A Guide to Fly Fishing Through Colorado

A man fishing on a lake at the base of a mountain.

Compared to most people I know, I came to fishing later in life. While my family loved being outdoors, none of them had any interest in fishing. Then randomly one summer, my mom signed me up for a week-long fly fishing class. I had a great time but once I was back in school it became just another summer memory. 

Ten years later, I moved from Maryland to Colorado to go to the University of Denver, mostly for its close access to the mountains so I could ski as much as possible. Spending summers in Colorado, I struggled to find an outdoor activity I really connected with. I was used to spending summers sailing along the Jersey shore, surfing and lifeguarding on the beach. Being on the water always meant a lot to me. So one day, when a few buddies of me invited me to go fishing with them, I tagged along. 

We had an amazing day catching some very large trout, and with a few pointers, I landed one of my own—my first fish ever. Even better, standing in the river surrounded by beautiful scenery in a gorgeous mountain canyon, I felt the same kind of inner peace I got from being on the ocean. My new interest turned into an obsession, and then my obsession turned into an addiction. I find myself spending as much time as I can on the water, chasing an endless stream of fish. 

Colorado has almost limitless angling possibilities. I’ve traveled to Wyoming, Montana, and New Mexico to fish, but there is so much great water in Colorado that I don’t see any reason to leave. From native cutthroat trout in high alpine lakes, to largemouth bass on the plains, there isn't much Colorado can’t provide when it comes to freshwater fishing.

These are my favorite places in Colorado to fish:

1. Eleven Mile Canyon, South Platte River

Water weaving through the rocks of the Eleven Mile Canyon as part of South Platte River.

One of Colorado’s most famous rivers for trout fishing is the South Platte. With many different sections of rivers and areas of still water, you could spend a lifetime exploring all its nooks and crannies; but, my absolute favorite spot to fish along the South Platte River is Eleven Mile Canyon. 

The river winds and twists through spectacular scenery here, working its way from Eleven Mile Reservoir toward Lake George in no particular hurry, with currents on average between 150 and 250 cubic feet per second. Oversized granite boulders frame waterfalls that dot the landscape, and the sights and sounds of wildlife are all around. More than 3,000 fish per mile populate the river, comprising rainbow trout and hybrid cutthroat-rainbow trout called cutbows, with the occasional brown trout. Although this stretch of river is catch and release only, it offers incredible dry fly fishing, with the average fish between 12 and 17 inches long. 

Summer in the canyon has produced some of the most abundant dry fly hatches I’ve ever seen. Once you’ve had your fill on the river, head up to Eleven Mile Reservoir above the dam to try your hand at the trophy trout that inhabit the deeper waters.

2. The Roaring Fork River

Water winding among tall pine trees to form the Roaring Fork River.

The Roaring Fork River may be my favorite river in Colorado. With headwaters originating at the top of Independence Pass, south of Aspen, it spans a seventy mile stretch through Roaring Fork Valley, emptying into the Colorado River at Glenwood Springs. Its length means there are an array of water types, perfect for the angler looking to plumb both tight pocket water and stretches of float fishing—you’ll never suffer from a lack of options. Upstream, rainbow trout and wild brookies proliferate. Moving downstream, rainbow trout, brown trout and mountain whitefish grow to respectable sizes.

The Roaring Fork Valley is one of the best places in the state for outdoor recreation. Any non-fishing friends who tag along on your visit will find plenty of activities to choose from to stay busy, from hiking, biking and 4WD trails to shopping and taking a leisurely soak in hot springs. Be sure to make a stop in sleepy downtown Basalt, where you can visit Taylor Creek Fly Shop for all your angling needs, and grab a bite to eat at the Tipsy Trout next door. 

3. Colorado River

An overhead shot of rock canyons formed by the Colorado River that cuts between them.

Scientists debate whether the Colorado River is closer to 6 million or 70 million years old, but regardless of the exact moment it sprang to life, it’s one of the oldest rivers in the world. Without the Colorado River there would be no Grand Canyon. Its waters cross five states only to meet the sea at the Gulf of California in Mexico, so it comes as no surprise that such an iconic river is home to what feels like a limitless supply of fish. 

My favorite stretch of water begins near Kremmling and ends in Dotsero. There’s plenty of float and wade access to tempt brown trout, brook trout, rainbow trout, cutthroat trout, and even cutbows out of the water. It’s another catch and release area, but a great place to get away from other people and a perfect place to camp. 

Many people consider the area of river below Byers Canyon to be the closest thing to fishing paradise. With banks lined in cottonwood and willow trees, it’s a wonderful place to practice your dry fly fishing technique (and easy to see why the Colorado Wildlife Commission designated this fishing area as Gold Medal waters). When you’re ready for a break, visit the nearby Radium Hot Springs for a relaxing soak in 80-degree mineral water, just an easy 20 minute hike from the Mugrage Campground. 

4. Spinney Mountain Reservoir

Still waters dotted with small boats and mountains in the far distance.

When I was younger, I didn’t understand the appeal of stillwater fishing. Why would I spend time sitting in a boat or walking around the banks of a lake unless I was a total novice? There are so many great rivers in Colorado. But the answer is simple: big fish, and lots of them. That’s what you’ll find at Spinney Mountain Reservoir, arguably the best stillwater fishery in Colorado. 

Formed by the South Platte River, Spinney Mountain is thick with giant rainbow trout. The Division of Wildlife encourages pike fishing to help thin out the population of big boys who love nothing more than feasting on trout. You can keep the trout you catch too, but only one and it’s got to be longer than 20 inches. That shouldn’t be too hard, though. The trout in Spinney Mountain Reservoir grow to an average size bigger than any other stillwater fishing in the state; trophy fish in the double-digit range are a common sight. Although you can only take one home with you, there’s no limit on photographs so you’ll have plenty of ammunition to make your fishing buddies back home jealous. Whether you share the location of Spinney Mountain Reservoir with them is up to you. 

Take this trip yourself:

See all the stops mentioned in the article plus a few more along the way.

Photo Credit: Jasen Miller / flickr; Tony Webster / flickr; Wikimedia Commons.