A couple of notes…

Spring weather…to say that it’s unpredictable in the spring would be an understatement. As I type this, it’s April 17th and there are snow flurries outside with wind gusts above 50 MPH. Tomorrow the forecast is 60 degrees and sunny. There’s simple no telling what to expect if you’re planning a spring fly fishing trip in the Aspen area. I will warn you that it’s not uncommon for there to be quite a bit of wind during the spring which can make trying to throw small dry flies a challenge, to put it nicely.

Some times it’s not unusual for both olives and caddis hatches to occur at the same time. When this happens, fish tend to key in on one species of insect over another. You can either fish a double dry rig with one caddis and one baetis pattern, or you can try and decipher which insect they’re eating. One simple trick is to take note of how they are eating. When trout are eating caddis, the takes are typically splashier whereas when they are eating baetis they ‘sip’ the bugs off the surface. Caddis are much more active bugs in and on the water, so trout know they have to act quickly to eat them before they scurry off. Because of that, they’ll rise more quickly and create more of a splash on the surface. With olives, the takes can be tantalizingly slow and deliberate. So take a few minutes to see how the trout are eating and that will usually give you some indication of the best flies to throw at them.

My final note has more to do with a tip that you might find helpful when fishing an olive or caddis hatch in the spring (or any time for that matter you find yourself trying to catch “rising” fish). Often time inexperienced anglers see a fish ‘rise’ and assume that fish is rising to the surface and eating bugs off the top. In reality, what often happens is fish will be keyed in on emergent insects that are attempting to make it to the surface to dry out their wings so they can fly off and mate. If you notice a fish making a disturbance towards the surface, take a few minutes to watch the fish to see where it’s actually eating. If you see it’s mouth coming out of the water, that’s a clear indication it’s eating on the surface. But if upon closer inspection all you see is its back, that’s a sign it’s eating just below the surface. In these instances, you’ll want to fish a decent sized dry fly that floats well, but then below it (off the bend of the hook tie a 12-18″ section of tippet) fish an emerger pattern with a small amount of weight for whatever hatch is coming off. When doing this, you’re using the dry fly as your indicator, such that when it disappears under the water you know to set your hook as the fish has eaten the dropper fly that was floating just below the surface.

August…a great time for the high country!

Throughout summer waves of tourists visit the Roaring Fork Valley. Whether it’s to spend a week in Aspen escaping the heat back home or go camping on the beautiful public lands we’re blessed to have, there is no shortage of fun to be had here. When it comes to the fishing, the summer months see a massive influx of anglers out on the water. At the same time the fish begin seeing more and more pressure, they also are facing another challenge: hotter water temperatures. When our water temperatures rise it becomes harder for trout to remain strong. If water temps get too high, ethical anglers understand that it’s good time to pursue other hobbies, as the simple act of catching and fighting a fish can spell doom for that fish. That’s especially true in years where the winter snowpack is well below normal, meaning the summer months will result in lower water levels.

When it comes to fishing in August, we don’t see prolific hatches like we do in the spring or early summer. That means when it comes to throwing dry flies, it’s pretty much grass hoppers or bust. Given the lack of prolific hatches and the stress over-fishing can have on our major fisheries, I always take friends and guests up to the high country during August. Colorado has over 100,000 miles of trout streams within its border…that means if you look on a map and see a tiny blue line on it, chances are there’s a healthy trout population in that stream. For me personally, there is nothing I enjoy more than being miles from the nearest angler (or person for that matter) throwing big dry flies at eager trout.

What gear and flies should I take?

There isn’t a whole lot of strategy involved in fishing the high country. Unlike their brethren in our main fisheries that see artificial flies all day every day, fish in the high country see very little pressure and are not wary of hooks. In most instances, they’ll happily rise to whatever dry fly you choose to throw at them. No need to match the hatch when you’re up high, just choose whatever fly you like that floats well. For me, that’s a Royal Whulff pattern. While some people prefer stimulators and others like to throw terrestrial patterns, I personally think Royal Whulffs are perfectly designed to float high in the water and have a large enough profile that any fish will see it. That said, it would strongly recommend you take quite a few flies with you. It’s not uncommon to catch several dozen fish and so it’s quite easy for the flies to get soaked through and not remain buoyant. If you notice your fly having a hard time staying above the water, attempt to dry it and use some dry shake floatant, but at some point just take a couple of minutes to change out the fly.

 

(Above) native Greenback Cutthroat trout (Below) brook trout 

The water in the high country is typically crystal clear. In some cases I try to spot fish which is typically quite easy to do. In August they are usually feeding aggressively knowing that it’s time to feast for the long winter ahead. But instances where I can’t spot fish, I fish the water, meaning if it looks fishy it’s probably holding a fish or two.

In terms of rod and reel, it’s always a good idea to fish with a shorter rod (7-ish feet long) anywhere between a 0 weight and a 3 weight. That said, if you only have a 9′ 5 weight, that will work too! As for waders, leave them at home. If you can’t appreciate cold, clean snowmelt washing over your legs you probably oughta donate your fly fishing gear to the Salvation Army.

