The mighty Colorado River, the most iconic watershed of the American West, begins life as a small creek in Rocky Mountain National Park in the central region of the Centennial State. As it flows through Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, the river gains volume as numerous tributaries augment its flows. As it turns south and west, outside the town of Kremmling, the Blue River joins the Colorado and just downstream at the base of the steep, craggy cliffs harboring bighorn sheep and Class IV whitewater, Gore Canyon releases its hold on the river. It is also here, in Grand and Eagle Counties, that the Colorado becomes a postcard picture perfect, classically beautiful, large western trout stream and the state of Colorado’s newest Gold Medal Trout Fishery.
A Gold Medal Designation:
This is Colorado’s classification of wild, trophy trout waters of the highest quality. These are the state’s best fisheries for both numbers and size of wild trout. To qualify for a Gold Medal designation, a stream, river or lake must consistently support over 60 pounds of trout and at least a dozen fish over 14 inches per acre of water. Of Colorado’s 9000 miles of trout streams and hundreds of lakes and ponds, only three lakes and just over three hundred miles of river qualify as Gold Medal. These are by far the best wild trout fisheries the state has to offer anglers. Managed for healthy populations of larger than average trout, these fisheries usually fall under special regulations aimed at maintaining a quality fishery.
The “Upper C”
The stretch of the Colorado River that has recently been upgraded to Gold Medal is often referred to as the “Upper C” by locals and runs for twenty-two miles between the Pumphouse BLM recreation area and Rock Creek near the small town of McCoy. This section of the Colorado River has had a volatile history as a trout fishery in recent decades. The river was a world famous destination fishery for a large, wild strain of Rainbow Trout as recently as the early nineties. Whirling Disease decimated the fishery and trout numbers dropped precipitously. Over time, wild brown trout replaced the rainbows and trout numbers began to climb again. But the river suffered from water management issues due to demands for more water from both Denver and the parched Southwest. Several drought years also hampered the river’s recovery.
About a decade ago, river flows began to surge with several consecutive good snowpacks and wet summers. Heavy spring runoffs scoured the river and insect hatches rebounded. Trout numbers on the upper Colorado also increased dramatically. Joining an already abundant population of wild brown trout, we are seeing more and more wild rainbows each year since Colorado’s Division of Parks and Wildlife began introducing a disease-resistant strain of rainbow. Occasionally, a cutthroat or brook trout makes its way into the river from a high country creek. A good number of mountain whitefish also call this part of the Colorado River home and despite taking a backseat to trout, these fish are great fly rod sport and more importantly, an indicator of clean, cold water.
Brown trout and rainbows tend to average 14-18 inches with most days giving up a fish in the twenty inch range. Every year the Division of Parks and wildlife shocks the river and every year several brown trout measuring well over thirty inches and weighing over fifteen pounds are sampled. There are definitely giant trophies here for anglers to catch. The good old days of fly fishing the Colorado River are back and better than ever.
While not a year-round fishery, the Gold Medal portion of the Colorado River is available to anglers from the beginning of spring until early winter with only a couple months of iced up river in between. This section of the Colorado is mostly freestone in nature but because of several dam controlled tributaries it has beneficial tailwater characteristics which mean it often runs clear when surrounding rivers are muddy from runoff or rain storms. The river fishes best from early June through the end of October. Insect hatches are strong and typical of a healthy western trout fishery. Because of the variety of food sources available, anglers can often catch fish using a variety of techniques.
What To Throw:
Salmonflies are an event hatch that show up in early June. There is also plenty of golden stoneflies in the river as well. A variety of caddisflies hatch from spring through fall. Several species of mayflies emerge from the Colorado throughout the year. Most numerous are blue-winged olives in spring and fall, Pale Morning Duns in early and mid-summer and tricos later in the summer. Perhaps the very best dry fly fishing on the river does not revolve around aquatic insects. Instead the terrestrials, specifically grasshoppers are very prevelant. The Gold Medal stretch of the Colorado River may provide the state’s best grasshopper dry fly fishing from mid-July until the heavy frosts of early October.
Excellent streamer fishing draws out the river’s largest fish. This peaks during the fall months but can happen anytime cloudy skies prevail. My personal favorite time to be on the river is the four week stretch between mid-September and mid-October. This has been the most productive time for me to target big brown trout with streamers and big hopper dry flies.
How To Get There:
Public access is widely available on the upper Colorado. Much of the river flows through federally managed, publicly owned lands. Access is easily achieved via County Road 1, called the Trough Road or State Highway 131. There is very little development along the river and much of the stream has a fairly remote feel. While the river is large, there is plenty of water that is fishable by wading anglers. Most of the time crossing the river on foot is not an option. In places like Gore Canyon Trail at Pumphouse, Radium Recreation BLM Area and Two Bridges Open Space have miles of good wading.
While wading the Colorado anglers can get a more intimate experience. Float fishing is what this Gold Medal river is known for. Floating allows anglers to cover miles of inaccessible water in a single day. Both drift boats and rafts are popular. There are several public boat ramps scattered along the twenty-two mile portion of river. Float fishermen can choose from short half-day sessions, long full days and even overnight camping floats. The river ranges from mild riffles and huge, slow pools to rocky, whitewater rapids. Therefore, a little rowing experience is needed.
It’s difficult to envision a more scenic and productive western trout stream than the Gold Medal Colorado River. Every time I guide it or fish it on my own, I’m more impressed. This river flows past red rock canyons and stands of cottonwood and willows. It braids around islands and plunges through rapids that are harboring a healthy population of wild trout. This is a fisheries management success story that all anglers can appreciate.
Anglers interested in experiencing the incredible fly fishing on the Gold Medal section of the Colorado River should check out Vail Valley Anglers in Edwards, Colorado for guided fly fishing trips and the latest fishing conditions.
Brody Henderson, Guide and Content Writer