A couple of side notes…

While you should always be fishing with barbless hooks, that’s especially true with the smaller trout you’ll encounter in the high country. The last thing you want to do is bury a barb in a wild trout and rip its lip off removing the fly.

Also please note, if you decide to keep a couple of trout to take home to eat, please make sure it’s allowed in whatever area you are fishing. Generally speaking, brook trout are fair game but in Colorado all cutthroat trout must be returned to the water. If you don’t know the difference, err on the side of caution and simply return the fish. Our native cutthroat are struggling to maintain a foothold in our waterways, and should you stumble across some, rest assured a lot of effort has been put forth for you to enjoy that experience. Help do your part by practicing good catch and release methods.

Green Drakes in the Roaring Fork Valley

No fishing blog about the Roaring Fork Valley would be complete without discussing our most famous hatch: The Green Drakes. If you like catching fish on big dries, it doesn’t get a whole lot better than fishing the drake hatch. If you don’t like catching fish on big dries, you should go see a doctor.

What is a Green Drake?

A green drake is a large mayfly. It’s scientific name is Drunella grandis. Like other mayflies, it spends the majority of its life under water as a larva, and then emerges quickly to the surface allowing its wings to dry. It then takes flight, mates, then returns to the water as a ‘spent’ spinner where it dies. Below are some pictures I’ve taken of drakes to give you an idea of what they look like as well as hopefully give you an idea of their size.

 

When can I fish the green drake hatch?

Green drakes typically start showing up in the Roaring Fork Valley sometime around the start of July and slowly make their way up Valley and into the high elevations over the course of the next several weeks. It’s not unusual to find them in the high country into September if you’re willing to explore to find them. But for the most part, the prime time to try and experience the green drake hatch on the Roaring Fork River is early to mid-July, especially if you’d like to hit the hatch from a boat. Although you can float much of the Roaring Fork, the lower section lends itself to somewhat easier floating conditions. On the Frying Pan river, the drakes usually start appearing in larger numbers sometime around the 3rd week of July, again making their way up the Frying Pan over the following few weeks.

 

What time of the day or night is best?

On the Roaring Fork, the most predictable green drake hatch occurs during the last hour of daylight and then continues throughout the night and into the early morning hours. If you hear someone talk about the ‘lightning round’, they’re talking about that magical last 45 minutes to an hour of day light where seemingly every fish in the river is rising to the surface to eat. Because they’re mayflies, it’s also not uncommon to see drakes hatching during the day if there is significant cloud cover.

On the Frying Pan, you can typically find a more reliable day time drake hatch.

A look at Mt. Sopris during a lightning round float on the lower Roaring Fork.

 

What flies work best?

On the Roaring Fork, the drakes are typically larger and more green colored as compared to their cousins that hatch on the Frying Pan, which are a bit smaller and more blue-grey in color. That said, the most important thing is matching the size and shape of the bug. If your plan is to try and fish this hatch during the day, a true drake replica such as the Umpqua green drake pattern or an extended foam body drake works well.

If you plan on trying to fish the evening hatch, I tend to fish a pattern that I can see best. The truth is when the feeding frenzy begins, they’ll eat almost anything that looks like a meaty bug, so precisely imitating the bug isn’t as important as simply being able to see your fly floating and knowing when to set the hook. I usually fish an H&L variant or Royal Whulff pattern. Both float reliably and have large white wings I can see.

If you’re fishing the drake hatch on the Frying Pan, it’s a good idea to size down to #12 and again, fish a pattern that has a blueish-grey color.

 

Booking a green drake guided trip

All guide shops in the Valley would be happy to try and put you on the drake hatch. Obviously timing is everything, and despite the guide’s best efforts everything may not come together for consistent big dry fly action, but you have the option of wade fishing the hatch from shore or booking a float trip. If you choose the latter, the trip will conclude at night, ensuring you’re on the water during the las hour of daylight when drakes are more consistently coming off and the fish are rising to eat them on the surface. Fishing from a moving boat with dry flies when you can barely see isn’t the easiest thing in the world to do, so it’s not usually encouraged for beginner anglers.

 

Fly Fishing in the Spring in the Roaring Fork Valley

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.

 

The Weather

woost-bowThere’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.

 

The Water

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.

frying-pan-brown-trout

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.

 

The Fishing

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!

olive-spinner 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!!!

dry-fly-roaring-fork-riverFor 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!

 

Fly Selection

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!

golden-stoneflies

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.

pheasant-tail-nymphsBlue-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!

spring-fly-fishing-roaring-fork

Nymphing versus dry fly fishing on the Roaring Fork River

Many beginner anglers have a romantic notion of fly fishing that involves whipping your flies around above your head and delicately dropping a dry fly in front of a fish feeding on the top of the water. Whether you’ve watched A River Runs Through It or any other of the countless depictions of fly fishing in cinema, it’s easy to understand why. But the reality for most beginner anglers is that fly fishing takes on a slightly different form for a variety of reasons. I’ll talk through why that is and the basics of the most common type of fly fishing guides utilize with beginner clients on the Roaring Fork.

 

“Nymphing” versus dry fly fishing

matt-andrew-nymphingBefore I jump into the basics of nymph fishing, it probably makes sense to explain the difference between these two types of fly fishing and why each serve an important role in the sport. To do so, it’s important to understand the life cycle of most bugs within a river. Most bugs spend the overwhelming majority of their life under water, in what we commonly refer to as their larva and then pupa phase. In most instances, these bugs attach themselves to rocks, sticks and other debris under the water, where they anchor until it’s time for them to begin their pupa phase of life where they begin to ascend the water in order to reach the top. During this larva phase, however, the water current and other disturbances (like anglers walking through the river), cause the bugs to get loose and start tumbling down the river. Trout position themselves facing up river, constantly on a look out for these tiny bugs making their way down the river, moving as little as possible to gobble up these healthy snacks. I often try to take beginner anglers to places where you can actually watch this unfold. Many places on the Roaring Fork don’t allow for sight fishing, or the ability to actually see the fish you are casting to. But when wading in areas where fish are visible, I always encourage people to watch the fish so you can observe what they are doing. For me, it helps connect the hows and whys in a way that makes fishing both more productive and more fun.

So when we are talking about ‘nymph’ fishing, what we’re doing is emulating the sub-surface food sources that are present for trout all year long. The dry fly fishing you’re probably accustomed to is mimicking that next phase in a bug’s life, where it reaches the water’s surface and dries out its wings before completing its life cycle by procreating and then perishing.

 

Why is nymphing so prevalent on the Roaring Fork amongst guides?

There’s a couple of reasons that 90+% of guides have their clients nymphing instead of dry fly fishing (or streamer fishing). First and foremost is that it’s highly effective. One of the reasons the Roaring Fork River is such a popular fly fishing destination is the extremely healthy population of trout the river supports. That’s only possible because of the massive amount of food present in the river. So for our trout, they spend the majority of their time feeding sub-surface. So it make sense that you want to imitate the most common food source our trout are gorging on.

matt-midge-rainbow

But the second reason is that teaching someone to nymph is easier than teaching someone how to effectively dry fly fish. Nymphing allows you to break down the actual casting part of fly fishing into some very simple actions that minimize the complexity of getting your flies in front of fish, which when you boil everything down is the key challenge with fly fishing. Instead of wildly swinging line and flies above your head, where the chances for tangling your line increase with each cast and wind gust, nymphing allows you to keep your flies in the water and gently place the line in front of the fish. That’s not to say you won’t deal with some tangled lines and lost flies…you will. But by breaking things down into a couple of easy steps, a guide is much more likely to put a beginner angler on fish, allowing the client to enjoy a day of fishing on the Roaring Fork River.

 

So what does nymph fishing entail?

I’ll go into the basics of nymph fishing in another post, but for the purposes of at least giving you an idea of what to expect, here’s what your set-up for nymph fly fishing will look something like:

nymph-rig

(image courtesy of https://troutsflyfishing.com/info/blog/post/how-to-build-a-rocky-mountain-nymph-rig)

Looking at the diagram above, essentially you’ll have a bobber (but in fly fishing, we’re snobs so we call it an ‘indicator’), then a few feet of line, then you’ll place some split shot (tiny weight) on your line, then below that your first nymph fly, then run additional tippet (fly fishing line) to your next nymph fly.

The idea here is to make sure you have enough weight on your line such that the flies are able to quickly get down to where the fish are feeding (but not too much weight to where they are constantly getting stuck on the bottom), then give the fish a couple of different food sources to look at. Once you’ve made your cast, your flies will sink down below the surface of the water and your indicator will be drifting along the surface. Should your indicator go under water, you’ve either got a fish on one of your flies or you’re snagged on a rock or stick on the bottom of the river. You’ll know pretty quickly which is the case, as you’ll see the fish flash in the water as it realizes it’s got something sharp in its lip (at which point your heart rate will skyrocket and you’ll experience the adrenaline rush so many of us seek on the water!).

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.

fish-on-turp

fish-on-turp-1

(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!

roaring-fork-rainbow

(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.

fork-drift fork-drift-2

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.

fish-on-matt-fork

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.

roaring-fork-wade-fish-winter

matt-fork-drift

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

midge-larvae

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

Midge pupa (emergent phase)

chironomid-pupa-rise-form-ff

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

Stonefly larvae

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

Brown trout eggs

brown-trout-eggs

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

Other fish

brown-trout-eats-small-trout

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.
pt-midge-larvae

This pattern has a wire body, peacock dubbing and a black chrome bead head.

zebra-midge-black

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.

rs2-emerger-grey

The always deadly RS2 midge emerger pattern.

loop-wing-emerger-black

 

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!

fish-on-matt-zoom